Top Chef: Brit needles peers

As the sun rises on a new year, and new episodes of Top Chef, the harsh light of day reveals that man, some of these chefs just don't belong here. And it becomes even harder, upon watching reruns, that chefs already dismissed really sucked.

It's a small class of decent chef this season, and I usually don't make that kind of critique because they're all still usually better than me. Danny? Jill? Wow. The suck, it hurts.

So pair that harsh light of day with a traditional Italian breakfast of SPAM and pork'n'beans from Fabio, and you've got a rough-ass start to your day if you're some of those Chefs of Weak Sauce. The demeanors of the chefs in the opening segment are pretty indicative of their overall personality. Eugene: surly. Melissa: bewildered. Hosea: ROCKIN'! Stefan: arrogant. Jamie: mopey.

The Quickfire this week was so perfunctory and lame that I'm not going to spend much time on it. Guest judge Jean-Christophe Novelli (who actually is a pastry chef!) will have a new show on Bravo, thus the appearance. Diet Dr. Pepper is a new sponsor this year, thus both the name and jist of the challenge. Create a tasty dessert with absolutely zero added sugar.

French Guy (as he will now be known, seeing as his personality is pretty anonymous) is frankly a harsher judge in the QF than one Toby Young will turn out to be. Ariane's whipped cream is an embarrassment, Fabio (who pins the criticism on the rivalry between France and Italy) didn't cook his cream enough, Jamie's was "interesting," but not in a good way.

Carla's bananas are bland, Ariane's crepes lack a twist, and Jamie's cheese overpowers everything else. Leah's balsamic reduction over her crepes is a great touch, and Jeff's cherry and fig yogurt with cardamom and cinnamon is very good, but Radhika's white peach and roasted cashew bread pudding takes the win, and another dosage of immunity for the non-Indian Indian chef.

A British is coming!

Most of the chefs know who Toby Young is. Fabio and Stefan, naturally, appear to have the most understanding, as Fabio calls him "really bad-ass." Eugene (who gets to use the SIDEKICK LX to call home this week, cue ominous music) has no clue; will it be blissful ignorance, or like stepping into a bear trap? The new challenge will honor his arrival and allow him to get to know all of the chefs. They don't get to know the challenge until Tom pops into the apartment the next morning.

I really like the way this week's service and judging was organized. Tom tells the chefs that the judging will be blind, and that the food will be served family-style with no indication as to who made what dish. It's a reboot of reputation and amnesty of sorts for prior bad acts, at least as far as Toby's concerned. The judges, plus a panel of foodies and critics, will be the diners; service will be divided into two groups (Radhika will get to pick which group she cooks with). Oh yeah, and two chefs will be dismissed. Christmas spirit is for Christmas, bitches.

It becomes very clear that the $100 and 30 minutes allowed for this do-whatcha-like challenge will be used by almost everyone to find the most boring-ass seafood imaginable. Two chefs -- TWO CHEFS -- use a protein other than seafood; surprise surprise, it's Fabio and Stefan. It's amazing to me that there's that much of a fundamental difference in the confidence levels of young (or old, Ariane) American chefs and European ones. But it's clear that many of the Yanks just don't have enough bravado to take such an open-ended challenge at a full gallop. The few exceptions are remarkable.

Everyone heads off to the Astor Center after shopping. The first service group heads to the kitchen. Moments later, the second group arrives in streets and walks surprisedly into the dining room. Turns out that group of foodie critics will be the other half of the contestants. Very cool! And since it's blind, they won't have their usual likes/dislikes to fall back on in judging the dishes.

(The line of the night is "for Christ sake," as we get to see Fabio use it twice. Once, regarding Jamie's scallop fascination, and again in the vignette wherein we see him struggling mightily with his pasta roller.)

Group A (Hosea, Jamie, Fabio, Eugene, Melissa, and Radhika, who only wanted to be on whatever team Stefan wasn't) comes out on the heels of the servers, and meets the full panel. Their mostly meaningless presence at the table is explained by the TV that appears in the kitchen when they return; they'll get to watch the dinner on secret hidden camera. Again, very cool.

-Spicy crab bisque with crab salad
-Stefan hates it (it's been clear for weeks that these two just don't like each other), but the purity of his judgment is defended by every other diner at the table who also hates it. Toby drops the WMD line we've been seeing in the promos. Not that funny.

-Bacon-wrapped halibut with roasted vegetables
-Clear consensus is that the veggies upstage the fish, and too much was forced into this dish.

-Scallops with fennel and garlic cream
-She wants to redeem her scallops from last week. Doesn't make as much sense when everything's blind, but whatever. Everyone likes 'em, especially French Guy. The fennel is appreciated by the diners.

-Lamb sous vide with mushrooms and ravioli
-Again, we have another chef in the kitchen freaking out at rare lamb. That's how good lamb is supposed to be served, you fucking morons! How is this such a big deal?? Argh! Anyway, this time it might be a little off, but I can't really trust the other chefs on this, since they're the ones displaying this apparent ignorance about lamb. The mushrooms and pasta are delightful, however.

-Seared whole red snapper with daikon "fettuccine" and tomato basil sauce
-Impressive presentation of the whole fish, face and all, doesn't make up for a bizarre dish. How these ingredients can tally up to Toby's "bland leading the bland" is beyond me, but I don't question it. Eugene's a total impostor here. He's a visual artist, not a chef. He thinks he's "top dog" in terms of creativity and originality. Great! Now cook something good.

-Ahi tuna tacos
-No, that's not a typo. That's what she did. Wet, very fishy, and completely boring. Toby thinks they taste like cat food. That was a really cutting critique...when Tony Bourdain used it on Sara's salmon in the airplane food episode from two years ago. But he does peg that she lacks any confidence in her chops. Toby's final comment is that "You could smell it in a way that wasn't pleasant."

Now that Group A has served, Group B heads back to the kitchen. Each group gets something of an advantage, in that Group B knows what Group A (generally) has cooked before they make their own, and Group A knows what each chef said about their own dishes.

-Duck breast with dumplings and cabbage
-Hello, Germany! The dumplings are dense, but when aren't they? Duck's good, cabbage has a boatload of flavor. Fabio likes it, as does Tom.

-Tapas trio of oyster, prosciutto-wrapped ricotta salata, and tuna with avocado sorbet
-Interesting. All this blank canvas, and this is how you represent yourself? Typical Miami. The approach infuriates Tom, but Toby loves it all kinds of ways. French Guy loves the sorbet (he would).

-Skate wing with cauliflower puree, pineapple, and crispy capers
-Who bought Ariane cooking lessons for Christmas? I hear "skate wing" and "crispy capers" and I'm immediately impressed. She looked downright competent in the kitchen, too. French Guy loves loves LOVES it. This is a seafood choice that isn't born of meekness.

-Crusted rouget with beans and chorizo
-Leah chose to do a dish she'd never done before. Smart, kiddo! ::eyeroll:: You can call it rouget, or you can call it mullet. It's still white fish and it's still boring. Toby liked it, others didn't. ZZZ.

-Scallops with pea risotto and a mint gremolata
-When people are picking raw garlic out of their mouths, you've gone too far. And by "people," I mean "everyone." Carla had wanted to do a vegetarian dish (why?), but felt that a lack of protein would be a demerit. So she (randomly?) picked scallops. Hosea was fine with the scallops, but no one else liked anything else about her dish, including the somewhat odd use of risotto as more of a garnish than a centerpiece.

The judges liked the second group more, but everyone agrees that this has been a very informative and useful session of unconventional Top Chef dining. Jamie's feeling good (rightfully), Melissa's worried (rightfully), but I'm concerned about Jeff. Padma comes out to retrieve the chefs behind the skate, the duck, and the scallops with fennel. Clearly, this is the winning group.

Toby appreciates the unapologetically German duck and dumpling combo. The duck was cooked perfectly. Ariane's skate wing impressed everyone. Tom makes a comment about how she cooked things, and it's clear she's not going to win due to Tom's opinion of her previous work (tomato salad, deviled eggs). So much for blind judging.

No, this night would be won by Jamie's scallops redux. The combination of fennel, orange, and the caramelization of the seared scallops makes everyone happy, and they award her the win for this week. At long last, she gets one. Stefan manages to sneak in a cheek kiss, the dog.

Leah gets to send out the non-Radhika group (since she'd obviously be going home had she not won immunity) of Carla, Eugene, and Melissa. Ouch! Whom to dismiss, whom to dismiss.

Clearly, Carla's "guess I'll add scallops" plan betrays how disjointed and random her dishes can be. That much garlic, too raw, is also an obvious flaw. Melissa's trying to be positive about the "I really want to be here" thing, and how educational this was. But her lesson learned is that she should have done something entirely different. Oof. Lastly, Eugene. The little poseur thought he was overreaching, while the judges call him out for under-producing. He stands behind his cooked daikon/tomato/basil combo, in what is clearly a terminal case of Danny-itis.

The final summaries don't look good for Melissa and Carla. Toby stands up for the potential displayed by Eugene (which would be the coup of the century in this blind tasting thing). But in the end, Melissa and Eugene are shown the door. It was the right pick for right now. Carla can go next week.

Speaking of next week, we all get Hung! And...a petting zoo? Stay tuned!