Top Chef: Masters - "You people have cheeseburgers?"



Sorry. That's just how I'm used to anything LOST-related starting.

We're back in Los Angeles, where another round of generally drama-free high-caliber cooking will take place. The players?

Chef No. 1: Graham Elliot Bowles, Chicago. Graham Elliot Restaurant. His charity will be the American Heart Association. Let's withhold the obvious weight jokes; he's got a nephew on the transplant list. Graham's the youngest competitor, a little punk rock (by his own estimation, which MC Lars would probably tell you is decidedly not punk rock). Neither is naming your restaurant after yourself at 20-something.

Chef No. 2: Suzanne Tracht, Los Angeles. Jar. Her charity will be SOVA, a Jewish food pantry in LA. In his commentary, Jay Rayner describes her as a quintessentially "West Coast chef." This means she looks down on everyone else. No! I'm kidding. It means farmers' markets and fresh herbs and simple recipes, silly. She's a quiet one.

Chef No. 3: Wylie Dufresne, New York. WD-50. His charity, touching once again on members of the chef's extended family, will be Autism Speaks. Everyone knows Wylie. Most people love him. Long, dweeby hair. Molecular gastronomy guy--although he resists that appellation. Good buds with Graham Elliot Bowles, he's a frequent guest judge on Top Chef. Graham does not want to lose to him.

Chef No. 4: Elizabeth Falkner, San Francisco. Citizen Cake and Orson. Her charity will be Edible Schoolyard. A pastry chef! After the dessert Quickfire. Typical. Clearly, she has something for Orson Welles. He may have died in California, but he was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin; he was ours first! She's also appeared on Top Chef in the past, and lost to Iron Chef Cat Cora in Battle Lesbian...okay, Honey. In fact, she was Cora's sous chef for a number of battles.

The chefs get their shocks and smiles in -- I definitely like that they don't know their competitors until the see 'em -- and then Kelly Choi announces the Quickfire. Hailing from Season 2, the chefs will take part in the vending machine amuse bouche challenge.

Graham's thrilled, Suzanne not so much. The winner back in S2 was some friggin' nutraloaf-looking concoction (The picture to the right is of actual nutraloaf). The guest judges won't be children again, they'll just act like them: Betty, Michael, and Ilan--competing chefs and the winner of Top Chef Season 2. Wylie is now concerned; he's afraid of running into former targets of his criticism in dark alleys apparently.

The chefs take their rolls of quarters to the almost completely brand name-free vending machines outside the TC:M Kitchen. I say almost, because wouldn'tcha know it, three of the four chefs choose to utilize show sponsor Dr. Pepper. This challenge not brought to you by Dr. Pepper, but it might as well have been.

Wylie, dork that he kinda is, is fascinated by bags of chips. Suzanne is unfamiliar, but knows the names (which we can't see, but she can say) from her kids: Doritos, Cheetos, etc. California fresh herbs, indeed. Graham grabs some lunch, then does his shopping. Remember, no heart jokes. They head back for their 30 minutes of cook time.

Graham makes a tuna salad with lime juice, pickled shallots, and a reduced orange soda with lemongrass and ginger. Wylie turns his ham and cheese into a grilled cheese with crispy ham (the wackiness!) with a Dr. Pepper (AHEM) reduction and sauteed peanuts tossed in beer powder to make "beer nuts," more or less. Somewhat disdainfully, Suzanne plates fried shallot rings in Frito "flour," and a reduced Dr. Pepper (AHEM) aioli. Liz braises some beef jerky in Dr. Pepper (AHEM) and pairs it with orange juice-lemon-horseradish ice cream.

Wylie's running all over the place, showing good energy but terrible focus. As the clock runs out, he's swearing up a storm. He's plated a pretty dish, and Mikey likes it, but the sauce is overreduced and solidifies on the plate. Suzanne's amuse pleases everyone's bouche, while Elizabeth's wacky ice cream is freaking Betty out. Graham seems like the winner, with his "tuna salad that came from an Ivy League school" (Betty) dusted lightly with beef jerky miso powder. But in the final tally, Suzanne garners five stars to Graham's 4.5, with Elizabeth (3.5) and Wylie (3) rounding out the foursome.

Kelly shoos the chefs out of the kitchen so they can bring in some "very special ingredients"; when they return, there's a table full of sea urchin, boar, plantains, papaya, and other staples of the tropical cornucopia. Get ready, chefs, 'cause for the Elimination Challenge, you'll be cooking for the creators and writers of LOST. Dayum! My two favorite shows -- products of competing networks, I might add -- under one roof.

Suzanne's a fan (I take back everything I ever said about her), but Wylie's never seen it. Wylie, your nerd card is suspended for 60 days. Do not operate a protractor until such time as you receive notice of the reinstatement of your nerd card. Since there's no pantry on LOST -- well, actually, there is, but only in Season 2, unless you count the beach pantry Rose buil--heh...um, sorry. Since there's no pantry on LOST, the chefs will have to make do with $200 to shop off of the DHARMA-approved list of shelf-stable items to go along with the verdant bounty of one smoke-monster inhabited, electromagnetic anomaly-housing, frozen donkey wheel-turning tropical island.

At Whole Foods, it's being made abundantly clear that Suzanne prefers to cook with fresh herbs. Wylie and Graham are running around chattering like frat boys; Suzanne calls them "Mutt and Jeff." If a reference to a century-old comic strip isn't relevant enough for you, think Pinky and the Brain. Or Harold and Kumar. Graham hi-fives the cashier as he leaves. Okay, he's kinda cool. But so not punk rock.
He paid too much for those glasses to be punk rock.

Bravo then proceeds to blaze the menus past us so quickly that there's no way I'll get them typed out the first time through, not even allowing for mis-typing "risotto" as "risoot." Things that are clear during prep: Suzanne's very gender conscious in the kitchen. Wylie appears to have almost no plan, nor a head on his shoulders. But he can talk your friggin' ear off on immersion circulators, which might have absorbed the time Elizabeth ended up needing to apply a little more sauce to her plates. Wylie's total spaz-out is worrisome for people (like yours truly) who were of the opinion that the superstar in each round would have a distinct advantage.

The diners are introduced, and there's Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (aka Darlton), and The Writers (no individual credit given, c'est la guerre). I'm absolutely disappointed that no actors were involved in this, but it's for the best: Damon jokes that the quality of LOST has nosedived since Top Chef started airing and distracting all the writers, and Season 5 of LOST was still filming in Hawaii at the time this episode of Top Chef: Masters was shot.

The servers, wearing DHARMA jumpsuits, bring out the food.

Elizabeth's boar loin with ancho garlic rub, coffee-rubbed sous vide boar tenderloin, papaya yam pudding.

-Carlton doesn't appear to know that people actually do eat boar, but despite indicating that he doesn't think it would normally taste good, he likes it.
-The pudding is not going over well. Baby food-esque and confusing.
-Jay points out that the dish is dry and could use some sauce. Elizabeth is somewhere strangling Wylie with the cord to his immersion circulator.

Graham's tuna trio of maki roll with dehydrated pineapple, niçoise with green beans and kalamata olive oil, and coffee-crusted seared tuna loin over shitake mushroom risotto and hearts of palm

-Damon states that he joked with his wife, "What, are they going to put DHARMA green beans on top of gourmet food?", and then Graham does just that. Well-received playful note.
-Everyone is wowed by the execution on the tuna, particularly James Oseland, who hails it as some of the best tuna cookery he's ever seen.

Wylie's roasted chicken with poached egg, banana mustard, plantain pureè and beets

-To Wylie's pants-pooping horror, Jay's plate has no chicken on it. Poor Wylie looked like he couldn't breathe. But it's okay, because a plate two diners down had two pieces on it--there it is! You can stop looking now.
-The egg, cooked in the shell in the immersion circulator (Elizabeth mutters imprecations in the background), has achieved a kind of gel or pudding state. Sounds a little freaky, but that's Wylie. Apparently this egg is a trademark of his.
-Chicken is spectacular, Jay hails Wylie for continuing to cook "like himself" despite the vagaries of this challenge.

Suzanne's uni (urchin) risotto, mango salad, boar strip loin with oyster beer sauce, baked yam.

-This is a Vegas buffet if there ever was one. Jay is in love with the in-your-face complexity and abundance of the plate.
-The writer (sorry bud, don't know your name by sight) who didn't like boar when Elizabeth did it likes Suzanne's.
-Damon: "Magnificent." Carlton: "Hearty." Anonymous writer nerd: "Phenomenal."

So we can all agree that Elizabeth isn't going to win this round ("DUFRESNE!!"). Her weak, kind of passive-aggressive defense of her dish's obvious dryness -- when it was absolutely true that the servers took the plates before time was up -- didn't do her any favors. And the pudding was a misstep, plain and simple. She notes to Wylie after Critics' Table, "I think we were meaner when we were judges."

Wylie's gel egg impressed everyone, as did his slightly more traditionally prepared chicken. Gael Greene's natural suspicion of chemical involvement in the kitchen was overcome by her appreciation for that chicken. James' stated lack of understanding of molecular gastronomy is ultimately undermined by his statement that Wylie has him "under his spell."

Jay is intrigued by Graham's coffee rub. I guess it's a little unusual for tuna as opposed to pork or venison, but it seems totally foreign to Jay. Graham's anchovy aioli tied things together for Jay and James, who loved Graham's whole plate.

Suzanne explains that she brined her boar in pineapple, Chardonnay, and oil. Jay describes her dish, on first blush, as one that needs editing. By the end of Critics' Table, he was crediting her offering as "vibrant, fiery, with a real generosity of spirit." He was about to thank Suzanne for sending her one begotten son to Earth, but they were up against the break.

During that break, we get a positively darling little vignette of Elizabeth announcing that she can make chocolate chip cookie dough in five minutes. This takes place during Critics' Table discussions, and the four chefs whip up a batch of cookies. Cute, fun, maybe a little sacchariney. Just about right for the tenor of the judging portion of this show so far.

When the scores are announced, Graham leads off the way with 4.5 from the LOSTies, and 4/4/3.5 from the judges for 20.5. Wylie, staging a pretty massive comeback, gets a measly 3.5 from the diners but 5/4/4.5 from the judges to fall just short of Graham at 20. Elizabeth, predictably, gets 3.5 from the diners and 3/3/3.5 from the judges. 16.5 just won't cut it. That leaves Suzanne, who ties Graham's 4.5 from the LOST folk and gets 4.5/4/a very hyperbolic and overwrought 4.5 from Jay to take this week's competition with 22.5 stars.

The Bravo producers shoe-horn her headshot into the silhouette of Hubert Keller's shock of old man hair, and we've got two chefs into the Championship Round. Next week: Rick "Don't call me Skip" Bayless, uttering the great line, "What's a French guy know about a quesadilla?"

*For non-LOST watchers, the title of this recap is from Season 3 of LOST, when Jack is brought a fresh cheeseburger on an Island previously only known for natural food.