Top Chef: War...HUH...good God, y'all

Wow. This episode did not let up for one second. This year's iteration of Restaurant Wars was no time to be trying to eat a shrimp fajita and take casual notes. Whew! I think there's still sour cream on the keyboard.

You just know something is up when Chef Tom is waking you up at 5:45 in the AM. Antonia's probably thinking, Why couldn't Sam have been the guest judge this week? We would have gotten the for-girls version of CJ's Padma alarm clock last year.

The Quickfire Challenge, very simply, is to take a turn at the egg station of Lou Mitchell's, a signature breakfast joint in Chicago. That's right, the chefs get to be short order cooks in real time. The owner, a formidable woman named Helene, will be the judge for this challenge, and the person who performs the job at closest to hire-able quality wins.

Spike, to no viewer's surprise, claims to have 6 or 7 years of short order work under his belt. His mom (you remember his mom, Ming Tsai) probably forced him to get a job during his high school summers in Greece. Where's the damn eyeroll emoticon button... Anyway, Antonia kicks it off, and it's very clear that Helene is impressed. Antonia is calling back all the orders, moving methodically, and working fast but not sloppy.

The same cannot be said for much of the rapid-fire-edited action that follows. Stephanie gets flustered (I know, Stephanie can get flustered!) by her poaching water, which is full of floating eggwhite gunk. Richard is getting used to unfamiliar diner lingo, and Dale gets slammed with four orders at once. He feels like he's handling the pressure well, though. At the end, Helene separates Antonia and Dale from the rest of the chefs, calling Antonia calm and controlled and Dale, smooth. Antonia gets the win.

It's her fourth Quickfire win, by her count (fifth by reality's count, but who's coun--oh), and Tom assures her she'll get a significant advantage in the Elimination Challenge. An Elimination Challenge, Tom announces, for which he will not be present. He'll be off at the Kangols for Kids charity raffle, providing poor scamps with propa lids. He's a true humanitarian, that Tom Colicchio.

What is it good for?

So what will this Tom-less challenge entail? Get thee to the following random address in an unfamiliar neighborhood, chefs, and Padma will educate you. When the chefs arrive, they find a big, empty, and (fortunately) clean warehouse space that Padma tells them will house....Restaurant Wars! Yay! It's back to the old school model, since last year's 4-on-4 was a minor aberration, and promises to be the best chance we'll see for total chef humiliation and overreaching ambition.

At this time, it's worth pointing out the odd expressions of lesser ambition that appeared in this episode. Steph opened the show by commenting that winning would of course be great, but her goal was to make it to the Final 4. Shoot for the sky just under the clouds, Steph! And then Lisa, who stated that her goal was just to make it through (not to, she assured, but through) Restaurant Wars. That would be, if I'm not mistaken, the dictionary definition of winning the battle but losing the war.

Regardless, Antonia learns that as Quickfire winner, she'll get to pick her entire team right off the bat. The rest of the episode is pretty well mapped out from this point, as she chooses Stephanie and Richard to form Team "Warehouse Kitchen." There are, of course, no level heads left; Dale, Spike and Lisa unite by attrition to form Team "Mai Buddha." It's a Wedding Wars rematch, except with 100% less "jittery freak" and "Sopranos extra."

Team Warehouse Kitchen will use their food budget of $1,500 and Pier 1 decor budget of $5,000 to create a gastro pub atmosphere, elegant but casual. Doesn't everyone pretty much aim for that same thing in Restaurant Wars? Meanwhile, Team Mai Buddha will go Asian (gasp!), and begin their inauspicious existence with a tug-of-war between Dale and Lisa for executive chef; Dale wins the coin flip. At least we are reminded that Spike's male Asian mother in Greece passed on his Asian cooking skills to young Spike, whose expertise in cooking Asian things was demonstrated by his thoroughly mediocre spring rolls in the movie challenge. Remember those? No? Huh.

So Spike takes front-of-the-house duties, and gets to decorate (since I don't think anyone's mistaking Lisa for an interior decorator; she's not one of "those girls"). He buys every Buddha Pier 1 can offer, and believe me, Antonia is dead on when she says "they've got a lot of Buddha." Stephanie, the front-of-house on the other side, is ready for a war. "Bring it on," she intones in her best W impersonation.

The teams get their shopping done, and head back to the kitchen to work on their three-course offerings. Warehouse Kitchen will feature a first course of either beet salad with goat chese and ras al hanout (that guy just won't die! I thought Batman killed him!), or linguine and clams with horseradish crème fraîche. Their entrees are skin-on trout with cauliflower, or "lamb squared" (both leg and loin), and their dessert options are a savory gorgonzola cheesecake with concord grape sauce, or Richard's banana "scallops."

Mai Buddha will offer shrimp laksa (a Malay/Chinese soup) and some alliterative potstickers of pork and pickled plum. Main dishes will be butterscotch miso scallops and a braised short rib, and mango sticky rice and Dale's halo halo will follow for dessert.

As Spike lays claim to the short rib, and Antonia worries about a lack of Plan B pasta if their handmade stuff goes bad, Chef Tom's replacement walks in. It is none other than American Badass Antony Bourdain, who assures the chefs that he's "bringing [his] warmer, sunnier disposition to this challenge." It becomes clear that Bourdain is nearly ill at the prospect of being so constructive, but it just feels good to have him wandering the kitchen. Nothing against Chef Tom, but his patronizing air of bemusement is palpable and sometimes irritating.

Spike thinks Dale must be shitting his pants, since Bourdain knows his Asian food and will be a very critical judge, but it is Lisa who expresses the most consternation as Tony tells her he is a laksa devotee and takes it very seriously. My first thought was that every team that pins itself to an ethnicity or international flavor, loses. The teams that aim for an atmosphere and overall philosophy win. When you announce your attachment to "Asian food," any judge can think, "well, I've had Asian food, and this isn't as good."

Indeed, Bourdain comments that Mai Buddha (who he has taken to calling Altamont) is setting itself up for feast or famine; "Asia is really big," he astutely observes, and it will be difficult to successfully encapsulate it. Warehouse Kitchen (aka Woodstock, and really, is anyone better than Bourdain? These nicknames sum up the teams perfectly, even as things develop from that point), he notes, is smart in crafting modest expectations. Everyone's job will be easier, though, when Bourdain announces that each team gets an extra set of hands from.....the last four chefs to go home! They all walk in, everyone goes EEE!, and then Mai Buddha immediately grabs Jen and Warehouse Kitchen barely contains itself in signing up Nikki as a pasta insurance policy.

A baby-poop colored avocado puree ruins Dale's mood, and Lisa's rice problems continue. Also noted during cooking is the fact that Lisa'a got some kind of booty following her around. Yikes! Richard's seafood prep continues to be suspect, as his clams have retained a lot of grit. And Spike...good old Spike. He continues to sow bitterness and dissension by agreeing with Dale that Lisa's laksa is too smoky, but then reminding them that they should have gone with his recipe because it's better. In general, though, all the problems are happening in Mai Buddha's kitchen; nothing seems to be going to plan.

Amazingly, Spike doffs the stupid hat for official service time, and Restaurant Wars gets fully underway. José Andrés, famed Spanish chef and tapas ambassador to the United States, is the guest judge.

Warehouse Kitchen racks up the accolades from the start. The first courses exceed expectations (there's that Bourdain genius again), and the main courses leave everyone wowed. They love the presentation of the lamb, and everyone appreciates that the skin was left on the trout. The desserts get better grades for effort than execution, as few diners enjoy brown smears on their plates (even if they are chocolate).

The Mai Buddha Experience starts out poorly, with Bourdain noting that the silver and purple linen scheme brings to mind "the back of Prince's van." In the back, Dale is pushing hard, and Lisa is bristling at the stress. As the dishes go out, Spike is offering critique and commentary based on diner response, and Lisa gets stammery and defensive.

To no one's surprise, the laksa is indeed too smoky, but the potstickers have a good char on them--a feature that many chefs don't go far enough with. The main courses don't garner much praise, as the butterscotch sauce on Dale's scallops goes from sounding bad to tasting worse. Dale's halo halo gets mixed reviews, but Lisa's botched sticky rice (replete with Dale's odd pastry cream triage attempt) is universally disliked; the term "wood chips" is used.

It's pretty clear which team wins and which team loses, but the overall winner and the degree to which the losing team will implode are still to be determined. From a fairly cordial stew room, Team Warehouse Kitchen emerges as the winning team. While Richard's beet salad was described as a great idea, Steph's perfectly cooked pasta and overall leadership gets her the win. She'll be flying to Barcelona with a guest, for a 5 day vacation and guided wine tour. Sweet!

Team Sad (aka Team Mai Buddha) gets to face the music. Spike pins the decor, which overhyped a level of quality that didn't appear on the plate, on everyone--when it was his choice and his choice alone. Bourdain likens Dale's scallops to a melted candy bar, and Dale doesn't dispute their oversweetness. The sticky rice was "appalling." The laksa proves to be a locus of failure, as Lisa takes responsibility for the excessive smokiness, Dale admits he knows nothing about laksa, and Spike throws the other two under the bus by reminding the judges that his (unused) recipe is much better.

A theme should be developing for you, and it can be summed up by one line from last week's recap: Spike is killing the show. Are they gonna have to go to instant replay? Do the judges not watch video of the day's events before judging? Because Spike pulls so much bullshit at Judges' Table that there's no way a fair judgment can be handed down if he's standing there. For instance: the judges agree that the short rib was the best part of the meal. Dale takes the credit for the cooking side, while giving Spike credit for the idea and recipe. Lisa agrees. Spike, asked for corroboration, diffuses the credit for prep to both Dale and Lisa, so that no clear decision can be made on who gets the benefit of the job well done.

As the chefs get more and more desperate with their excuses (and as Dale continues to do himself fewer and fewer favors), Bourdain silences them with "okay, okay, okay, you're not talking to your parole officer." The chefs leave, and the judges deliberate. Once again, we are reminded just how awesome Tony Bourdain is, as he finally calls attention to Lisa's shitty posture and body language. She's not someone who will "take the bit," so to speak.

Out they come, and Dale's poor leadership and disgusting scallops earn him a ticket home. It's a fucking shame, because he's definitely talented. But his ability to work with other people was always his weakness, and tonight, it kills him. It's appropriate that Bourdain is here for this one, because if there's anyone who has reined in his bristly personality to be a successful chef, it's Bourdain. Great line from Tony: "Spike...through guile, or luck, you were missing in action...It was a good day to be in the dining room." No fucking kidding. Talk about a weasel. As Dale goes home, feeling like he let some people down (and breaks down a bit, poor guy), I can't help but worry that Spike is just destructive enough to the spirit of this show that he could make it to the finale. And that would be good for nobody but him.