Top Chef: Blood in the water

There were so many ways I could have gone with the title for this recap. "Troubled waters." "Boiling over." "Elementary school-yard." (And actually, I really like that last one). But the chumfest that was the last few minutes of last night's episode were far too reminiscent of a feeding frenzy to allow for any other name.

We should have known that something was ready to pop, what with the bitchfest that was the opening sequence. Antonia and Zoi are still bitter about being in the bottom two in the movie/meal challenge. Jennifer, totally uninvolved except for being Zoi's girlfriend, displays a certain subjectivity in supporting Antonia and Zoi's anger. She describes herself as a "fan", which we all know is short for fanatic. Doesn't sound like the most professional way to behave in this competition (and yes, Jen, it's a competition between you and Zoi too).

Cue cooking sound effects, it's the Quickfire, and there's a nattily-coiffed Ming Tsai waiting for the chefs to arrive. Lisa, believe it or not, is actually thrilled with this discovery. Ming and Padma announce that the Quickfire challenge is all about good taste. Spike's hats scream "NOOOOOOO!!!!", but they are spared; the challenge will be to identify quality from sub-par foodstuffs, blindfolded. Where, oh where is CJ when we get a challenge that involves being blindfolded by Padma?

Antonia loves the concept, and for good reason. She wins the challenge (with an 80% accuracy rate), and the immunity for this week. Is this a startlingly brief recap of the Quickfire? Yes! And that's entirely the show's fault. I'm actually of two minds on how last night's QF was chosen and aired. On the one hand, it's a very good test for young chefs, one that might actually reveal something about their food chops. And it's true, no one wants to watch a bunch of people smacking their lips and dipping their fingers in little bowls for fifteen silent minutes.

On the other hand, we've now had almost an entire season (to-date) of short-sheeting the Quickfires. I'd tell you more about who did what, and who missed what obvious answer, but the editing was so rapid, and the selection so incomplete, that all I can tell you is this: Stephanie loses another Quickfire (40%), Ryan and Jen take second (73%), and Padma spills a big bottle of water all over one of the blindfolded contestants. Sadly, there was no Flashdance joke.

As the chefs draw knives (not on each other, yet), we learn that the Elimination challenge will revolve around the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The scene: the Meals-on-Wheels Chicago Celebrity Chef Ball. The celebs will be responsible for courses two through four, and our intrepid cookers must whip up a first course, dividing the 320-person party between the four teams. And let me tell you, these teams were great.

Team Earth is Zoi, Antonia, and Spike. I mean, come on. You couldn't have scripted a better team! Captain Misogyny (yes, he's been promoted) paired with the two most irritable women on the stage at this point? Perfect! Team Air is Jennifer, Ryan, and Nikki. Kind of a snoozefest. The one boring team. Richard, Andrew, and Mark comprise Team Water, and this seemed like a pretty strong contender. Initially.

And lastly, Team Fire. The aptly-named Team Fire, I might add. Dale, Lisa, and Stephanie. From the moment the chefs break up to plan their dishes, Dale and Lisa are locking horns. Stephanie stays, wisely, to the side on the personal stuff.

Each team takes their $500 to Whole Foods, and proceeds to hem and haw and bump into each other and revise their menus pretty much right up to the checkout. Team Fire didn't even know what they were shopping for when they arrived at the store. As it is, they manage to arrive at spicy shrimp, which pleases Lisa; she felt a very strong need to make something Asian since Ming Tsai was a judge. Dale, understandably, doesn't take well at first to being pigeonholed. But he warms up as they shop.

Team Water's bright idea is fish, cooked in water. That sounds good, until they decide on salmon. Yeeeeesh. A fatty fish, cooked sous-vide? Is this not a recipe for mush? And the rest of the team seems to have stars in their eyes about the Willy Wonka dish from last week. Their complementary flavors are a parsnip and vanilla puree, and more "faux caviar" tapioca. Does it ever work well when a contestant goes to the same well two weeks in a row?

The first idea Team Air had was birds. Kind of obvious, and Nikki said so. It seemed at the time like they were going to shoot it down. But when they arrive at the store, what are they looking for? Duck. Cold seared duck, no less. Had I been there, I might have reminded them that this challenge took place in mid-October. How about some warmth? Paired with citrus salad and a pomegranate prosecco mini-cocktail, they don't seem to be cooking to the season very well.

Neither, for that matter, does Team Earth, who--when given such a hearty, comforting, straightforward theme--chooses a beef carpaccio with a mushroom salad and aioli. To be fair, Spike wanted a squash soup, but that got shot down mostly by Antonia's chiding. Spike voices his discontentment (noting that between two women who disagree with you, you can either strangle both of them, or let them have their way...paging Social Services), but I have to wonder: why was anyone comfortable with a dish that features almost no cooking?

Back in the kitchens of the old Marshall Fields building (what, they couldn't say "Macy's"?), Ryan gets frazzled and uses up all the pomegranate juice before the cocktail gets made, we hear Jennifer use the phrase "spot-on" again, and Dale comments on Lisa's "observational negativity." This is an old concept, in case you haven't heard of it. The Romans called it veni vidi bitchy: "I came, I saw, I complained about it."

The critiques of almost everybody are negative from the moment Tom waltzes into the kitchen. Earth prevaricates on who's responsible for what (and Tom hates prevarication!); Air's concept is too undefined (seems appropriate for Air, but maybe that's too literal); Water is overconfident and a little cocky (Richard's schmoozing didn't work the wonders he hoped it would); and Fire's dish seems too spicy. See, I said almost everybody. This is about the last and only bad word you'll hear about Fire's dish.

In the tasting, a clear winner reveals itself. Team Water's sous-vide salmon (again, yish!) is full of scales; more shockingly, they knew about it before they plated it, and Richard downplayed his teammates' concerns. Odd. No one at the judges' dining table likes Team Air's little froofy drink, and Ming notes that they didn't score the skin of the duck breast, thereby making it too fatty and spongy. Earth's boring-ass offering was bland, except for the rosemary that everyone noticed and no one liked.

And then there's Team Fire's spicy prawns. Served with Dale's pickled chili salad and Lisa's miso-glazed bacon, Steph's shrimp pretty much blows everyone away. Hot, but in a good way. Put over the top by the bacon. Amazing. After they finish cooking, they symbolically burn their team placard. Good visual, nice metaphor for what's to come.

So the obvious happens. Fire gets called out first, alone. They're the best, hands down. Tom likes that they each contributed a defined, singular component to the dish, and that they were all very good and complementary. But Ming Tsai has never seen Lisa's preparation of the miso bacon, and she's declared the winner. This includes a five-night trip for two to Italy. Suffice it to say, Dale's team spirit goes right out the window when Lisa wins for bacon ("bacon??").

In the land of the losers, Richard's feeling like he's got no defense for any critique he'll face. Team Air's duck seems destined to get no feedback either way. And frankly, Team Earth is doomed! When Fire comes back to the stew room, and Earth and Water get called out, you have to wonder if it'll be Zoi's bad mushrooms or Richard's scaly, mushy fish that'll go home.

Richard seems mystified by the complaint of multiple scales on each cut of fish. But true to his word, he doesn't offer much in the way of defense. Mark tries, but cannot defend his inclusion of parsnip. It truly does seem like he wants a little of that Wonka magic. But the real fun comes when the judges get to Team Earth. No connection to the theme. Badly seasoned, when seasoned at all. Ill-defined roles within the kitchen.

This is the point at which Spike starts circling just below the surface. He blithely suggests that he would have thrown in a nice lemon for the carpaccio. Zoi, rightly so, looks pissed that he didn't say anything during prep. Then he mentions that, if he'd had his way, they would have done a squash soup. The judges love this idea! Antonia, rightly so, looks pissed that he characterized her as being stridently opposed to the soup. I was just too nice about everything, Spike would intone in the stew room before receiving judgment.

And the judgment is that Zoi needs to get her grumpy buns outta here. They were the consensus worst from the comment cards at the meal, and their dishes displayed no earthiness. Spike, going in for the kill, is first to give Zoi a big hug in front of the judges. End of show, right?

Uh, no. Let those cameras roll, because masks are about to come off, people. Lisa, Stephanie, and--most of all--Jennifer are positively shell-shocked by the news that Zoi is gone. The voice-over from Jen's "confessional" says that they showed they could be a couple and still be professional, but the camera is showing Jen getting red in the face and accusing Spike of "putting [his] teammate in the ground." Spike says that he shouldn't be expected to do anything but compete to win, and Jen counters with what sounds an awful lot like a wounded girlfriend being defensive.

Dale remarks that that's some "weak shit." It is Lisa, of all people, who asks if a comment like that really helps anything right now. That whistling sound you heard at that moment was Dale's steam officially bursting loose. In full crotch-grabbing glory, Dale explodes at Lisa, accusing her of bitching and complaining at every single thing she sees. When he decides to say something--which he never does, by his own account--she calls him out on it, and that's bullshit. Professional Jen kicks a chair, and this episode of Top Chef ends in a way that I cannot recall ever witnessing in this series before. Buzzing, electric silence.

I have to say, as disappointing as the food was for 75% of the competitors in this episode, I actually felt a sense of rising tension as the personal conflicts came to the surface. Next week's aw-shucksy Chicago Bears theme seems almost trite in comparison, but we also know that Dale and Lisa are going to go a little mano-e-(wo)mano. Who said anything about Real World: Chicago? ; )


Again, you can check out for a new Fringe Foods column, which should be posted some time this morning.