Top Chef: What's a brother gotta do to get a calling bird up in this?

Okay, so it's pretty clear I didn't have the resources to get to this recap anywhere close to on time this week. Training on Thursday (which didn't involve sitting in front of a computer), snow day on Friday (which involved planning for a little bachelor party that night), and travel day today.

That being said, I'll give you my abbreviated thoughts on what was a pretty unsatisfying episode for the chefs, judges, and (I'm guessing) the majority of viewers.

I think this might have been the first time that two competing chefs got to share "confessional" space. It was actually kind of cute to see Fabio and Stefan playing Felix and Oscar.

I'm not really sure what was the point of including Martha Stewart in such a very abbreviated role. If you're going to add 10 minutes to the end of the episodes, Bravo, it feels pretty cheap to bring people in with barely-fulfilled promise.

"Barely-fulfilled promise" sums up the performance of Fabio this week, and in the last couple weeks in general. He's winning us over with his charm and genuine humor, while bringing a little too much of The Suck to his cookery. His Quickfire polenta sounded tasty enough, but what is it with chefs on this show having such a hard time working with mushrooms?

I liked the concept of the Elimination challenge this week, if not the execution. Dishes based on the verses of the 12 Days of Christmas is topical, interesting, and potentially challenging (although choosing to do without 4 calling birds is a little unusual; what, no ortolan?). But it goes beyond being challenging when you only let the chefs shop at Whole Foods.

Yes -- you've got a sponsorship. But maybe once or twice a season, when the challenge merits something really cutting-edge, let the chefs shop wherever they want! Maybe next week's apparent "You can do whatever you like" challenge would be a good time to cut the chefs free from Whole Paycheck? Cost and reputation do not equal quality, as evidenced by Jeff's stymied attempt to procure frogs' legs for his lords a'leaping.

I do think that we can let go of the "writing on the wall" editing of the opening segment. Between Ariane feeling upbeat, Eugene feeling lucky, and Hosea talking about his dad having cancer, there were any number of swords of Damocles we could have seen swinging low. In the end, Eugene should have gone home, but the judges decided -- at the last minute, I'm sure -- to allow everyone a reprieve.

Part of the reasoning for that decision was the fact that all the chefs banded together to help out when the sun rose on the day of service to a refrigerator left open overnight. Sure, they were packing it pretty tight. Sure, the food going in was hot. But these are massive, industrial-strength chillers. And if an 11-year old knows not to leave the fridge door open, I'm betting a room of 11 chefs would too.

In other words, I think it was producer sabotage, plain and simple. Crafted purely for the effect of a Christmas episode. And the way it fucked with Radhika's head was a pretty mean goddamn way of ensuring a heartwarming segment full of chefs helping chefs. Stovetops Without Borders. Awww...

But for all the manipulation on the part of the producers (only shop at this mass-market semi-high-end store!; deal with this magically spoiled pork!), there are some fundamental truths coming forth. Truth Number One is that Ariane is completely out of her league. Her no-butter cauliflower puree makes her the Anti-Paula Deen; hooray. She's made a salad, with no cooked component, and won. She made deviled eggs and survived. This is worse than using scallops three weeks in a row (Jamie). This is not being a chef.

Hosea, on the other hand, continues to bring it. Paella's not the most amazing or impossible task, but it's smart in a one-pot Quickfire challenge: accomplishable, on-target, and kinda hard to fuck up. His choice to go with something smoked for 11 pipers piping is the only logical choice, and was done well in spite of the kitchen "accident."

Eugene, Melissa, Leah, Ariane, and Carla are non-issues now. Space filler. Side characters that will entertain us with their googly eyes, mouthfuls of Golden Grahams, and inexplicable attachment to sushi, but ultimately have no chance of winning. They've shown nothing (Remember that miracle curds and rice dish Eugene made? Anyone notice that in the grocery store, he eats a sample from the deli case and says he'll try to replicate it? Yeah. It was no accident, but the producers chose to portray it that way.), and will not amount to anything in the competition except a black hole of suck that might bring a good chef down with them.

Hosea, if he can stay on task, is becoming the front runner. Stefan's proving to be a little tone-deaf and definitely bull-headed. Jamie's got no killer instinct, and needs to start going with her gut if she's going to make something happen. Fabio needs to stop worrying about playing people and charming them, and start doing something that reflects hisownself. Jeff just needs to slow his brain down a little more. He's made a good go of it so far, but is still a step or two off. Radhika is the only real dark horse. She could blow people away, or she could turn into a powerhouse.

I too hope this season turns around based on this episode. But I don't think that's an improvement to be placed solely on the shoulders of the chefs. Maybe free agent acquisition and new guest judge Toby Young is the catalyst for such an improvement. If he's a one-liner machine, then maybe not. I'd still like to see Tony Bourdain come in on a more regular basis. I think he could make a difference in the future of American cuisine that Gordon Ramsey wants to make, and Tom Colicchio is close to making. But Bourdain's got to want to, and I'm not sure if there's anything he really wants to do that's still located in a kitchen.

Is there a correlation between the dearth of big-name international chefs in this season, and the apparent lack of culinary chops for most of the contestants? I don't think so. What would Daniel Boulud think of these folks? Eric Ripert? April Bloomfield? José Andrés? Probably not much.

So there you go. It was a non-traditional, very meta episode of Top Chef. It purports to be a turning point. I hope you don't mind that I made the recap reflective of that level of introspection. Hopefully, next week's episode will be better and next week's recap more timely.