Top Chef: Boys (and girls) named Sous

I'm not sure that Top Chef has ever given us clearer images of what's to come in the opening segment than it did last night. Lisa, sitting alone; dour, smoking, she looks like a prisoner getting her one hour of daily rec time. Antonia, after spending last week at the bottom of the heap, is reinvigorated. "Fuck everybody," she proclaims, "I came here to win." ANTONIA SMASH. The last edit juxtaposes Stephanie, musing on the sense of mortality that accompanies being "on the edge of getting cut," with Mark, shaving.

Our chefs enter the Quickfire kitchen and are greeted by the impish grin of Art Smith, personal chef to Queen Oprah I and frequent guest judge on Food Network's Iron Chef America. His emphasis is healthy, simple foods, so we can be sure to see lots of skinless this, lowfat that, and puréed organic other things.

Padma and Art's exposition prior to announcing the challenge--about how one inefficient link in a chain can ruin the whole product--made me think the chefs were going to play a culinary version of the Telephone Game. It would be kind of interesting to have each chef take a station, assembly-line style, and try to cobble together a cohesive dish by doing individual steps in sequence, yes?

That does not come to pass, however; Padma declares that the challenge will be for the chefs to create an entrée in a scant fifteen minutes. Incidentally, did you notice that they could use Uncle Ben's microwaveable rice to cut their cooking time? You might have missed it.

In this Quickfire, we learned that "Spike Mendelsohn" is a Greek name (Ming Tsai continues to amaze--not only is he Spike's mother, but he's Greek, too!); 15 minutes is the line of demarcation below which Richard no longer feels confident; and Mark got no love from the camera yet again. But other than Richard, everyone else seems to get right to work with ample confidence. Antonia has a childhood recipe for rice salad, which she serves over skirt steak. Nikki and Dale both go with fried rice, with Nikki going veg and Dale using scallop paste and Chinese long beans. Steph also reaches for the scallops to amplify her brown rice seafood pancakes.

This was a tough QF to predict, because Art just seems so happy to be doing anything with food, to the point that nothing seems outright BAD. But he wasn't crazy about Mark's too-dry miso-glazed turkey breast, nor did he care for Steph's too-heavy pancake, nor Lisa's unoriginal grilled shrimp and avocado créme over rice, corn and black beans. He did enjoy Dale's fried rice, Richard's well-balanced tuna steak and tomatoes over rice with a yuzu vinaigrette, and Antonia's rice salad, which "made a believer" out of Art. It is The Incredible Antonia who takes the crown, and the Elimination round immunity.

Scrimpin' ain't easy but it's necessary

As indicated by this episode's title, we learn that Art Smith is the founder of Common Threads, a non-profit charity dedicated to returning families to the dinner table for healthy, intelligent, and affordable meals. With that in mind, the chefs are tasked with designing a complete meal for four, simple enough that a child could assist in the kitchen, and affordable enough that a mere $10 will pay for it.

It is at this point that we learn a little more about some of our intrepid chefs. Antonia is a mom-on-her-own, and she had a very rich relationship with her mother, so this challenge fills her with a strong sense of responsibility. Andrew, on the other hand, firmly states that this is IMPOSSIBLE. No one can create a meal for four on $10. But both Richard and my fiancée thought roughly the same thing: it certainly won't be easy, what with the cost of food A) these days (Richard) or B) at Whole Foods (fiancée).

This begins the mass migration of damn near every chef on the show to the chicken case, as was foretold by the sage seer Dale. Mark goes veggie, as does Spike; the Kiwi decides on a sugar-heavy lineup of coconut curry, sweet potatoes, cinnamon rice and cucumber salad. Spike chooses a pasta puttanesca, which is pronounced expertly and impressively by his tiny helper later on.

Tiny helper, you ask? Why yes. The young charges of Common Threads' cooking school will be serving as mini-sous chefs for today's Elimination challenge, each pairing up with one of the grown-ups. Mommy Antonia gets weepy (she had just been telling stinky knock-knock jokes to her daughter on the phone the previous night), and Steph's kid is as tall as her.

Richard and his precocious assistant are making roasted chicken thighs with beets, avocado, lime and jalapeños. Doesn't sound kid friendly, but if he can win 'em over on beets, he is truly the Top Chef. Dale's super-tiny kid is a boy after my own heart; when asked by Tom what he likes most about cooking, he responds, "Eating." Go get 'em, little dude! Tom is concerned, meanwhile, with Stephanie's choice of tomatoes, lemons and peanut butter in a sauce over chicken. To be fair, she looked about as bewildered as possible while shopping at Whole Foods. All the chefs had budgeting problems; Steph's were pronounced to the extreme. But it's hard to imagine the kind of confusion that would result in such a talented chef thinking that these flavors would work together.

To the complete amazement of every viewer, there were exactly zero shots of kids turning their noses up at beets (Richard), brussels sprouts (Nikki), olives (Spike), cabbage (Dale), or fennel (Andrew). In fact, they appear to have been almost universally enjoyed. Kudos to Andrew (who reveals that he was over 200 lbs. in high school!) for choosing a preparation (paillard) that involves pounding the everloving crap out of a chicken breast with a frying pan. Talk about encouraging a child to get into cooking!

Some highlights: Lisa's PB-and-apple French toast side, Nikki's colorful one-pot approach to her meal, and Antonia's Asian-inspired whole wheat pasta. The lows were predictable: Steph's mindboggling combination of disparate ingredients, Mark's plate o' sugar with almost no protein, and the overall blandness of Lisa's meal.

As everyone talks about how great the kids were (and they were, especially for being on-camera), Padma arrives at the stew room to call out Andrew, Nikki and Antonia. Who knew Nikki could make it up to the top three? Her dish is hailed as smart and well-seasoned. Plus, the kids liked the brussels sprouts! Andrew's use of fruit in a savory dish was received well by the judges, and (theme repeating here) none of the kids had ever eaten fennel, and they liked that too. But the most universal praise was reserved for Antonia, whose entire dish was perfectly cooked, kid friendly, flavorful enough for adults, and a truly complete meal. Armed with immunity, Antonia just goes out and whoops the snot out of the competition.

That means, of course, that she has to send out the disappointments. This week, they are Lisa, Stephanie and Mark. That's two weeks in a row at the bottom for Steph and Lisa, and the fourth for Mark. Tom just didn't like Stephanie's combinations, and Padma describes them (not to Steph's face, oddly) as "disgusting...I detested it." Plus, the portions were too big for Art's liking.

And poor Mark. He really is a charming bugger, but he just can't get any positive attention. In fact, he announces that he thinks he's in the bottom three because Tom doesn't like him. The camera swings wildly to indicate total surprise, and Tom hopes he's kidding. Mark complains that he either overcooks or undercooks, overseasons or underseasons...can't please Chef Tom, he whimpers. The fact remains, Tom reminds him, that he didn't use enough vegetables and the whole thing was just too sweet and not nutritious enough. Tom, meanwhile, states that he is shocked at how underseasoned Lisa's meal was. Lisa makes a good point that she used canned vegetables, which is what people have in their homes. But they also have salt and pepper usually, and that can be enough sometimes.

This is the point at which the judges will reveal whether their elimination decisions are based on single competition only, or if they take previous efforts into account. For this week, anyway--we know how they bend in the wind. Stephanie's dish was truly horrible (like CJ's broccolini-horrible); Mark's dish was just plain bad, but he's been weaker for more of the season to date. As we see a return to Grumpy Lisa, who is not taking her criticism very well, we come to grips with the ruling: Mark's gotta go. The cutting edge visual metaphor is paid off, and Tom assures Mark that he does in fact like him quite a bit, and they'll catch a pint somewhere down the road. The Top Chef door swings shut.

If the title of next week's episode is any indication, the annual Restaurant Wars will be replaced with a wedding version. And did I hear something about cooking for 14 hours straight? The editing sure made it look excruciating. Wedding catering, cake decoration, grueling stamina tests...what is this, Top Chef: Seventh Circle of Hell?

And in case you missed it, there was a post-credit, ahem, bonus comment from Andrew. He soberly states, "I have a culinary boner right now." Someone's still at least a little bit schoolyard.