By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 16, 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 with two VERY special guests, chefs Cody and Adam from this past season!

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 the penultimate episode, and you know what that means: filler!

Like just about every reality show, "Hell's Kitchen" decided to stretch things out for the final few installments, adding in some clip shows of the season we just watched and some nice R&R for the remaining three chefs – which, fair. After several weeks of hell, they deserve some heaven – in the form of literal piles of free cooking supplies, some complimentary bubbly, a fancy dinner with Gordon Ramsay and a surprise visit from family members. Even Declan gets a hug from home, as his parents were already on vacation and had to be redirected for the surprise. A vacation in the middle of your vacation? Well, clearly somebody's already won this season of "Hell's Kitchen," and it's Declan's parents. 

All of this was sweet and nice and emotional and totally deserved ... and not why we're here. ON WITH THE BATTLE!

Thankfully, after about a third of the way through the episode, we arrive at the cookoff – all in front of a live Vegas audience. With the help of a randomly selected sous chef – either Jason, Christina or past winner Michelle Tribble – Kori, Declan and Mary Lou must cook up their finest five-course meal featuring one cold appetizer, one hot app, a red meat entree, a chicken entree and a fish entree. And, in classic "Hell's Kitchen" fashion, the cooking itself was maybe five minutes of the show. We spent more time looking at dusty set decorations from a Titanic stage show than making the dang food on this food show. One thing of note from the kitchen portion of the smackdown, though: Mary Lou is not sure her beef is cooked enough, having a quick panic about the steak before putting it back on the burner for an extra baste. Will that come back to bite her?

Let's find out during the show's featured event: the tasting, with each of the five courses getting graded live on stage by five different celebrity chefs. Michelle Bernstein comes out first to judge the cold appetizer round, starting with Declan's tian of crab with avocado that Bernstein quite enjoys. Unfortunately she doesn't love the gel accompanying the dish, earning him a nine out of ten. Declan's meal overall went for a very sophisticated, high-dining Michelin vibe, with a lot of finely plated, intricately crafted elements – but in the case of his first course and the gel, maybe he tried too hard to impress. 

Mary Lou went in the opposite direction, focusing her menu on flavorful, flash-free Southern comfort plates – a play that worked great on the opening course as Bernstein gave her watermelon salad a perfect ten.

Kori's dishes, meanwhile, landed in the middle of her two opponents in terms of style, making a lot of elevated comfort dishes – starting with her blue salad featuring blue cheese and blueberries, a successful plate according to Bernstein, who also handed it a ten. Uh oh, Declan; you've got some work to do. 

Luckily that's just round one so we move on to the hot appetizer, graded by Tyson Cole – a slightly tougher judge than Bernstein, at least for Kori and Declan. The former's truffle and mushroom risotto was a bit too tight for the chef, while the latter's fried polenta cake had density issues. They both scored eights. Meanwhile, Mary Lou didn't mind this second judge whatsoever because she nabbed another ten with her take on shrimp and grits. It seems rustic Southern comfort was the way to go ... so far. 

We move on to the fish entree course, judged by Susan Feniger who was an absolute treat. The acclaimed chef did not seem aware that she was supposed to be judging and grading these dishes, just silently nomming away on the stage while Ramsay pestered her for some feedback beyond "*contented chewing sounds*" and tried to take the plates away from her (unsuccessfully). So clearly this is going to be three tens, right? Apparently not! Feniger turned out to be a silent assassin at the judge's table, giving out two nines to Mary Lou and Kori while giving Declan a mere eight for his elevated fish and chips – a plate she seemingly devoured and loved. Any thoughts or feelings to pass along so they can improve these dishes in the future, Chef Feniger? Nope, she's gone; she got her meal, gave her scores and now has a day in Vegas to enjoy. God bless you, Susan Feniger; that's the unbothered energy I want to have for the rest of 2021. 

We bring on the second-to-last course – the chicken plates – for Neal Fraser, who's seemingly whelmed by both Mary Lou and Kori's takes, in particular the texture-lacking Brussels sprouts on the former's dish and the lack of acidity on the latter course. However, Declan's corn-fried chicken supreme reigns supreme indeed for Chef Fraser, "aggressively seasoned" in a good way according to the judge and earning Declan a first (and much needed) perfect ten. Maybe a comeback is upon us ... 

For that to happen, though, his beef entree must impress the final judge: who else but the ultimate celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. Kori's pan-seared filet with a bourbon demi-glace wins over Wolfgang, earning a nine, while Mary Lou's ribeye snags an eight, putting the two tied at the top of the scoreboard with 45 points each. To join them in a three-way tie – and force Ramsay to come up with a sixth course cooking challenge to settle the score – Declan's pan-roasted beef filet needs to net a perfect score. And ... he gets the opposite, the lowest score of the night with a seven. Welp, put away the tiebreaker challenge, Gordon, as we have our two finalists: Mary Lou and Kori. 

We may have our top two chefs, but before we go, we have to find out who will work in their kitchens for the finale. So there's a "Hell's Kitchen" draft of sorts, with the newly demoted Declan joining Cody, Amber, Nikki, Jordan, Marc, Lauren and our personal returning favorite Adam in line to be selected for Mary Lou or Kori's team. Take a WILD guess at who gets picked last from that bunch.

Thanks to scoring the most tens, Mary Lou gets the first pick – and goes with Cody. Everybody all together now: AWWWWW! Meanwhile Kori's first pick is Declan, since his food's been generally on point without any drama on the side. Nikki and Jordan are the next two respective picks, upsetting Amber because she thought she was going to be a higher selection. Amber, you're not even a contestant anymore and you STILL found a ways to sneak some more complaining onto the show?! I'd be impressed if I wasn't annoyed. Thankfully, there's no more whining as she's picked next by Mary Lou, followed by Kori selecting our number one pick (maybe just a little Brew City bias) Adam. And the draft winds down with Lauren landing with Mary Lou and Kori getting the totally unpredictable, wholly unexpected, who-could've-seen-it-coming last person remaining: Marc. Good luck with that, Kori. If she wins next Thursday with Marc on her team, she'll have earned it. 

So we have our top two chefs and we have our teams; now it's time for the final service. Surely everything will go swimmingly; what could possibly go wrong!?

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.