Top Chef: You're only pretty(boy) once

It's a good call from Top Chef to film the semi-finals in New Orleans. It allows the show to massage its calendar to show Mardi Gras-themed events without having to force Christmas onto an AIDS awareness event, or Thanksgiving onto the Foo Fighters in late summer.

It also allows for a little more attention to be paid to New Orleans. Some folks might think that the whole post-Katrina thing is stretching thin, but the place still has a good way to go before it's back to business as usual. Getting economic attention is a very good thing; if you've seen Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode filmed in NOLA, you know that restaurants there are in dire need of patrons.

Our chefs come into town all schnazzed up from some time away from the cameras and basking in their newfound celebrity. Fabio's got a 'hawk and a very pink scarf (and not a masculine one from the looks of it), Carla straightened the crazy right outta her hair, Stefan got all doughy, and Hosea continuess to be the beanpole doofus he's been all season.

At Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, the chefs meet up with Padma, Tom, and the mighty fireplug that is Emeril Lagasse. He runs ten restaurants in New Orleans. Good thing he's not doing the show anymore; I think he needs the free time.

The Quickfire is an interesting one; the final four won't be doing anything because as it turns out they're not really the final four. Out come Jamie, Jeff, and Leah (as my girlfriend pointed out, someone told Leah how shitty she looked without makeup), who will be competing for a resurrection and potential spot in the finals. The winner will get a spot in this week's Elimination Challenge, but will have to win the Elimination to make it to the finals. Fabio's all peesed.

With one hour to create a dish highlighting the NOLA staple, crawfish, the dead chefs walking get to work. Surprise surprise, Leah's never worked with crawfish either. She ran a seafood station, right? What seafood has she worked with, exactly? Fish sticks? And now Stefan's saying that she's a good chef, too?

Leah immediately falls back on gumbo, which isn't really an "easy" thing to cook, but is an easy thing to conceptualize at least. By the time she serves it to Emeril, however, it's a crawfish soup. Jamie wants to steer clear of the gumbo cliché, and instead whips up a crawfish-topped corn cake with greens, a poached egg, and a tasso ham and andouille cream sauce. At least she and Leah are aware of the holy trinity, if only from watching Food Network.

The win will not go to either of these offerings, however. Jeff, who has finally seen the light about quieting his "creative monkeys," crafts a crawfish version of shrimp-n-grits, using andouille and beer, as well as some crispy okra (knowing that Tom doesn't like slimy okra). This is clearly not the Jeff we came to know, as the clarity and simplicity of the offering was a selling point for Emeril.

Jeff and his new book go back to the line-up with the other 4 chefs, and we get to say goodbye to Jamie and Leah. I could say goodbye to Leah all day. All five competing chefs head to Emeril's Delmonico for a lovely meal (lovely for all except Stefan and Hosea, who of course get into a passive-aggressive pissing match), and then the Hotel Monteleone for the night. The girlfriend chimes in again, telling Hosea (who she has come to loathe) to "stop chewing like a cow!" He must have picked it up from Ariane.

The Elimination Challenge comes early the following morning, as the chefs all arrive at a Mardi warehouse? Museum? There's a bunch of NOLA/Mardi Gras paraphernalia packed into this dark, cavernous space. Obviously, the challenge will be to find Emeril's coffin and drive a wooden spike through his heart.

But that's silly, of course. He can't be killed. No, the challenge will be to cater a masquerade ball. Each chef will create two dishes and one cocktail to serve 100, and one of the dishes has to feature Creole influence. Hosea immediately conflates Creole and cajun cooking, which should surprise no one.

They'll get to cook at Delmonico (and make use of all of Emeril's foodstuffs and hardware), and will serve at the ball. Two chefs will leave at the end of the competition, whether it's Jeff and one other or two chefs other than Jeff (should he win). The winner gets a new Toyota Venza. Did you know the Venza has a whole bunch of doggie-related option accessories? It's a pet package. Off-topic, but cool.

Delmonico really is an amazing place, if you ask Fabio. It's got "all kinds of tools--ovens, stove..." Oh Fabio, your minimal grasp of English is just so damned charming. The chefs all hop aboard those amazing ovens and stoves, and get to work. Except Stefan decides to take a smoke break, impressing exactly no one. Including Tom, who makes a visit to the kitchen for one of the relatively few times this season.

Tom learns that Fabio will be adapting Italian food with Creole flavors, having studied the palate of Creole cooking more than the dishes themselves. Hm, says Tom. Color him dubious. Carla is hand-shucking oysters, and Tom wonders if she knows that she could lightly steam 'em to open 'em up and make her life easier. I'm gonna say no. Hosea's working a roux for the gumbo, and Tom hopes he makes it dark enough. And Stefan, Tom notes, is way too confident. Cocky, even. Welcome aboard, Tom.

The chefs pack up, and Hosea nearly pulls a Marcel and leaves his fish out. With one hour to place and prep before service, Carla is still shucking oysters at the dinner site (the other chefs come to her looking for various forms of assistance, but she notes out loud that none of them are offering to help her shuck oysters--go get 'em, Carla!). The judges arrive, masked, and the part of Toby Young is being played by none other than Gail Simmons, THANK YOU JEEBUS. Tom looks like he wants to stuff his mask down a producer's throat.

Without further ado, the menu for this week's Elimination Challenge:

-Fried oyster with andouille and arugula
-Crawfish pots de crème
-Cucumber mojito

Jeff loses some points from me for not knowing how to pronounce "chipotle," but gets strong praise for his clean-flavored mojito. It's the judges' favorite drink of the night. His pot de crème is also imbued with great flavor, and the handmade sausage in his fried oyster dish is praiseworth (as compared to Stefan, at whom Jeff takes a thinly-veiled shot during Judges' Table). Jeff has definitely brought it to this challenge, and is already in the running to win.

-Duck and rabbit gumbo over grits
-Apple beignet with pecan brittle
-Black cherry/cranberry/cinnamon with rum

The same cannot be said for Stefan, who A) violates tradition by serving (admittedly tasty, if not quite dark enough) gumbo over (admittedly good) grits rather than rice, B) serves a merely okay beignet whose flavor gets washed out by a C) really terrible cocktail. Of course, Stefan is confident, and also thinks that Hosea's food sucks. I'm shocked--SHOCKED--that he'd say such a thing.

-Sausage and rabbit maque choux with grits
-Crawfish and crab stew with caserecci pasta
-Muffaletta bread
-"Trinitini" of macerated red pepper, lime juice, grapefruit, and dark rum

All those masks are making Fabio think of old pornos (he says something like "Beautiful Master," but I'm at work and don't really want to look it up). His food has a great aroma, but from the way-too-zweet cocktail on, the flavor doesn't deliver. The maque choux isn't spicy enough, nor was the sauce on the pasta dish. Handmade pasta earns points, but the flavors aren't deep enough. Things are not looking good for the Euros.

-Oyster stew with potato, bacon and scallions
-Shrimp and andouille beignet with a shameful BAM of Emeril seasoning
-Cranberry/lime/ginger spritzer, non-alcoholic

Carla's Creole experience is limited, but she's spent the last few challenges showing that minimal experience is less important than strong technique and clarity of concept. Emeril loves the beignet, as does pretty much everyone else. Tom actually chuckles, he likes the stew so much. That was a telling moment for me. I've never seen him taken aback by the superior quality of food before. The NA drink is due to her teetotalling ways, but the lack of booze doesn't seem to turn anyone off, Emeril included. She's serving the beignets as they come out, which means some folks have to wait. This gets praise from Emeril, too. The freshness and flavor are wowing all the judges. Carla has become the dominant chef in this competition, as unlikely as it seemed a month or two ago.

-Duck, andouille, chicken gumbo with a (blue?) cornbread muffin on top
-Pecan-crusted catfish with sweet potatoes and a bacon-Tabasco beurre blanc
-Pomegranate and Grand Marnier hurricane

The last couple challenges should have revealed to Hosea that he needs to be much more careful about blending strong traditional recipes with "Hosea-ocity," but he goes ahead and does it again with his dishes this week. This time, however, it appears to have worked in his favor. His gumbo over rice is restaurant-ready by Emeril's estimation, with a deep, cooked-through flavor coming from the dark roux. Tom was concerned for the apparent complicated nature of the catfish dish, but it arrived on the plate with simplicity and harmony. That's the sign that a chef is doing something right, as much as my TV-watching companion might hate to admit it. Hosea's slightly watered-down hurricane (which Emeril notes is the lingua franca of NOLA hurricanes, what with the tourist bar-crush in the French Quarter) has enough flavor to not ruin the success of the offerings.

(Accidental line of the night: Hosea's Tabasco beurre blanc has "the tang I'm looking for at the end of the night," according to Gail. Well, Gail! I declare! Your husband's going to be one happy man, or a lonely one.)

After dinner, the chefs get their beads the easy way, with no flashing. This is good, because no one wants to see Hosea's pigeon chest. Although come to think of it, he didn't appear to have any beads even without a flashing requirement. Everyone packs up and heads to Judges' Table.

My pre-judging thought was that Jeff didn't have enough to make it all the way. As I thought about it during judging, however, my mind changed. I don't think people would have been outraged if his dishes got him the win. Moreover, there were two chefs who produced a clearly lacking menu, and Jeff was not one of them. A Jeff win would have sent home the two poorer efforts of Fabio and Stefan, whose shitty attitude continues to bring him down.

Stefan doesn't do much to endear himself to the judges with his "I'm an established, older chef. If I win, I win; if I don't, oh well" mentality. The judges note that his food lacked soul. Carla, bless her heart, was worried about the amount of bay in the stew, with absolutely no basis in reality. Hosea's ability to transport fish that didn't end up too dry impresses Emeril. Fabio's flavors were shallow and lacked nuance and boldness.

Emeril gets to announce the winner of what turned out to be a really good competition, with successes and few outright failures and an outcome that was difficult to predict right up to the end. For strengths of balance, flavor, temperature, and creative simplicity, he pronounces Carla to be the winner, which unfortunately sends Jeff home. I'm of two minds on the gimmick judging, because while his return was clearly an exceptional situation, the quirk of needing to win to move forward allowed for what happened next.

That is, Stefan sticking around for another unimpressive showing. With Hosea obviously safe, Stefan's retention means Fabio, zweet Fabio, has to go home to the wife and grand-mama. It sucks, but the reason he lost is the reason for pretty much any and all stumbles he had throughout the season. Stefan on the other hand has lost the drive to win (if he ever had it), and instead is just fucking with everyone. With Carla turning into the prohibitive favorite, I don't see how Stefan can muster the discipline to surpass her in the grand finale.

I think the judges should have massaged this finale so Jeff could win and Stefan and Fabio could (rightfully) go home. But it's hard to argue for the same old one-week-only judging standard when Jeff's presence was an exception. So I guess I can live with it. Next week is the big tamale, where the chefs will have to make their best three-course meal for the judges. They'll have mystery helpers as usual, and Stefan and Hosea appear to finally get down to hair-pulling and eye-scratching in the kitchen. And why does Rocco of all people get finale duty?