Top Chef: Altared states

I'll be getting married in just over a year, and I had to laugh last night as Stephanie talked about people paying $5,000 for a wedding cake. Big cities are a racket, man. We might pay a tenth of that. And who gets married outdoors, in October/November, in Chicago? Someone who's willing to have a bunch of TV cooking contestants cater their wedding, I guess. But shit, that's daring.

Padma told us last night that from this week on, there would be no more Quickfire immunity. I can only hope that a similar moratorium is placed on catering challenges. This episode was pretty food-boring and contestant-heavy.

After a silly display of faux mourning from Spike and Andrew, Antonia opens the show by remarking that never in the history of Top Chef had so many women made it to the final eight. Not so fast: Season 1 featured a 4/4 split with eight to go, although they started with only 12 (Season 2 dropped down to three ladies, and Season 3 featured only Sara M. and Casey in the Elite 8). So there's your hint.

This episode brought back two fan- and contestant-favorite challenges: the Quickfire greatest hit was the Relay Race. Supreme five oranges, clean and turn two artichokes, clean and filet a whole (and wholly ugly) monkfish, and make a quart of mayo (no less frightening a sight than the fish). The teams are split into Antonia, Andrew, Richard and Stephanie on one side, with Dale, Spike, Lisa and Nikki on the other. The interactions between the teammates on the latter team promise to be interesting from the start.

Dale immediately gets irritated at the rest of his team for seeming so distressed about making mayonnaise, but doesn't jump up to volunteer. He saves his disdain for the confessional. Lisa, whose hands are shaking as much as Stephanie's in Week 1, still builds up a substantial lead over Antonia with the oranges. The rest of her team, specifically Spike's artichoke performance, fritters that lead away. Andrew, whose craziness has started to endear him even to me, sarcastically reveals his secret weapon on the artichokes: "a peeler! Wow!"

I've never been so anti-Dale as the majority of the TC crowd (as evidenced by his phone poll win for "who's most annoying?"); I always suspected he suffered from a viewer Hung-over. But last night he did two things: annoyed even me, and proved he is no Hung. While he broke down the monkfish as fast as "Mr. Wizard" Blais, his filets look like crap. But they count, and he keeps his team in the race. It is Nikki, who was most concerned about making mayo, who took a few seconds to breathe in the middle of whipping, who costs her team the win. Stephanie's slow/fast approach gets her team over the hump of that initial setback.

Dale, no shrinking violet, shouts what Ned Flanders would describe as "the loudest profanity I've ever heard!" He even bashes up a metal locker. Everyone else witnesses it, and Dale's credit limit is reached and breached with the rest of the contestants at this point. I have to say, unless he arrives at some moment of clarity, he'll be out of my favor too.

So here comes the Elimination Challenge, and it's both an oldy and a twist on a goody. Season 1 featured a wedding challenge, and subsequent seasons featured the popular Restaurant Wars. Last night, the contestants were handed Wedding Wars, a head-to-head team catering challenge for the wedding of JP and Corey Marchetti. The happy couple just so happens to operate a wedding venue/restaurant in the Chicagoland area, and will thus be discriminating clients. "So we are catering a wedding," Andrew muses, "which is not...that cool."

Richard's team, having won the Relay Race, gets to choose whether they will cook for the groom's side or the bride's side. Richard, a married man and wise, decides that it would befit the occasion to choose the bride first. So Nikki's team gets the groom. Spike, meanwhile, opines on the idiocy of choosing to work for/with the woman's interest, what with, you know, all the childhood dreams and irrationality and temperamental wishes and general being-a-broad thing. WELCOME BACK, CAPTAIN MISOGYNY.

The groom digs Italian, and it seemes like Nikki is going to be handed a free pass to the next week. Team Groom sets to work on assorted flatbreads and bruschetta, butternut squash tortellini, roasted vegetables, filet mignon, Chilean sea bass, and orechiette with a pork and beef ragú. In addition, JP gets a groom's cake of chocolate and hazelnut. The lovely bride, on the other hand, is an Atlanta-area native, which looks good for Atlantean Richard. She wants Southern-style comfort food. Her chefs settles on prosciutto and goat cheese pizzas, pulled pork phyllo sandwiches, short rib with blue cheese, crispy fried chicken, beef brisket, another filet mignon and creamed spinach. Her cake, which will be a formal wedding cake affair (perish the thought!), is lemon and dark chocolate.

Over the entire challenge looms this simple fact: the chefs are gonna have to work for about 36 hours straight to get this done. This is where Andrew's "culinary boner" comes into play (boatload of eeeeew), but when you're on speed, you don't mind working all night! (I didn't say that). It becomes immediately apparent that this challenge will test the personalities of the chefs as much, if not more, than their culinary chops.

Dale doesn't get along with anyone on his team, and doesn't really care. Spike, on the other hand, appears to show some actual management talent. He sends Lisa and Dale to shop together, commenting that Lisa's got the hard skin to not be shut down by Dale. He keeps Nikki with him, knowing that she can potentially get diverted from her original course by any setback. And Richard, who wears pink shoes and watches "a little Martha Stewart," gets to shop for flowers.

As the 14-hour cooking marathon commences, Nikki's natural leadership on an Italian menu begins to wane and fade. Dale comments that she "wants creative control with no responsibility." This statement will prove to be completely accurate. Spike seems to be prodding Dale's tendency to automatically pick up the work that other chefs slack off on, and Dale is none too appreciative of the general non-hustling he observes from his teammates. Richard's team, in contrast, is all business. Both Richard and Steph pronounce their intent to avoid clichéd wedding food ("Suzy Homemaker Duncan Hines cake" was Steph's most excellent word for it).

By 7:30 on the morning of the wedding, the chefs all look like hell when Chef Tom walks in. Dale can't even remember what he's worked on, and that should tell you how much he's done. Colicchio remarks that the groom's menu should be easier, being a crowd-pleasing ethnicity, while the bride's food has to be really well done because it's so simple. When he nails his analysis like this, do you think he's just insufferable in private? He was certainly right when he said that Lisa's groom's cake looked like a battleship. Oof.

Finally, the big moment arrives. Andrew is locked in the kitchen (Antonia: "Andrew's not allowed to talk to the guests. Seeeriously."), while Nikki is losing focus and wanders semi-aimlessly behind the buffet table. Gale Gand of Tru and general pastry chef fame is the guest judge, and she joins Padma, Tom and Gail S. in sampling the fare. Dale's crostini is like slate, the judges liked Andrew's chicken when it was the chicken from the kid challenge, and Richard's filet mignon with horseradish far outpaces Dale's. The cakes cut clean, the guests seem happy, and the chefs are an unpleasant mix of worn out, worried, and satisfied if not warily confident.

Pre-judging, we get to see exactly how highly Gale thinks of her own talents as a pastry/wedding chef. I'd compare the size of her ego to something else that's large, but that would just be catty. Meanwhile, the stew room is the sleepiest room on the planet, and Spike confounds expectations by offering what seems to be--and should be--a sincere congratulation to Lisa and Stephanie for the work on their respective cakes. Padma calls out Team Bride first.

I kind of wish that Top Chef would allow slacking members of winning teams to be considered for chopping more often, because while Andrew's effort was commendable, his product was sub-par. Richard accepted some of the blame for Andrew's creamed spinach (Andrew had previously described the amount of spinach he had to, ahem, cream by saying "I'm Popeye's wet fucking dream right now, dude"), but Andrew didn't seem too thankful for that gesture. Regardless of Andrew's poor showing, they are the winning team, and props must be given. Gale has high praise for Steph's cake, Antonia's pizza smoked the pizza of the Italian team, and Gail proclaims that Richard's brisket was "perfect." Gale describes the winner as the one who took responsibility, and made an all-around solid effort--in other words, Richard. But Richard gets all magnanimous and gives his prize, before hearing it, to Stephanie. What a guy. So Steph walks away with $2,000 to spend at Crate and Barrel, and doesn't even have to send out the groom's team afterward.

It seems, as Team Groom files into the room, really possible that Dale could go. The judges ask who crafted the overall menu for this challenge, and Nikki immediately blurts "Not me." Consider all our eyebrows raised at that point. Looks like Dale had it right. There's not much to say for this team, as the tortellini was too dry and dessert-y, the pizza crostini was too dry and hard, the meat was overcooked, and the horseradish crème was flavorless. The cake, while ugly, at least tasted better than the bride's cake. But when Dale takes firm responsibility for having made the crostini, Spike picks up on his emphasis immediately.

Point some fingers, Spike says--and it's a fair instruction. Man up and say what you mean, he exhorts. And Dale does just that. He goes on and on about how he did all the work, he hustled, he showed more initiative, and gave more effort than everyone else. Nikki tries to be diplomatic, and Spike goes from making sense to trying to start a cock-measuring contest. As the judges try to rein things in, Gail asks if Spike wants to know what people thought of his fish. Dejectedly, he says sure. Gail responds that they really liked it, and you just know she wanted to say "they really liked it, you insufferable prick." But restraint prevailed.

Lisa, meanwhile, doesn't say a single word the entire time. And the judges don't address her at all. So, odd as it is, she's obviously not going home. The judges kibbutz, and all agree that while Spike's fish was good, he didn't do much else of value. They wonder why Dale, if he felt his team was so unmotivated, didn't say something to them. But it looks more and more like they really disliked Nikki's performance. Tom wonders why she didn't take the lead when it was her wheelhouse, and that the food was, in the end, minimally Italian.

So when the contestants come back out, Lisa's got her street thug boxer's mouth going, everyone's dour, and Nikki is shown the door. Lisa just walks off bitterly, while Dale and Spike share an "it's all good, bro" hug. Makes you wonder if they had an agreement in advance about trying to split the "he's an asshole" vote by going after each other.

Next week may address that very thought, as Spike is suspected of sabotage and the police are called in. Okay, the cops are the diners. Plus, that sure looks like the back of Season 2's Sam Talbot's head! All the ladies in the house say "eeeee!"