Top Chef: Malice a-storebought

There were two other ways I could have gone with the title this week. The first: "Spike is killing the show." Seriously. If Bravo can lose Project Runway to Lifetime, Spike will drive Top Chef to the CW or friggin' MTV before his reign of terror comes to a merciful end. What a fucking mess. More later.

The other option: "Better to burn out than fade away," because--and I'm gonna spoil the ending for you--the gathering momentum of last night's episode made it so clear that this was Andrew's blaze of glory that, if someone other than Andrew had gone home, it would have been a Crying Game-esque shock.

All the contestants begin with expressions of fatigue, sadness, bitterness, apathy concerning the marathon wedding challenge. Dale is racking up the enemies, and couldn't care less.

All, I should say, except Andrew. He comments on how everyone else is beat down, except for him. He's still "fucking crazy," to use his own all too apt phrase.

Now, I'll leave it to David Dust to make the double entendre jokes about the Quickfire Challenge, and simply say that renowned hottie and Season 2 finalist Sam Talbot is revealed to be the guest judge, and the QF itself is to toss a fine salad. Wait, that's a double entendre, isn't it? Shit!

Come to think of it, I might not be able to avoid sophomoric humor here. First of all, I have to point out that Antonia appears to be downright moist at the prospect of spending some time in the same room as Sam. If she had fanned herself with a leaf of romaine, or seductively cleaned the head of a mushroom, I wouldn't have been too surprised.

But the challenge--to revive the salad, which has apparently fallen on hard times (who knew?)-- results in Spike proclaiming that he intends to make a beef salad that says "let's have sex after we eat this salad." His words, not mine. I'd venture to guess that, with the exception of the hardcore eyecandy TC viewers, the only salad ingredients that would get anyone to bone Spike would be Rohypnol and tequila.

Lisa disses the remaining contestants, saying that most of them have minimal talent, and (as the camera cuts to Dale) their personalities "suck ass." I did say that salad was the challenge, right? She fires off a lobster and squid salad with bananas and a "little heat" that proves to be so little that Sam and Padma don't notice it.

Stephanie must have the same bout of the vapors that Antonia suffers from, because she forgets an ingredient or two on her "fall duet" pear salad. Antonia, meanwhile, intends to show that she--a fertile young woman--and Sam--a robust young man--should really get together and have some salad by putting together eggs and wild mushrooms. Get it? Think for a minute.

The bottoms (ahem) in the Quickfire are Richard, whose fruit "ceviche" wasn't acidic enough; Steph, whose salad was incomplete and lacking; and Lisa, whose salad was really nothing but a banana hodgepodge. The tops are Spike's well-balanced "sensual beef" salad, Antonia, whose poached eggs Sam loves, and Dale's unique poached chicken and nori paste concoction. Strangely, the winner is Spike.

Food court

(Okay, so the Elimination doesn't include lawyers, but I really wanted to use "Food court" as a section header)

As Spike basks in faux-humility over his QF win, Padma and Sam haul in two big trays of greasy, nasty, evil fast food thaaaat lookssogoodi--sorry. It did look kinda tasty, some of it anyway. The gyros. Oh man. I would kill a gyro right now. Anyway, the challenge is this: make a box lunch that is hearty, nutritious and tasty, for a bunch of cops at the police academy (Sam comes from a cop family, and he's also diabetic, so there's all the connection they need to bring him back). The trays represent a typical lunch order there. Woof! Ingredients must include at least one whole grain, lean protein, fruit, and vegetable.

Spike's QF reward is that he gets a 10-minute shopping head start, and exclusivity rights to one ingredient from each food group--whichever items he chooses under this clause, no one else can use. Let me say right now that THIS MOTHERFUCKER IS RIGGED. There's no way that Spike should have won the Quickfire, and there's no worse contestant to give this kind of advantage to than Spike.

Off Spike goes, while the other chefs stand and wait for the sword to fall. He shops for some planned ingredients, then says to the camera that now it's time to start messing with people. He consciously picks chicken, lettuce, bread and tomatoes, hoping that these choices will screw up as many plans as possible. With $175 to work with, he better do something pretty friggin' amazing with those very plain-jane ingredients.

Of course, when his 10 minutes are up and he arrives back at the feet of the other chefs, he totally lies about his motivations. They resign themselves to picking up after Spike's steaming hot dump on their shoes, and get a-shoppin'. Lisa goes for shrimp (which for some reason I really want to type as "shrump"; I think my right middle finger grew overnight), while Richard settles on a bok choy and tuna burrito. Andrew is determined to face no Spike-induced inconvenience, and certainly seems saucy this episode. Dammit, I didn't want to like him!

The prep and cooking that follows is pretty straightfoward. No ultra-haute cuisine here, since the cops will be given microwave instructions with each box. Antonia works on a curried beef with jasmine brown rice and a fruit salad of berries and figs. Dale's doing napa cabbage bison cups/wraps with mint and cilantro (Antonia comments that Dale's never done anything other than Asian, and that this narrow vision will be his downfall. I ask, as Elvis Costello might, what's so Asian 'bout turkey bratwurst and apples?)

Lisa is concerned, per Andrew's good-intentioned advice, that her shrimp (shrump!!) have too much cholesterol, but she intends to only put a few in each serving of her edamame and pineapple fried brown rice. Stephanie sets to work on a meatball, mushroom and leek soup with apple and celery root puree, while Richard constructs a burrito of lentils, quinoa, tuna, and bok choy in a rice paper wrapper. Okay, that's a little haute.

The two most compelling characters are going at two very different offerings with a similar mindset. Spike, with his bounty of ingredients never really intended for use, is slapping together a mayo-free chicken salad with grapes and olives. The bread, lettuce, and tomato will be plopped on top a la a crudite platter, just to spite the other contestants (hey, Spite's back!). Sounds lovely. Andrew, on the other hand, is going balls-to-the-wall healthy. Like, "you'll eat healthy if you know what's good for you, because I know what's good for you." He's doing a salmon sushi, with a parsnip and pine nut puree-ish substance to replace the rice. I was wondering where the fruit was (because I must have missed it), but what I didn't realize was that he never used a whole grain. Problems.

The kitchen is hectic, and somewhere along the way, Lisa's rice gets turned to 11 and burns. The salvageable rice is still undercooked, and she smells sabotage. I smell dirty hair, but that's beside the point. Dale thinks, and I agree, that talking about sabotage at this point is just a way for chefs "[to cover] their own ass." Regardless, everyone seems to have the dropsies today, and knives, trays, coolers, garbage cans are all getting tripped over or dropped.

At the academy, Richard pimps his burritos pretty hard. Spike gets tired of the schmoozy Richard routine, but annoys the piss out of Lisa and everyone at home by feiging scarcity with his lunches (he only sets out two at a time, and stands in front of the rest to make it seem like they must be really popular). Antonia is calm, because she knows she's free of any outstanding Chicago parking tickets (not that she wouldn't want Sam to come bail her out).

The opinions of the cops are pretty inconsequential this time around, so I'm focusing on the somewhat meager commentary from the judges. They find Steph's soup "hearty," Spike's chicken salad "pedestrian," and Andrew's sushi "very strange." Dale's dish has good color and texture but lacks heat, while Antonia's beef is tender and her flavors "delicious." Richard's burrito is described as "better than it looks," and Lisa's undercooked mess is called out for also being too spicy.

Dale says he's nervous, and feels for perhaps the first time that there's no clear cut top dish, but when Padma comes to the stew room, she calls him out alongside Stephanie. They turn out to be the sole chefs at the top of the challenge. I'm thinking that there must have been something about Antonia's dish that we didn't see, because the commentary for her meal was uniformly positive. Regardless, the two top offerings are hailed as being well-seasoned amongst a lot of poorly seasoned dishes. Sam announces that Dale has won this round, as well as a huge-ass bottle of Rutherfor Hill 2002 merlot, and two tickets to tour the vineyard at Napa Valley. Lisa, Spike and Andrew are called out for the chopping block.

The attitudes of the bottom three chefs are unlike any I can remember seeing on Top Chef. All three of them challenge the judgment or opinion of the judges, and in a really bitchy way at that. Andrew is indignant about the healthfulness of his dish, having studied nutrition for a couple years. I don't doubt him, but he's certainly acting like a spazzy zealot about it. When confronted with his lack of whole grain, he first announces that he's "always been against the grain" (ba-DUMP-tsshhh), but then pleads ignorance: he claims he lost his rule sheet. He also, Tom critiques, missed the "hearty" part of the challenge. Andrew wants them coming back for more (and two did, he claims), but Tom is having none of it. "How about serving me something that's good?", he asks. As for the return customers, he suggests that they "went back bcause it wasn't enough." Chef Tom was particularly cutting this week. It was a little uncomfortable, and I actually felt for Andrew.

Spike didn't want to "scare the cops," so he went with a blasé chicken salad that the judges call a bad combination of flavors and ingredients. Spike insists that there was no sabotage in mind, and he feels he used all of his ingredients well. He also challenges Tom's opinion, with some "I cook for the common man" BS. Lastly, there's Lisa. Lisa, whose flaws were very plain to see. Undercooked shrimp, undercooked long beans, practically uncooked rice...it was just bad. She doesn't have much to say in defense, other than "listen all y'all it was sabotage," but then the judges give her some more rope. Does anyone have anything else to add, Padma asks.

Now, why'd you have to go and do that, Padma?

Lisa takes a deep breath and proceeds to whine out a litany of reasons why Andrew's failure to include a whole grain shouldn't be followed by someone else getting kicked out because other people have been dismissed for not following the rules to the T and obviously she's talking about Jen and boy Lisa misses Jen and really who likes Polish sausage anyway and please don't kick me out for my shitty dish because Andrew is fucking crazy and did I mention that he broke the rules by forgetting the whole grain component?

Yeah.

Andrew gets pissed (and obviously a little embarrassed) for being thrown under the bus when Lisa really didn't need to tell the judges how to do their job, and when Andrew makes that claim I mentioned before about losing the rule sheet, Lisa sort of realizes she's spoken out of turn, and starts to sort of apologize. Andrew is having none of it, and Lisa says she better stop talking or else she'll get punched. Classy.

Back in the stew room, Andrew has obviously extinguished his flame. He's done. He's giving the Mr. Vernon "two months, Bender" stare to Lisa, who he only wants to look him in the eye and tell him why she undercut him like that. Meanwhile, Ted is discounting sabotage entirely, because Lisa's dish was just bad. He also calls out Andrew as being arrogant with the "I know what's good for you" routine, and Spike appears to be getting a general pass for being an asshole because guess what? It's what they wanted him to do!

As I said, it would have to be a mighty big WTF moment to send anyone but Andrew home at this point, because only Lisa's was truly bad and there would be a mighty uproar if the judges disregarded Andrew's omission of a key component. So Andrew is dismissed, and wittily says "no security necessary." Goodbye, Andrew. You weren't the total trainwreck I thought you'd be from the get-go, but you weren't meant for this victory.

Next week: gotcha! Restaurant Wars is back for real! Plus, a line-cook Quickfire? Brilliant!