By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 09, 2021 at 12:56 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?

With only two episodes remaining after Thursday night, the challenges are getting more and more intense. Take, for instance, the latest episode in which the four remaining black jackets faced their harshest, most difficult task yet: a floor full of dancing Vegas clubgoers. No, not cooking for them – merely trying to navigate through and around them. 

After another installment of the Mary Lou and Cody love story that no one – NOT ONE – person cares about in the entire world (OK, one person does, and unfortunately that person edits "Hell's Kitchen"), the final four are shaken awake at an ungodly hour by the sound of Ramsay's sous chefs and the echoes of pounding EDM. Finding a new ring of hell to taunt the final contestants, Ramsay has turned the restaurant into a loud neon rave filled with extras partying dancers in need of brunch to soak up the heal up from the night before. Remember clubs and dancing? In public crowds!? What a concept. 

So after wading trecherously through the sea of sweaty Sin City clubgoers – I'm amazed we didn't lose anybody in there – the chefs get to the kitchen and have an hour to cook their elevated comfort food soaker pads. Kori rolls with a chicken lollypop, while Mary Lou makes salmon croquettes as a sweet tribute to her grandma. Cody makes that classic morning drunk dish: watermelon and heirloom tomato gazpacho. (Yes, he added a Japanese fried chicken skewer but the highfalutin fancy L.A. celeb cook's background still jumped out). And Declan makes ... actually, I have no idea what Declan's cooking up because, instead of focusing on his dish, he's focused on the blonde woman dancing on one of the makeshift club's platforms. The man is physically incapable of going an entire episode without making some drooling or disparaging comment about a woman. 

It's eventually revealed that Declan made a take on fish 'n' chips, but it doesn't matter because he landed in third based on the dancers' ballots. (Gotta love being two epsiodes away from the finale and having your fate decided by a bunch of half-tipsy party people and extras; excellent culinary judges, for sure.) Mary Lou meanwhile lands in last, her salmon croquettes failing to win over the crowd, but the backstory winning over the audience's heart at least. That leaves the two chicken dishes – Kori and Cody – fighting for the victory. Kori comes out on top, her culinary skills starting to pop as much as her kitchen leadership skills at just the right time.

Kori's mind for strategy also made a notable appearance, as instead of taking the obvious candidate Mary Lou along for her reward – a $2,000 shopping spree through Macy's – she picks Cody in the hopes of building a bond and perhaps building some sort of a friendly alliance with yet another rival. Mary Lou can't feel too bad, though, because even though she had to clean the dorms with Declan and missed out on some sweet Hell's Kitchen cookware product placement, Cody and Kori return with gifts for their losing kitchen compatriots. Now with Amber gone, besides Declan's casual sexism, I pretty much like everybody remaining on the show! They can all win in my book!

Unfortunately, they can't all win and they can't all make it through to the top three; so it's back to the kitchen for the latest service challenge. This one comes with a twist: Each chef will take a turn running the pass, not only checking the food coming up to make sure it's cooked perfectly but also keeping an eye out for hidden sabotages Ramsay and his sous chefs snuck into dishes, discernable only with a careful look or taste. Declan, for instance, gets a dish with fennel replacing endive, while Mary Lou gets a beef Wellington with tapenade instead of duxelles layered inside. Most of them do pretty well – maybe overlooking a sabotage or two – but Kori, as you might predict at this point, commands the point and doesn't miss a beat with the dishes. 

What Kori doesn't do, however, is leave Cody a decent meat station when she takes over for him at the pass. It's a "graveyard" of meats of various doneness, scattered all over the place, so he's trying to straighten up the mess while also serve up perfectly good meats.  Unfortunately the latter suffered in quality, bringing undercooked Wellingtons to Kori, who is not quiet about their lack of quality. Did Kori maybe purposefully leave behind some extra distractions for Cody and set him up to fail? MAAAAYBE! Should Cody have worked through it better? Absolutely.

However, when the team meets afterward to discuss who should leave and who they'd like to face off against in the finale, their issue is less on the meat and more that he didn't have enough presence while running the pass. Seems like a petty complaint, which Cody brings up as well. If they couldn't hear or understand him, they shouldn't say, "Heard"; but they always responded, so there's no reason for him to bellow and berate. That being said, the combination of a lukewarm service performance – thanks to his lukewarm Wellingtons – with his perceived shyness as a leader was too much to overcome this late in the game, and Cody was given the boot by Ramsay. He got to keep the black jacket, though, and got a similar invitation to Nikki, with the celeb chef noting that his door is always open for him. He should walk out with his head high, especially considering how much I was expecting to hate him based on the first episode. 

That leaves three chefs, all on the edge of their seat to see who will move on ... despite the fact that behind Chef Ramsay are three screens so clearly all three are moving on. And indeed, Declan, Mary Lou and Kori all make it to the next episode, where it appears they'll have a cookoff to decide which two finalists will make it to the true finale and the ultimate service session. The tension's not quite through the rood, though, since it seems pretty obvious who the winner is going to be. Declan's been sturdy but prone to sloppiness – and, judging by his regular comments on the show, seems like an HR nightmare-in-waiting. Mary Lou's impressed, but she's been inconsistent as a voice in the kitchen. 

That leaves Kori, who's been the clear captain in the red kitchen – aka the better kitchen – since practically day one and now, in the solo challenges, her culinary skills are finally impressing just as much. She'd be my pick, but we'll see what twists await us in the final two "Hell's Kitchen" episodes. There has been a lot of magic this season, so I'd bet Ramsay's got something up his sleeve. 

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.