Top Chef: Masters - They're magically delicious!

I was right! Not looking at spoilers or pre-caps or anything, I pegged the short dude with the fu manchu-ish thing going on as a wizard. Close! Magician. And he was dispatched to the TC kitchen by Neil Patrick Harris. This is a very surreal concept for an episode of Top Chef. Better just take it from the top.

Chef No. 1: Douglas Rodriguez, Philadelphia. Runs a bunch of restaurants in a bunch of cities. Calls his style "tortilla-free Latin American cooking." He's won a Beard award, but I assume not for that ring-around-the-tub thing he's got going on on his face. His charity is AYUDA for the Arts.

Chef No. 2: Anita Lo, New York. Annisa Restaurant, among others. A Food & Wine Best New Chef (2001) and recent Michelin star recipient, Lo works the line a lot and seems like another cool chick in the kitchen. We've gotten a lot of those so far in this show. Her charity is the cancer support group, SHARE.

Chef No. 3: John Besh, New Orleans. Restaurant August and an Emeril-load of other joints around town. Another Beard award winner and Food & Wine Best New Chef (1999), he was also the runner-up to the manic Michael Symon in Food Network's The Next Iron Chef competition. His charity is the Katrina relief organization, the Make It Right Foundation.

Chef No. 4: Mark Peel, Los Angeles. Campanile. Peel worked under Wolfgang Puck (and that's saying something, because Lil Ahnold's a short dude) at Spago, and has won multiple Beard awards. He seems like he might be the most hardass of the four. His charity is Doctors Without Borders.

Maybe it was the gravitational pull of NPH, but this seemed to be the least food-heavy episode of TC:M so far. The Quickfire Challenge, Season 3's All-Star "Cook an egg with one hand tied behind your back" challenge, resulted in the lowest score for a QF yet.

In what has to be either the world's most unlikely coincidence or shameless premeditation by the producers, Chef Mark's father was born without an arm. Clearly, Lamarck's inheritance of acquired characteristics gives him an undue adv--you say that theory was debunked by Darwin? Hm. Well, he's still got an added appreciation for the difficulty.

Douglas makes a breakfast bread topped with egg and ham, which is challenging. Mark makes fresh duck egg pasta, which is absurdly challenging. Anita makes a soft scrambled egg served in an empty egg shell, which is so challenging that it takes a second hand (Mark's) to use the egg de-capper. This seems like cheating. But oh well, no one notices because Mark's too busy making the easiest dish of the four--slow-cooked egg over-easy--look like sculpting Michelangelo's David.

Judges Terry Reish, Monica May, and Gail Simmons (woo!) enjoy Mark's pasta even though he forgot the olive oil for his dressing (2.5 stars), and Douglas' corn cake ham and egg concoction gets 3 stars. Anita nails her dish (CHEATING DOESN'T PAY, KIDS), getting the maximum 5 stars. But the story of the challenge is that John, perhaps the celebuchef of this round, gets one half-star for his partially uncooked single serving of egg split between three judges.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will cook for NPH and his "friends" at Magic Castle in Hollywood. To introduce the theme of the challenge, magician and mentalist Max Maven arrives to explain the similarities between magic and cooking. Through a series of interesting but short-shrifted card tricks, he assigns each of these similarities to the chefs as their respective guiding themes: Mystery (Mark), Surprise (John), Spectacle (Douglas) and Illusion (Anita). Pretty cool concept.

45 minutes of shopping with $250 ensue, and Mark decides to go en papillote (a term for cooking in parchment that I hadn't heard or seen before, and yet managed to spell correctly in my notes). Besh is going for surprise with a little spectacle thrown in, announcing his intent to use liquid nitrogen. Douglas selects some foie gras but reveals little else in keeping with the rule of not giving up secrets. Anita is faking a scallop (which seems like sexual slang, but I assure you is not).

If the challenge doesn't come down to Anita v. Mark, at this point in the episode I would have been surprised. Mark fantasizes about sabotaging all of Anita's dishes with salt, and explains the friendly coast-war engaged in by chefs from NY and LA. They've both got a clear killer instinct, and that ability to see nothing but your opponent and the task at hand pays off in this show.

The chefs hit the kitchen, and start their two hours of prep. We learn about John's time in the Marines, and Douglas' childhood Julia Child fandom. We learn that Anita's mom had breast cancer (thus the charity), while Mark is shown hard at work, descaling fish. (somewhere, Richard Blais is saying "Oh! Descaling! Crap.") No time for chit-chat with Mark the Robo-chef.

And then in walks Colicchio. Oh, Tom Colicchio, you charmer you. He makes the rounds, albeit much chummier than normally. He talks with John about his plan to do tableside horseradish sorbet with the NO2, and with Anita about her faked puffed rice cereal "sand." It's shop talk with Mark, and almost nothing shown with Douglas. Tom notes that the Masters, unlike the usual chef aspirants, don't get bogged down and just go to work.

On the day of the challenge, the chefs arrive at the Magic Castle, which Anita compares to Hogwarts to the delight of my lovely viewing companion. Not much drama in the last hour. Anita's bowl is a little too big! Mark's afraid his snapper en papillote might suffer from 5 minutes of too much carryover heat! John's got to go for broke! And Douglas is trying to light his coconut bowls smeared with hot pink sterno gel on fire! Okay, that last one is a little dramatic.

It's dinner-time, and NPH and his "friends" (actor David Burtka is less BFF than simply BF, and it's odd that Bravo of all networks would shy away from noting this--thank you @alexinmadison for keeping me abreast of the H'wood dating scene) file into the Dante Room. There's no Jay Rayner this week; the lovely Gail Simmons will be judging in his stead. Two Ga(i/e)ls! So hard to take notes!

Mark's Mystery course starts off well, with Gael Greene audibly exclaiming off-camera, "what is it?" A little on-the-nose, there, Gael? It's Mark's tai snapper (spelled correctly, and I apologize for thinking so poorly of you, Bravo; you'd never misspell a food word) with garlic mashed potatoes and leeks and a lobster sauce. A scallion oil/pesto-ish thing and Dassai sake top off the dish. The sake's a good call, as it's NPH's favorite beverage. Everyone loves the aroma; not everyone loves the effort involved in getting into the still-mostly-sealed bags.

For his Surprise course, John asks for NPH to be his two-handed volunteer (again, not sex slang). NPH holds the bowl in which John makes his crème fraîche and horseradish sorbet, which is served with a bounty of salmon items: tartare with a frozen cauliflower blini; roe and cucumber salad topped with the sorbet; and poached-then-tempura-fried lobster wrapped in smoked salmon. Gael digs the playful element of the presentation, although get offa Douglas' Spectacle turf, I say. NPH thinks the sorbet was too cream-y. Sophomoric humor was seen in the background, trying not to say anything.

There's little fanfare or screen time, really, for Anita's Illusion course. She makes a braised daikon radish, hollowed out (to look like a seared scallop) and filled with steak tartare, topped with Kombu caviar. She set the bowl atop her rice cereal faux seascape, which by didn't in any way Snap™, Crackle™, or Pop™, but made an unnamed snappy, crackly, poppy noise nonetheless. A little shellfish broth was set off to the side. NPH's BF dooesn't care for the daikon, but NPH loves it.

With his hands shaking while lighting the stick lighter, Douglas serves his Spectacle course flambé. It features duck, four ways: breast served with oyster ceviche; empanada with foie gras and figs; breast with butternut squash pureé; and confit soup with coconut, cilantro, and a bunch of other stuff. (Side note: Bravo, could you slow down just a little with the on-screen info? Jeez.) An impressive spread, Douglas' product doesn't quite live up to the idea.

In the mid-break vignette, we learn why Jay Rayner wasn't judging; he was performing a magic act for the judges pre-meal! Okay, no, he wasn't, but that dude sure looked an awful lot like him. Anyway, a rabbit falls out of his head and then pees on Kelly Choi's décolletage. Awesome.

The chefs file in before the Critics' Table, knowing that Besh would have had to carry off a masterpiece to overcome the shame of his horrible QF performance, to say nothing of the bad score. Similarly, Douglas had to feel like he dropped the ball a little with his somewhat poor execution.

John says he wanted to use techniques for which he's not normally known, and the cold blini was one of those. It was a surprise, to be sure, but multiple judges agree--it was far too cold for the context. His poached and fried lobster, though, was perfectly cooked.

Gael calls Anita's presentation a surrealistic painting. Gail, on the other hand, calls it the steak tartare interior of the faux scallop gruesome and shocking in a great way. It won't be chasing off Richard Blais' banana scallops for most popular fake scallop any time soon, but while Gail missed the saltiness that the broth would have offered (had she used it), James Oseland thought it brought the dish together very well.

Douglas indeed cops to a failure of spectacular execution. Gail wins for line of the night: "Have you ever set fire to a coconut before?" Gael liked his ceviche, but the panoply of ingredients in Douglas' broth didn't shine forth for the judges.

As he didn't check his dish before serving it--thus maintaining the mystery--Mark gets points for carrying off the theme exceptionally well. That the leeks were tender and the fish was well-cooked, only serves to increase the judges' praise for Mark's magic bag (really not sexual slang). James notes that the dish was a deviation from Mark's normal Mediterranean style, but in a good way. Gail absolutely dug the inclusion of the sake, which makes me wonder why she went out of her way to include Mark's sake in her evaluation, but abstained from trying Anita's broth. Whatever.

John Besh gets his scores first, to make things as un-anti-climactic as possible. 2.5 from the diners, plus a set of 3's from the judges, gives him a paltry 12 stars. That's not winning anything. Mark gets 4 from the diners, and 4.5/4/3.5 (boo James Oseland) from the judges for a total of 18.5 stars. Decent!

Douglas is up next, and he gets 3 stars from the diners but only 2.5/2.5/2 from the judges. 13 stars is not good. This isn't the most exemplary week of Top Chef: Masters cookery we've seen, to be sure. But then Anita's scores come out, and with a diner 4.5 and 4.5/4/4.5 from the judges, her 22.5 stars blow the rest of the lineup away. With one exception (Rick Bayless), the Quickfire winner has taken the Elimination Challenge every week. Anita says she's kind of mortified that she'll have to do this again, and Mark is left humbled by the talent of other chefs. This show is so nice.

Maybe not next week, when the chefs are forced to cater a 100-person event SOLO.