Top Chef: Mmm...sacrilicious...



The playoff matchups are set. The championship is in sight for one of the four remaining chefs. We're one week closer to the end of Season 5 of Top Chef, which might be cause for anticipation, remorse, or (I'm guessing this covers a lot of us) relief.

Relief that maybe Season 6 will offer a little more competitive balance. Relief that we'll have a respite from Toby Young, if not an apology for his presence. Relief that OH MY GOD LEAH IS FINALLY FUCKING GONE AND SHE'S NEVER COMING BACK.

Ahem. (composure, composure...)

There was actually an episode in between the opening credits and the dumbest clapper-monkey to ever make it within a stone's throw of the finals; I'm going to have to restrain myself and my Schadenfreude and actually convey it to you.

As we saw in the promo last week, this week would feature some real all-star chefs (not just Camille and Miguel...you remember them, right?). Right off the bat, we get whiz kid Wiley Dufresne (it's French, Fabio. It's not doo-FREZ-nee, ya meatball) imparting another breakfasty Quickfire Challenge to the chefs. Cook me an egg!, he intones, And make it interesting!

"Interesting" coming from Wiley Doofreznee sends everyone scrambling for their tabletop chemistry sets. Continuing their season-long Euro mind meld, Stefan and Fabio both make a panna cotta with mango puree filling that looks like a poached egg when you cut into it. Hosea wants to make egg whites into a nori substitute and tempura-fry a whole egg. Leah...well, Leah does something with bacon. I am shocked--SHOCKED--at this.

Only Carla stays relatively simple. She thinks of green eggs and ham, busts out some spinach (crazy science!) to turn the eggs greenish, and uses jalepeño oil to dot the landscape green. She knows she's not big on molecular gastronomy, and does what she knows (and does it calmly, as opposed to Fabio who is "running like Flesh"--that's "Flash" for the rest of us). She and Stefan get top honors from Wiley, and in the continuing drama of Carla-as-dark horse, she takes the win.

Out comes the knife block, and the chefs begin drawing knives, and names. Each knife represents a pillar of the culinary community: Fabio draws Lydia Bastianich (Italian specialty, which makes Fabio verr verr happy). Hosea gets Susan Ungaro. Stefan chooses Marcus Samuelsson, who is the improbable combination of Egyptian ancestry and Swedish nationality. Leah gets the laziest of all draws (natch): Wiley Doofreznee. Carla, with the last draw, picks Jacques Pepin (yes, anonymous commenter from last week, it's the old guy I didn't recognize last week). As QF winner, she can swap chefs with anyone, but decides to stick with what she's got.

The assignment is simple, if extremely morbid. Each of these chefs has chosen the meal they'd like to have as their last meal. The TC chefs will have to create that dish for the chef they each drew out of the block. Lydia: roasted chicken and potatoes. Jacques: squab and peas. Susan: shrimp scampi. Wiley: eggs Benedict. Marcus: salmon and spinach.

There's a nice, and telling, vignette this week wherein the remaining chefs all dine at Season 1 winner Harold's restaurant, Perilla. All the chefs, Leah in particular, talk up the difficulty of this season. Microwaves! The horror! Harold clearly is holding back his disdain for this crew, and it figures that Stefan would think that there's a big difference from Season 1 to Season 5. Yes, Stefan, there is. In Seasons 1 through 4, you wouldn't be running away with the competition.

Carla's definitely winning fans from week to week, as she is clearly having the most pure fun in the process. It's not really that far from what I said a few weeks back, when it looked like she just wanted to be a part of Top Chef. I still think that's true, but she really has shown that she wants to win Top Chef. But the way she cracked herself up with the "two peas in a pod" line really is infectious and appealing.

Hosea and Stefan continue their confessional sniping. It's unclear why Hosea thinks he's Stefan's #1 competitor, or why he thinks each week will bring ultimate victory for him, but he's running with it. Stefan just makes another comment about Hosea's balls. And Leah. Leah stands in Whole Foods and--I'm not making this up--asks "Where are eggs, and butter?"

In the kitchen, Carla continues her "less is more" philosophy. Chefs be workin', and then FABIO BREAKS HIS DAMNED FINGER. Like, for real. I don't know how it happened, and people watching and posting on Twitter who have worked in professional kitchens don't really know how it could have happened, but boy, did it happen. Fabio, to his credit (and to the glee of his ever-growing fan base), says he'd rather chop it off (a la another footballer, Ronnie Lott), sear the wound on the flattop, and deal with 9 fingers tomorrow. You fuckin' tell 'em, Fabio!

Of course, this kind of bravado brings about certain complications, like being unable to peel all those potatoes and cipollinis you're working with. "I got so many keek in my ass," he moans. I am so using this line from now on. He struggles onward, and as Tom comes in just to tell the chefs to not be an embarrassment, the serving begins.

As does the HOLY SACRILEGE, BATMAN. No, this challenge isn't just a "last meal" challenge--it's a "Last Supper" challenge, replete with long table, single-side seating, and an oddly soft focus from the cameras.

Leah serves first. Her slow-poached egg over challah and a lightly-dressed salad on the side don't blow anyone away. The egg is undercooked, and the hollandaise is too thin: both are signs of playing it too safely. Sage analysis: "don't bother me with salad on my last day."

Stefan's salmon and spinach dish goes next. He's in his wheelhouse in terms of flavors and ingredients. He tries to prepare his spinach two ways to cover his bases (Carla's incredulous at this decision); turns out his two ways are pretty indistinguishable. Worse, his salmon is vastly overcooked, and his potatoes don't have enough crispiness. The seasoning is on, the preparation is definitively off.

Hosea continues to provide good napping opportunities with his shrimp scampi presentation. It's unimpressive, kind of boring, kind of okay. The shrimp have probably been over-creamed (no jokes please), and under-garlicked. He knew he was walking a line between traditional and "signature Hosea" (whatever that is), but the judges don't much care for his blending of approaches. The shrimp are, at least, pretty well-cooked.

Fabio's difficulties in chopping up his whole roasted chicken behind him, his meal comes next. Finally, a dish that everyone really likes. Mister Doofreznee-if-you-please feels that this is this is the first dish wherein the chef really channeled the requested dish. It's simple, it's tasty, it could go straight to a restaurant menu. Except not his salad, which Wiley compares to airline food. Ouch.

Carla closes the meal with her squab and hand-shelled peas. Susan Ungaro has been made a convert to squab with Carla's effort. There's a clear generational difference between the older chefs (who like squab more cooked-through) and the younger (who prefer it to be more rare than Carla served hers), but everyone agrees that it was well-presented and possessed of a clarity of purpose (she's got something working with that simplicity and "less-is-more". Jacques loves his peas, and everyone backs him up.

The divisions between top and bottom are obvious, and Padma comes to the stew room to call everyone out. As is always the case, there were flaws with each dish. Carla's peas and Fabio's chicken, however, are distinctly at the top of the mountain. The airline critique doesn't sit well with Fabio, though; he's not finding the humor. Poor guy--he does have a broken finger, y'know.

After the first round of commentary, I am sure that Stefan is going home. His flaws were more glaring than even Leah's. But then it strikes me that, in old-school Iron Chef fashion, we haven't heard the full commentary on each aspect of Stefan's dish. We don't know if the salmon at least tasted good. I still think he could have gone home, but I wasn't sure of it anymore.

The judges debate whether or not to take Fabio's finger into account in the judging. We don't know what their decision was, due to some fancy cuts from the editors, but either way, they liked Fabio's dish the best. For a rough couple hours working with the food he most enjoyed, Fabio takes home the last win of the regular season and secures a spot in the (semi!) finals in New Orleans. Carla, in what might be the most surprising season-long advance in Top Chef history, comfortably arrives at second place and a spot in the semi-finals as well.

There's not much more to say about Leah getting axed than has already been said, by me and anyone else throughout the last few weeks. She's awful, both personally (from everything we've seen, anyway) and professionally. Carla's been pretty on-key lately, but her comment about Leah beig a talented chef is just plain out of left field. I don't see it. Her bacon was greasy (as have a lot of her other dishes), and really--not knowing where the eggs and butter are? Not deboning a salmon fillet before slicing it? No chops. None. Sayonara.

Sage analysis from me here: everyone's gunning for Stefan. Hosea's got a hard-on for taking him down, and now we see that Fabio wants to bring Stefan down a notch as well. Only Carla has nothing to say in the trash talk department. She's got the right kind of focus through the last couple episodes, and now the competition moves to NOLA and superstar catchphrase generator Emeril Lagasse. She's square in her wheelhouse, and I see her making a serious run at winning out.

The finals start next week! Stay tuned for Fabio's new mohawk, and maybe some cooking as well.

image credits Deadspin and John Reardon (from the blog linked above), respectively.