By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 23, 2021 at 11:59 AM

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? Who will be crowned the queen of the kitchen: Mary Lou or Kori? And what the heck happened to Adam's shrimp head?! Let's talk (and drink) about it with a VERY special guest: Chef Adam Pawlak!

How'd the show end?

Kori and Mary Lou survived Gordon Ramsay's profane bellowing, harsh food judges, flying salmon shards, tricycle races, running through a Vegas nightclub, and, most trecherous of all, living with Marc and Amber. Now, in the finale, they'd face their ultimate test: each other. At first glance, they wouldn't seem to have much in common – one the level-headed mama bear of the season, the other the colorful and kooky wild child – but the two had these traits in common: They were good chefs who earned their spots in Thursday's final service, and they'd each be one another's toughest competition. 

Before the showdown got to cooking, however, we'd need to set up the teams – drafted from the season's eliminated top ten at the end of last week's episode – and the menus. Kori welcomes everyone to her team and notes that she wants everyone on her team ... except Marc. OK, she doesn't explicitly say that, but when she goes around the room to compliment each of her cooks, she seems to skip right over the fiery Albuquerque chef. He doesn't seem to mind; in fact, he keeps doing his classic Marc thing: talking and commenting on everything, maybe this time in the hopes of scoring brownie points and coming off like a good teammate. Instead, it comes off grating. Poor Marc; even whey he tries to be good, he's bad. 

In fairness to Marc, though, he was not Kori's biggest pest. (He actually calmed down quite nicely and cooked well during the final service, so good for him for ending on a high note.) That would actually be somebody who wasn't even on Kori's team: Amber, who just cannot believe Kori didn't pick her. She just doesn't understand – as opposed to everyone else on the show and everyone watching the show, who can very much understand why Kori wouldn't want such a whiny, easily flustered and falsely confident chef in their kitchen. It's OK; after a day of prep and focus, surely Amber will relax and be over this bEtRaYaL in the morning. Spoiler alert: She was not. She's still harrumphing about not getting drafted by Kori, despite all the self-evident reasoning she's providing in this very episode. 

At least Kori doesn't have to actually cook with Amber, though, and doesn't have her "Hell's Kitchen" hopes riding on her performance – unlike poor Mary Lou, who gets bombarded with questions from Amber throughout the prep period. Not exactly reassuring for Mary Lou, who has concerns about Amber's self-confidence and level head going into this finale fry-off. To make matters worse, she's also got to cope with Lauren, arguably the least of the ten chefs on the draft board thanks to her struggles with communication and listening – two pretty important traits when working the line. At least Mary Lou's got her flirt buddy Cody on her team to keep her spirits high – and, most importantly, to keep the kitchen steady. 

Cue a quick costume change for Kori and Mary Lou, donning their official head chef duds, and cue the immortal words of John "Bluto" Blutarsky: FOOD FIGHT!

Kori's Mexican-heavy menu is a hit with the diners – especially that one lady who took the head of the house aside to simply point that, "This dish is bursting with flavor!" I don't know what he's supposed to do with this information, Diane. Behind the scenes, though, it's slightly less smooth – and unfortunately, according to the show's edit, it's our favorite Adam to somewhat blame. The Milwaukee chef seems perhaps a bit aloof in the early going, offering Marc a pregame calming shot and tuning out a bit, but his lax attitude actually comes at a cost when he delivers some cooked shrimp to the pass ... but one crustacean's lost its noggin somehow along the journey, much to Ramsay's displeasure (and probably the shrimp's too). 

Now, talking to Adam after the show in our Facebook Live, apparently this happened at the very end of the night after an excellent shift – not at the beginning as depicted on the show – and, well, even he's a little baffled about the head's Sleepy Hollow impression. But thankfully he fixes that gaffe quickly and locks in for the rest of the night's shift, not ruining his sterling reputation from his all-too-short run on the show. 

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Jordan who, as she did throughout much of the season, gets overwhelmed at the meat station – a problem especially since Kori's menu is very carnivore-forward. Why Kori would put the easily frazzled and subpar communicator Jordan on such a critical station is a great question – one Ramsay himself asks Kori after a few steaks arrive inconsistently cooked. Maybe it was some sense of misplaced loyalty, but thankfully Kori's better instincts kick in, and she flips Jordan out for Declan, a chef who's been sturdy all season no matter the pressure level and almost made it to this very finale. So yeah, wise choice. 

Mary Lou has to make a similar decision over on her side of the kitchen thanks to several snafus from – you guessed it – Amber. She may be gratingly whiny and a poor team player, but at least she also couldn't cook Thursday night! First, she forgets about a chicken order, causing a whole collection of plates to be tossed and putting the service behind. But then she makes matters worse with some undercooked meats – including essentially serving up a raw chicken. What professional chef can't cook a decent chicken!?

No matter the case, if Amber wasn't in her head before, she certainly is now – to the degree that Ramsay takes Mary Lou aside and tells her she has to consider pulling her off that station and letting the more confident and steady-headed Cody take over, lest anymore chickens die for nothing. So Mary Lou smartly makes the swap, Cody gets the station under control and Amber sulks in the corner. Man, I never thought I'd say this, but congrats to Marc for no longer being the villain of the season. That title clearly belongs to Amber, a queen of somehow both having an excess and lack of confidence – an impressive feat I would very much appreciate never having to watch again. 

We are not here, though, to crown villain of the series. We're here to crown a champion of "Hell's Kitchen" – and by the end of the service session, it's hard to pick a winner. The edit gave both cooks highs and lows; the food satisfied the customers, and while some of the stations performing flat-footed, they all eventually rose to the occasion. So who won? According to Ramsay, he doesn't want to do the whole party and confetti and door-opening shebang, so he's going to just announce the champion right there at the end of service, no frills necessary. Just one quick question: Ramsay, do you think I'm dumb? I can see we've got 18 minutes left, and we're not going to end the finale with 10 minutes of modest handshakes and, I don't know, mopping the kitchen floors?

So yes, it turns out to be a tease, and indeed, after staring thoughtfully at some coat hooks and sitting at his desk tersely, Ramsay thows a proper finale party with an eager crowd of diners waiting below his office and two doors – but only one that'll open to the throng.

And after the two turn the handles ... Kori walks through, earning the L.A. chef the position at Hell's Kitchen in Lake Tahoe.

In the end, it's a worthy pick. Even if her food in some of the early cooking challenges fell short, she was always a clear leader in the kitchen – and while you can teach culinary skills, knowing how to take the reins and serve as the calming, controlled voice of a team is often something that somebody just has. And Kori had that all season long – and eventually her food caught up to her leadership skills just in time. Mary Lou maybe just needs a little bit more time to marinate her skills, both as a chef and as a kitchen leader, but she was a terrific player this season and one who totally destroyed any and all expectations. At first glance in episode one, she seemed like she was mainly there just for personality – but she proved herself more than worthy of her place on the show and, eventually, her place in the finale. She's got no reason to leave this show disappointed; she was a star, in both entertainment and culinary terms. 

And lo, a season of "Hell's Kitchen" burns out its final embers. Here's to Kori for winning, to Adam for representing Milwaukee like a champion and to the next Milwaukee chef getting on a cooking show that cares a little bit more about cooking.

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.