Top Chef: FAIL-gate

My fiancee and I try to find something interesting to eat for Top Chef nights, and last night's meal was sushi. I was amused to find a solitary scale in my spicy yellowtail roll, and surprised at how noticeable it was. Amazing, then, that Richard and last week's Team Water are still around. I can't imagine having to deal with seven or eight.

What's even more amazing is that Spike is still around, since he's been in the bottom group of every Elimination challenge this season. He kicks off this week's episode by lamenting the rumors of popular discontent with his presence. Understandably, Spike feels this is because he's so talented; lessons have not, apparently, been learned.

Ryan, meanwhile, worries that people who stew about the way last week ended will probably come out at the bottom. He's gonna move on, whereas Lisa is immediately shown stewing about Zoi's dismissal. I predicted a bottom three of Lisa, Ryan and Nikki this week.

The Quickfire's theme this week is beer pairings. With Avec head chef Koren Grieveson as the guest judge, the contestants have to highlight the simple pleasures of matching a selection of mostly mediocre beers with food. Seriously, couldn't they at least use some Goose Island? It's from Chicago. But instead they get Miller products, the horrible Kirin Ichiban, and only a few noteworthy exceptions? Oof.

Dale notes the same thought I have on my sheet: nothing helps a volatile interpersonal situation like alcohol! Nevertheless, they all get on with the testing and eventually settle on their respective beers. All except Spike, who doesn't drink beer much, and won't even taste any before choosing. That's the spirit, dude.

Eventually, Spike will show just how little respect he has for this challenge by putting out a plate of (again) prepared food rather than cooked food--a charcuterie plate and some clams. After seeing that Mark cannot pour a pint under stress (this is an augur of bad things to come), Padma and Koren set about tasting a wide variety of dishes, from Richard's grilled tuna sandwich to Antonia's miso-glazed cod.

At the end of the table, the judges have selected Richard's sandwich, plus Stephanie's mussels and Jennifer's shrimp-and-scallop beignets, as the top plates. The bottom comprises a schadenfreud-tastic lineup of Spike (Jen snickers visibly), Dale (Lisa smirks irritatingly), and Nikki (the TV audience grins hopefully). The winner of the challenge, and of the week's immunity, is Jennifer. Spike's predictably spiteful response is that Jen must be so proud of winning this for her loser girlfriend. He imagines Jen thinking something akin to "yay, lesbians!" In fact, I may take to calling Spike "Spite" just as an intentional misnomer.

The not-so-lovable losers

Padma introduces the Elimination challenge (with some remarkably bad ADR, for what it's worth) as a tailgating challenge at the upcoming Chicago Bears' home game. Dale in particular is heartened by this; he's been a Bears fan for his entire life, and couldn't be happier. I'm just thrilled that no one in this entire episode referred to Soldier Field as "Soldier's Field." I might be a Wisconsinite, but that malapropism is grating to any football fan.

Football fans do not comprise the entire roll of this season's chefs, as you might predict. Andrew's sport is cooking (Righteous dedication, bra! Wait, is detox a sport? I didn't say that.), Mark has no experience with American football, only rugby (seriously, could he be any more charming?), and Ryan asks if we think he looks like a sports fan. I don't know, Ryan. You look like a frat boy doofus to me, so yeah.

At the supermarket, Spike runs not walks to the chicken wings. Dale is forced to settle for ribs, but one wonders if Spike knows where Buffalo wings come from (and no, not which animal). Dale's choice shouldn't be seen as a second-best protein. Richard wants to do a refined tailgate, therefore naturally he'll be cooking a hamburger (okay, okay, a pâté burger). Lisa wants to tackle another notoriously chewy cut of red meat; didn't she learn from Chef Bayless' glimmering chompers struggling mightily against her steak tacos?

Not all the chefs are missing the boat. Jen's Greek-themed chicken paired with tabouli should go over well with Greek-heavy Chicagoans. Antonia, with her jerk chicken sandwich and grilled pineapple and plantain, confesses to Chef Colicchio that she thinks Chicagoans are merely heavy--not PC, but certainly worthy of the "Superfans" SNL sketch. Nikki's sausage and peppers seems promising, although her addition of grilled shrimp on the side is the dictionary definition of "afterthought."

After a very long bathtime interlude between Spite (like it?) and Mark--and now maybe we see the internal aspect of what drives Spite's external misogyny--we finally arrive at gameday. The chefs are given the choice between gas and charcoal. Now, as a personal preference, I hate hate HATE gas grills. And I cheered heartily when Mark announced that he was the only chef ballsy enough to choose the charcoal. But with this challenge, and with the junky Kingsford briquettes provided by the kind sponsors, I would have picked gas. It's cleaner and more regulatable than briquette. We will see why this is important momentarily.

Another Avec chef, Paul Kahan, joins Tom, Padma and Gail to judge the chefs. The twist with this challenge is that the comment cards from the littles will determine the top and bottom three, and the judges will have to respect those choices when selecting the overall winner and loser. Those comment cards will have a certain weight behind them. In fact, a lot of weight: skimming among the common diners, Chicago Bears legends Richard Dent, Gale Sayers, and William "The Refrigerator" Perry are creating a high wake.

Spite discovers just how much room he has in his noggin when he inserts his foot all the way up to mid-shin, as he tries to engage the crowd by asking eagerly, "when was the last time the Bears won the Super Bowl?" I suspect the head-snapping and crowd silence was not a creation of editing (answer, by the way: 1986. They had just lost Super Bowl XLI mere months prior to the filming of this episode). Ryan's crowd-working skills are gaining him a lot of visitors, but not much respect from his competitors. Steph in particular thinks he's too shmoozy and polished, whereas she just came here to cook.

Andrew uses parsnip--AGAIN--while both Mark's cooking station and plating are complete messes. Nikki, in offering seconds to her crowd of diners, runs out of peppers and onions before the judges get to her station. But no one trumps the off-key futility of Ryan's dish: grilled bread salad with marinated chicken, poached pears, and a spiked hot cocoa. He is aware that this is a tailgate for football, and not the America's Cup, yes?

While the in-meal commentary seemed strong for almost everyone (save Mark and Ryan, mostly), the Judges' Table proves otherwise. Antonia, Dale and Stephanie are called up first, in what proves perhaps unsurprisingly to be the top three. The Fridge and Gale Sayers both gave Dale a strong review, and his ribs with tandoori potato salad with golden raisins and mango are hailed by the judges as a unique and pleasant combination. Stephanie, at the top yet again, wins strong appraisal for her pork tenderloin with bacon and a potato-pear salad with rosemary vinaigrette. Antonia could have done better by combining the pineapple and plantain with her sandwich on the plate, rather than leaving it to Chef Tom to come up with the idea, but I doubt that even then she would have bested Dale, who comes away the winner.

Dale and his newly-won custom Bears jersey head to the stew room to send up Ryan, Nikki, and Mark (I was awfully close!). Nikki's failure to make her own sausage damned her with the pro-encased meats crowd. Plus, her portion control was clearly sketchy and the shrimp was pointless. Mark's mediocre flavor and texture, plus his overall disorder, is topped off by Tom's observation that Mark used the same spoon to taste his New Zealand chowder and to serve it. He dipped, he took a bite, and he dipped again. No alibi for that one.

Mark seems like the obvious loser even after the judges' strong critique of Ryan. Did you understand the nature of this challenge at all, they ask. Ryan defends himself by saying that he wanted to offer a full dining experience. Gail found the whole menu inappropriate for the setting, and points out that his bread salad was very dry. After coming back from the stew room, however, Tom hands out this sobering judgment: even if it had been served in a fancy restaurant, Ryan's dish just wasn't that good.

Pack up your knives, Ryan, and go--oh, you have something to say? Living up to Nikki's stew room complaint that being in front of the judges with Ryan is interminable due to his longwindedness, Ryan doesn't save his summation comments for the voiceover. He starts delivering them directly to the other chefs. What a pompous doofus. Steph gets a great moment in that stew room conversation, though, when Nikki asks if Steph's ever been up there with Ryan. Steph, top floor inhabitant that she is, dryly responds, "No." Awesome.

Next week's ep portends to either be the turnaround point of the season, wherein we actually start caring about and identifying with the chefs, or the jump-the-shark moment of Season 4. The Quickfire fruition the the Top Chef mantra "I'm not a trained pastry chef," ComedySportz with the contestants, and what looks like a nonstop stream of single- and double-entendre sex jokes are all coming our way. Put the kids to bed early!