Top Chef: "What's Cookin!," with Rocco and Kathie Lee!

And now let's head to the kitchen, where Hoda and Kathie Lee are hamming it up -- get it, ham? -- with those crazy kids from Top Chef! It's on Bravo, and we own that, too. Aren't we great? But first, this 4-year old boy got his face caught in a pasta roller. We'll have the harrowing 911 call, and his nanny live in-studio, right after the break.

The best thing I could say about this episode is that Kathie Lee and Hoda Kotb (WTF kind of name is "Kotb"? That's a defunct radio station in Evanston, WY. It's not a name) were blessedly spare on-camera. We didn't have to put up with Kathie Lee's mugging grimace (hello, Daniel) or her histrionic spit-take on a food whose worst quality was that it had a funny name.

Thankfully, we can put this episode behind us for hopefully never seeing the Today show clapper monkeys ever again on Top Chef. And it's too bad, because this wasn't a terrible episode. It was actually pretty entertaining.

After a teary reading of Richard's goodbye letter to roomie Alex, we go right into the action with Rocco DiSpirito's very recognizable and very tightly-stretched face. Thank god for Fabio, who I'm really starting to appreciate if not like. His tepid response to Rocco ("He's not real Italian, but...") was priceless and a very diplomatic expression of every snide jab Bourdain's ever taken at Rocco.

The Quickfire challenge puts our chefs to the task of making a one-bite breakfast. An amuse-bouche, if you will. Oh, for the days of Hung's Smurf village hallucination of a breakfast. This week's creations are all a little boring, especially since Rocco did us the disservice of mentioning that he looooooves bacon. Well, no shit, Sherlock. Who doesn't love bacon? Now the paradigm has been fucked, and everyone is either going to make something with bacon, or get screwed for not making something with bacon.

Stefan is confident like the Terminator is confident. Daniel's doing some crazy-ass thing with zucchini flowers that I just cannot make out from his pre-cooking description. Melissa tries to do a really precise egg and breaks about 19 yolks in the process.

So what a shock, Daniel's bacon-less cornflake-crusted zucchini flower gets low marks, as does Fabio's brioche with brûléed banana and espresso cream; it's a great dessert, but not a breakfast amuse-bouche (again, great response from Fabio: maybe I should have done some bacon and "some bullshit eggs on top"). Melissa, Prettyboy (who I'm really considering calling by his actual name), and Ariane all made bacon bites but didn't make it to the tops. There can be only three.

Stefan fights the system by making huevos rancheros served in the empty and cleaned eggshell. Two bites, but ingenious and tasty (plus, no bacon!). Leah, who complained that ugh, like no one else is really doing an amuse-bouche, gets props for her bacon/quail egg/cheese bite's great layering of flavor and (surprise) perfect portion size. For once, someone bitching about rule literalism is actually vindicated! And Jamie is a last-minute inclusion in the top three, but her well-executed BLT-ish thing is a two-biter. That gives the win to Leah, again.

Pay no attention to the resounding failure of the chef next to me

With her second straight Quickfire win, immunity, and the latest book from old Snare-Drum Face in her grasp, Leah runs headlong into a total bellyflop. Seriously, her performance in the Elimination challenge almost merits zero discussion. Indeed, it takes up very little of the rest of the show. Lucky for her she doesn't need to show up to remain safe.

Padma explains that marketing yourself is a big key to success for a modern chef. Rocco's highly visible face shows no shadow of self-doubt, no indication that he's thinking about his Italian grandmother's meatballs or his aggressive financier or his old restaurant and TV show in any way. Hm. Maybe marketing yourself well is the key, Padma. Just maybe.

Anyway, the chefs will need to create a dish that can be prepared in a two and a half minute segment on live TV. It's got to be simple enough, it's got to be tasty, and you've got to be able to sell it to the host and the viewers. Fabio immediately recognizes that dees will be tall order for heem. He really is winning me over, just a leetle.

Questionable decisions abound in the shopping segment. The chefs have 30 minutes and a scant C-note with which to shop. Questionable decision number one: the Whole Foods meat counter staff let the chefs get behind the counter and cut their own (Eugene's doing sushi again; watch out for yer pigeonhole, bud). Health inspectors and injury liability attorneys all experienced heart palpitations at that moment. Questionable decision number two: Alex decides to do a dessert. Two-B is that he decides to do a crème brûlée. And he's only got an hour to prep it. [Cue opera singer] MIS-TAAAAAAAKE!

Now, I'm not supporting Kathie Lee's hammy, "look at me find unusual things disgusting; doesn't that make me just like you?" spit-take routine, but Prettyboy's decision to choose a malfouf roll with muhammara sauce is just begging for some talking head to say "whoa, now that's a mouthful! Ah-ha-ha-ha." Daniel, meanwhile, is so sure of his ability to be smug, smarmy, annoying and barely educational that he's already comparing himself to Bobby Flay. Easy, big fella. You've got years of practice to get to be that obnoxious.

Dry runs of the 2.5 minute presentation begin right after prep, and the chefs have all the judges hovering around them. I guess that's one way to simulate the pressure. It's worth noting, I suppose, that the chefs don't know at this point that they're going to be on the Today show.

-Beefsteak tomato salad with watermelon and feta
-Almost no live TV wherewithal (at least during the dry run), but she finishes on time and the dish is tasty
-"Hit(s) it out of the park," says Padma

-Frisee salad with duck egg, caviar, and lardon
-Egg doesn't cook all the way, attitude bombs out as the clock runs out
-Just didn't have it; apparent anger/frustration bothers Rocco a lot

-Rose-infused crème brûlée
-Time runs out, and his brûlée hadn't even set to begin with; total failure
-Judges agree it was just a bad idea

Jeff (see, I did it!)
-Malfouf roll with shrimp and muhammara sauce
-He's got all the composure and charm you'd expect him to have in this situation
-Tom recognizes that he had a lot of balls in the air and still pulled it all off, and in time

-Seared ahi tuna with roasted carrots and asparagus
-It's uncomfortable to hear Padma and Tom mimic the blithe chatter of the morning host, but it's clear Fabio would be a great guest; food's good too
-He made everyone happy and amused; also made good food

-Ginger soy skirt steak and cabbage salad
-Throws off a LOT of smoke during the sear; out Emerils Emeril on the obnoxious catchprase scale
-Messy, smoky, charmed most of the judges, but not Tom. Good man, Tom!

-Minestrone soup
-He doesn't appear to speak very much; judges confirm later that personality did not live up to food; who's surprised?
-Tasty, technically sound, but cold and robotic (like, perhaps, a... TERMINATOR?)

-Crispy ahi tuna roll with crushed wasabi peas
-Didn't get to see much of his performance
-I'm not sure the judges said anything about him. Odd...

-Tuna sashimi and pea shoot salad
-Rocco asks the obvious "what's the difference between sushi and sashimi" question, and Eugene absolutely bombs the answer, like Jill-quality bomb
-Again, no judge commentary that I caught

-Blackend habanero shrimp
-Another real judge spit-take! Tom has to tap out from the pummelling hotness of Melissa's shrimp
-All judges agree it's way too hot. Like, WAY too hot

-Tortilla soup
-Runs out of time
-Her crazy nervous energy creeps Rocco out; THANK YOU ROCCO for being the one to say it on-camera

-Sweet shrimp and cucumber salad
-Runs out of time
-No commentary

-Duck breast with corn and blueberry hash
-Runs out of time, and the judges can tell that she's phoning it in
-Not only is she phoning it in, but they judges are sure that she just doesn't have what it takes to carry off something like this

Melissa, Jamie, and Alex comprise the bottom three; Jeff, Fabio, and Ariane (who is really bringing it) are the top three. Judges table will be in the morning, y'all can go to bed. Jamie cries herself to sleep, like she says she does every time she fails at something. Yeesh. Alex is bitchy and defensive, but is getting married in less than a month and ultimately unworried if people don't like his stuff. Melissa takes exception to that attitude, and is pissed that someone who doesn't want to be there might stay longer than her. Seriously, she looks like she's about to turn into the Hulk. Seething quietly.

At 2 AM, a black-clad stalker creeps into the apar--oh, it's just Colicchio. Oh, that sneaky Tom! He's here to tell the top three chefs that they'll be cooking in a mere hour or so, and the hosts of the dreadful fourth hour of the Today show will be sampling their dishes live, on-air, and will select the overall winner live, on-air. Since this was before the season actually began, the chefs will observe from the green room. The chefs left behind wake up to find a nice new TV and instructions to tune in.

Tom, hopefully crawling a little inside his skin, stands beside Hoda, Kathie Lee, Meredith Viera and some other chick who probably does the news, as they descend upon plates of the three best dishes. Watermelon makes Meredith sick (or so she says), so she abstains from the full experience. But they all like Ariane's dish, making "mmm" noises with full mouths. Fabio is clueless as the cross-talk chatter rises over the analysis of his dish. "I have no idea what's going on," he quietly remarks. It's official, I like him. Not love, but at least strongly like.

Now, it's early, so I forgive Jeff for pre-emptively bashing the "unsophisticated palates" of the ladies of Today. Especially since he was 100% right. They bite, they chew, they all go "Arroo?" like dogs listening to whistles. And then Kathie Lee sees her opening and gets all melodramatic. What a fucking tool.

During their kibbutz, the ladies discuss the finer points of which plate was prettier, and I heard a "doesn't seem too unusual" in there as a point of analysis. LAME. Guess there goes Jeff's chances of winning (and this is why I'm going to call him Jeff from now on, because he fucking brought it to those retards, won over the real judges, and completely nailed his prediction that it wouldn't go well with the four stooges). Pretty unsurprisingly, Ariane's tomato and watermelon salad is declared the winnner. It's cool for her, since she watches the show (clearly the only one of the top three who does). Carla goes apeshit back at the ranch. What was that about crazy nervous energy, Rocco?

At the semi-toothless Judges' Table, Fabio is gracious and kind. Ariane is humble and excited. She gets not only a bag full of Rocco's favorite tools (presumably all kitchen related, since it's clear he is his own favorite tool), but will appear on Today the morning after this episode airs (that would be this morning; anyone submit themselves to the horror?). Again, a good prize for the right person, all around.

The losers come out to stave off dismissal. Melissa claims she tasted her shrimp, but Rocco doesn't buy it. Jamie knows she got frazzled, and Tom reminds her that in a live situation like that, she could have just flipped the egg, but it's her frustrated recoil that sticks in Rocco's craw. Alex has no defense for his choice or his performance. He says something about how the whole point of this competition is to push yourself, and he didn't. Tom reminds him in classic Colicchio style that "the whole point of this competition is to win."

My first question is, what's up with those flood pants, Alex? My second question is, why say anything about dedication, Melissa? You don't have the chops to stand up there and elocute, so don't even bother. All you're doing is passive-aggressively calling out Alex, and Padma seizes on it to ask Alex why he should stay. Stumble, mumble, cliche, blah blah blah.

It's the pre-elimination commercial break, and that means weird Top Chef vignette time! At least this one's sort of funny, with porn music accompanying more Leah/Hosea snuggle time in the stew room. Carla comments on the sexual attraction between the two; I don't want to hear Carla talking about sexual anything.

Anyway, all three dishes were inedible by Rocco's estimation, but it's Alex that finally gets the boot. Wrong dish at the wrong time, and it never really worked out even going over time. Go forth and get married, young man. And Carla? I think she's a Top Chef stalker. She just wants to be part of everything. First to cheer, first to say "hi," first to stand up and hug Alex. If she cooks rabbit at any point in this season, I'm going to be very afraid.

Next week, Gail gets married (not to Alex), and the chefs have to cook for her boobies--I mean, her bridal shower.