Top Chef: E-I-E-I-FAIL

What did I say two episodes ago, after the Top Chef Christmas Miracle?

Dishes based on the verses of the 12 Days of Christmas is topical, interesting, and potentially challenging. But it goes beyond being challenging when you only let the chefs shop at Whole Foods.

Well, lookit that, this week the chefs get to shop at the actual farm where the foods are grown and raised!

And wouldn't you know it, damn near all the chefs go right ahead and prove it's a moot point if you fucking suck. All the ominous hints at the juggernaut that is the faux-platonic -- what portmanteau of Hosea and Leah can we use? I'm going with HoseL (pronounced 'HOH-zul'), because Leah barely matters enough to merit one letter, much less two or more -- anyway, all the "oh god, they're going to shut me out and I'm a lonely cougar with no recourse!" doesn't distract from the fact that these chefs bring some serious suck to the table.

All the more appropriate, then, that the Quickfire Challenge features a table full of -- you guessed it -- suck! This time, it's in the form of mundane pantry ingredients like canned vegetables and SPAM. Oh, the horror. I've warmed to Jeff, but could he be more obnoxiously classist and despondent over having to deign to work with canned conch? Show of hands if you've ever thrown some conch in your Kraft mac and cheese during a desperate poor streak in college. No one? Hm.

Season 3 winner Hung Huynh, whose last name might as well not exist since no one but Padma wants to say it, is brought in solely to leer at the chefs and provide the inspiration for the speed portion of the Quickfire: 15 minutes only. Couldn't they have made the chefs create a cartoon village out of the ingredients? That would have been cool.

Not much to report on the Quickfire. Hosea goes for pea soup with SPAM, and decides against his better judgment -- like a screen siren running upstairs to escape a killer -- to give Stefan his extra can. Hosea had gotten stiffed out of some artichokes by Fabio (or, Stefan's "boyfriend, Fabio," according to Hosea; zing!), and wants to stiff back but for whatever reason doesn't. Stefan procedes to win the Quickfire. D'oh!

One thing to note about the Quickfire are two of the three chefs who did the least with their ingredients. Even though Jamie was called out by Hung for being lazy, I thought that Radhika and Ariane were the most timid in designing a quick-n-dirty dish. Respectively, tahini bean dip with grilled bread and open-faced turkey SPAM sandwich with cranberry chutney (Yes, that's right, Radhika did not do the chutney. She doesn't want to be pigeonholed!). ZZZZZZ. Bear that in mind.

For the Elimination Challenge, Padma declares that the chefs will be going back to basics. They draw knives, which reveal the teams of Pig, Chicken, and Lamb. The challenge will consist of designing a seasonal lunch (with dessert) around your named protein, family style for 16 diners.

The teams seem too made-for-TV to be random, with Ariane sandwiched between the HoseL on Team Lamb, and Jamie getting paired with Stefan and that wacky Carla to make up Team Chicken. Team Pig is also known as Team Attrition, although I do find it funny that they need to eliminate Indian as a style of cuisine from the get-go. Why is that, Team Attrition? You have nothing to worry about from Radhika; she's showing that she's not just an Indian food chef!

Kvetch un vey, kvetch un vey, as Jamie and Carla are snowed under by Stefan's massive Nordic ego. They want to lighten the menu up, and Stefan's not having it. He and Jamie have a little tiff, and then it's basically sound and fury. Hosea, meanwhile, is concerned about the seasonality of their menu, and the team decides to roast the baby lamb rather than braise it. Hm, okay. Dunno why they'd shoot down grilling. OH YEAH, IT'S BECAUSE NO ONE ON THIS GODDAMN SEASON KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT LAMB.

The chefs all get up bright and early, hop in their SEQUOIAS, and head to somewhere that isn't Whole Foods. Turns out it's the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, where they are met by Dan Barber, head chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Jamie appears to know what's what with this place ("a different kind of 'whole food,' as Barber hammily calls it). The diners for this meal will be the farmers and employees as well as some freeloading family members.

The chefs break up into teams, get an escort from the staff to lead them around, and start "shopping." Jeff seizes on the green tomatoes on the ground, and his Southerner genes kick in as he plans out fried green tomatoes with a red tomato jam. That's good thinkin', but unfortunately that's about it. Team Pig ditches their planned cherry tomato sauce (as there were apparently no cherry tomatoes on the farm) and goes with pesto instead. Sure, that's a one-to-one exchange.

At least the chefs didn't have to break down the primals this time, like last year's contestants did. Lord only knows how much of a trainwreck that would have been. Leah, huffy about not getting a good task from de facto Team Leader Boyfriend, decides to do a shitty job tying up Ariane's lamb (also because Ariane doesn't know how to tie them herself). Ariane did get to butcher the cuts herself, and I mean that literally and figuratively.

The mid-break vignette, by the way, featured Stefan's throbbing sense of self, talking about being the only dude amidst his team members, their Stone Barns staff escort, and the hens. "I'm the only cock in the stall!" (beat, then in a smaller voice) "...cock!" Congratulations, Stefan. You've frittered away all good will from your impressive start in this season. You're now a preening schmo. (hat tip, Tony Kornheiser)

Moment of the night: only Fabio could rhyme "peel" and "grill."

The Colicchio stops in for a visit, and chooses to chat with Ariane, Carla, and Jeff. Interesting choices, but I guess he can't talk to the heavy hitters every week. I'm betting he feels like he's visiting the weak links on each team. Tom's first concern is that the teams doing pig and lamb are being meticulous about taking their meat off the bone. Bad call if you're going for a farm-to-plate style meal. He doesn't like Team Chicken's choice of soup on a hot summer day. Lastly, he knows that a shitty crème brûlée sent one chef home already; Team Pig better beware.

Team Lamb comes out with a duo of lamb, both seared and roasted (like a roulade); rosemary-garlic roasted potatoes; and an heirloom tomato salad. The lamb, which Ariane was happy with, is of course overcooked, poorly butchered, and sliced with the grain which causes the juice to bleed out more quickly (also makes it harder to chew). The whole menu is viewed as somewhat out of season (hey look, Hosea, you were right!), and Toby describes it as "lamb dressed as mutton," as opposed to the other way around.

Team Pig's meal consists of a sausage ravioli with zucchini, eggplant, and pesto; fried green tomatoes with tomato jam; and a seared pork loin with a grilled corn salad and fried pork belly. It is truly depressing that so little could be accomplished with this much pig. The pesto runs roughshod over the delicate sausage. The only star of the meal is Jeff's green tomatoes, crispy and tasty.

Team Chicken's contentious creative process results in chicken paillard with mizuna, corn, onions and tomato; lemon-herb roasted chicken with tomato salad and a balsamic sauce; and chicken ravioli soup with swiss chard. The diners share Tom's befuddlement about hot soup on an 85-degree day, but at least it tastes good. The paillard goes over well, and the chard is appreciated although the stems are missed.

For the desserts, Team Chicken offers a nectarine strawberry tartlet with thyme. Team Pork runs with a straightforward vanilla lavender crème brûlée. Team Lamb whips up a berry trifle (a summer berry trifle, so you know it's seasonal) with Grand Marnier pound cake and vanilla creme. Clearly, Carla's desserts are some of the best this show's ever seen, and the oversweet crème brûlée and poorly done trifle are no match for her crust, nor for her crafty use of thyme.

The winning team portion of Judges' Table must have been right before a new Burn Notice or something, because it was capital-letter RUSHED. Team Chicken is called out en masse, and not only are they the best-received team, but also the winners. All three of 'em. Now get out, we've got to see if Michael and Fi hook up this week. (Now Stefan can say he's been in a threeway with Jamie. Will he? You bet.)

The remaining chefs are similarly herded before the judges. Jeff takes heat for overtrimming the fat off the pig (pfft, Miami), Fabio for his overbearing pesto, and Radhika for apparently doing Sudoku for three hours while the other two chefs actually cooked.

Team Lamb gets some similar critique, as the butchery is seen as too intrusive there as well. Ariane defends the choice to roast by saying that they worred about the lamb not being tender enough if they had braised it.

Okay, two things. 1) Do you even know what braising is? And 2) can someone on this show learn one fucking thing about lamb? Lamb is tender! You've got to TRY to make it tough. Like, y'know, cutting with the grain or doing a piss-poor tie job. Jesus!

Anyway, Leah snorts at the implication that her tying was either subpar or the cause for a poor piece of lamb. She's happy to throw Ariane under the bus, despite also being told that she didn't do much else besides tie a crappy knot. Hosea doesn't do himself any favors by admitting that he's got a lot of lamb butchery and prep experience, and yet didn't lend much of a hand in the kitchen. He did the beans and potatoes, though! That's something!

The judging, as the chefs note back in the stew room, was really tough this week. Which is good, because there were some serious disappointments at Stone Barns. Toby calls the pork "bloodless and anemic"; if I were Toby, I'd be careful using those words after looking like I did out in that hot American sun. Hello, translucence! Not to be outdone by, well, himself, Toby also announces that when he eats pork, he wants to have full-blown unprotected sex with it. Um, yum?

But the lamb was so bad that it almost excuses the pork in the eyes of some of the judges. Tom's pissed at the disservice done to the lamb by Ariane's ham-handed prep skills (And what was with the "honor the protein" poll? Not only was it a dorky question, but how could 60-some percent pick Team Lamb?). The judges all pick up on Leah's willingness to pass the buck. In the stew room, The HoseL whispers to itself, while Ariane looks on in disgust.

Padma almost feels sorry for Ariane, who just went out there and did what she could. Toby says, "I feel sorry for her too, because she can't cook!" Padma is clearly put out by this remark, and tries to bring up Ariane's past good deeds, but Toby's having none of it. Aren't we supposed to be judging on this week, and this week only? That right there will be Toby Young's greatest contribution to this show, no matter what else he does: the crystallization of the judges' inconsistency in applying judging standards.

And that incisive remark is the final cut of the Sword of Damocles that has been swinging over Ariane this entire season. You made a hell of a Thanksgiving turkey, and your skate wing impressed me, but Ariane: you just don't have the chops to be here. You're not alone, but you've got to go. Turns out it was Jeff's tomatoes that saved all of Team Pork from elimination consideration.

Ariane takes some shots at Leah the Hack and Hosea the Wimp, but the curtain is drawn back on you, babe. You're a slighted but ultimately slight chef.

Next week: In case you missed the thirteen promotions for it during last night's show, it's Restaurant Wars! And Leah gets all moist on Hosea. Should be just like a high school lock-in!