By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Mar 26, 2021 at 12:31 PM

A Milwaukee chef is finding out if he can stand the heat in the world's most famously intense kitchen.

Adam Pawlak, owner of Egg & Flour pasta bar, has taken on 17 other cooks (and infamously irritable celeb chef Gordon Ramsay) on the latest season of FOX's "Hell's Kitchen." Airing Thursday nights at 7 p.m., the long-time reality competition pits chefs from across the country (and the globe, in this season's case) for a chance to win the head position at Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen restaurant in Lake Tahoe, complete with a salary of $250,000. Along the way, dishes and egos are broken, some contestants burn their food, and Ramsay famously burns contestants, shattering their hearts one by one.

Ultimately, one chef reigns supreme ... and even though that chef didn't end up being Pawlak this season, dining editor Lori Fredrich and I are still recapping the latest episodes – complete with wine (natch).

So how's this season surviving without Adam? Let's talk (and drink) about it:

Be sure to join us every Thursday night around 8:10 p.m. to talk about the show and discuss who's having a heavenly time in "Hell's Kitchen."

How'd (the remaining contestants which unfortunately don't include) Adam do?

It's black jackets week on "Hell's Kitchen" (or more like black-accented jackets week, considering the new chef's garb is just their old chef's garb but with a bonus black streak on the collar). And here I was hoping everybody on the show was going to look like they redesigned for the four-hour dark and moody Snyder Cut of "Hell's Kitchen."

Before our final six chefs faced off for their new fashion statements on Thursday night, they encountered something even more frightening and intense: a service elevator! AAHHH! Indeed, simmering down after last week's elimination, the sous chefs snagged the remaining contestants and drove them off to a freight elevator where everyone – especially Mary Lou – was apparently convinced was taking them to Jigsaw's death lair or something else horrifying. Ah, yes, that usual twist every "Hell's Kitchen" season where they leave the remaining chefs to be murdered – you'd think the FCC would have something to say about that. 

No, surprising no one, "Hell's Kitchen" doesn't send the chefs to a death dungeon, though the show does send them to a Criss Angel magic show, which somehow seems even less enjoyable. I'd joke more about how Angel is in his 50s but still dresses and has the edgelord attitude of a 25-year-old Hot Topic clerk; but I don't want to harsh Gordon Ramsay's buzz. Watching the show, the show's big mean boss turned into a teddy bear – eyes wide in amazement at the magician's levititation and gravity-defying moves –and I couldn't have been more delighted. The man just loves magic, even when it's not magic and just a prank:

At the end of his show, Angel doesn't reveal his mystical secrets, but he does reveal something even more important to the chefs: the black jackets, which they'll be competing for throughout the episode across several cooking challenges. The result was the most cooking-forward, food-focused hour of the entire season thus far.  No wonder it ranks as one of my favorite episodes. 

The first challenge was Taste It, Now Make It, in which the six remaining competitors are given a signature Chef Ramsay dish and must recreate it as accurately as possible without being told the ingredients or recipe. Their palates must detect what the fish is, what's in the two purees and what's in the salad topping the dish. The chefs are all in the same ballparks for the ingredients but they also occasionally deviate on certain elements. Half the crew picks cod as the mystery leading fish; the other half selects sea bass. Just about everyone detects that the salad features green apple, but while Cody thinks it's accented with white onion, Mary Lou figures that the crisp savory note in the topping is endive, a guess that ends up scoring Mary Lou's on-point version of the dish the win and the first black jacket of the season (and a membership card to the fancy black jacket lounge, complete with massages and booze). It's been easy to overlook Mary Lou this season due to her silly demeanor and bright purple hair, assuming she's there as a character and less as a chef, but she's made it this far with almost no trip-ups and now clinched the first spot in the final five. Underestimate her at one's own risk.

She's not the only one who scored a black jacket in the challenge, though, as Declan's cod dish also earns him new garb thanks to his accurate ingredients – including noting the shallot garnish. So while they get massages and champagne, the remaining four contestants gear up for the second black jacket challenge of the day. And also Kori very loudly points out that she would stab somebody in order to get a black jacket. And to think people were scared of the freight elevator!

The second challenge is like Deal or No Deal for foodies, with six guards coming in with secret briefcases of ingredients: no losing options, all excellent starting points to make a tasy dish. Amber, much like in the first round, is overthinking herself, setting herself back on time. Leaving aside her testy relationship with her fellow blue team members, I think Amber's a talented chef, but if this show is any evidence, she flusters way too easily to be in charge of Ramsay's restaurant. Meanwhile, on the other side of the kitchen, Nikki manages to muck up her lobster, overcooking the tail to the point that, instead of making that the obvious focal point of her dish, she has to bury it in the polenta. Her dish ends up tasting good, but looking too poor to earn a black jacket – instead, the next two black jackets head over to Cody and Kori, who finally delivered an excellent dish to go along with her well-established excellent kitchen management skills. Just keep not stabbing people, please. 

And so we're left with two final chefs and only one black jacket left to hand out. On one side, you have Nikki, who lacks experience but clearly has the natural skill to move on. On the other, you have Amber, who has the experience and clearly the polish on the plate, but gets easily knocked off her mental rhythm – and she's going into the final challenge cocky, underestimating Nikki's culinary chops. Bold choice, daing the reality show gods to smite thee. 

The goal in the final challenge is to make a definitive dish from your culinary past. In Nikki's case, it's a heightened version of pork chops and scalloped potatoes – a side that she remembers eating a lot of growing up poor and often hungry, relying on boxed scalloped potatoes to get by during hard times. On Amber's side, it's a classic beef bourguignon because, when she lived in France, it was the first dish she tried that she fell in love with because her mom was a bad cook and made bad pot roast. Welp, hopefully Amber's mom isn't watching this episode!

Between the two, Nikki's dish and story hits a bit harder; beef bourguignon is such a classic, standard, easy win of a dish while Nikki's had more personality and feeling behind it. But unfortunately, Amber's dish was more polished – and, in the end, I think Ramsay wanted to pick somebody with more experience to be in the final running to lead his restaurant, so Amber gets the final black jacket, much to Declan's unhappiness. I'm sure this won't be a problem in any future episodes ... 

Nikki isn't sent home completely empty-handed, though. For one, for the first time with an eliminated chef this season, Ramsay lets her keep her chef's smock, a trophy representing what she accomplished on the show – which, considering how little experience she has and considering how much she was underestimated and looked down upon by her fellow teammates, was quite impressive. Plus, Ramsay offers her the chance to fly out to any of his restaurants to stage – aka basically a very fancy unpaid internship – to learn even more skills and to gain even more connections in the industry. It's clear that he sees that she has mountains of potential; she's maybe not ready to win "Hell's Kitchen" and run a restaurant now, but Ramsay sees something like that in her future. 

In the end, Nikki may have lost this week, but much like Adam could leave the show with his head high, she totally won her time on "Hell's Kitchen." Plus, she made millions of viewers across the nation suddenly have a huge hankering for scalloped potatoes – an impressive, and much appreciated, final feat.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.