Top Chef - If I can't use this huge wok to make creme anglaise then the terrorists have already won

This could have been a fairly pedestrian, if not downright sucky, episode of Top Chef. But stick with me, because the Judges' Table segment of last night's blatantly flag-waving challenge was perhaps the best Top Chef has ever put to film.

The standard table-setting open shows Mike I. clamoring for tough challenges to weed out the weaker competitors. We go not-so-subtly to Laurine, whose vacant demeanor is explained by her being a bit awestruck by all these young talented chefs, and how she just needs to focus. She, Preeti, and Jesse are officially the black widows, with the first two eliminations coming out of their residential suite. So I suppose as long as she's better than those two, she'll be fine, right?

Chefs better get their humble on, because they walk into the TC Kitchen to find Padma and Top Chef: Masters competitor Mark Peel waiting for them. They explain the bounty of potatoes on the tables surrounding them by instructing the chefs to create an "out of this world" potato-based dish in 45 minutes. Yes, Bravo used that phrase, and yes, they too put it in quotation marks. No, it wasn't really apropos of anything.

With the PEEL/POTATO diptych in play, the chefs get to work. Ron's doing another fish dish, and explains he's like the Bob Marley of food. I'm guessing he doesn't mean bi-racial and dead, but whatever he means is probably of no greater consequence to the show than that. Like many of the chefs, Ash must have realized that potatoes in 45 minutes is a dicey proposition; he goes with a sweet potato ice cream idea. Smart!

Mike I. (is it all right with you guys if I just call him Isabella?) has a dicey proposition of his own: he's treating the potato like rice, but without a ricer. He's actually brunoising each potato down to rice-sized chunklets. Meanwhile, Jesse thinks she'll make a soup. Yep. That seems out-of-this-world. Maybe she's trying to induce a spirit quest a la Homer and the Guatemalan Insanity Pepper with all the cayenne she's got in there.

A little drama ensues when Preeti, who had planned on using Kevin's blanching water for her asparagus, accidentally dumps them into Ashley's gnocchi-cooking water when Kevin's pot "disappears" (damn you Bravo drama-gremlins!). Ashley throws a hissy, but then everything just kinda goes back to normal. Sound and fury, and all that.

It's not a stellar lot of Quickfire dishes. Lots of stewy, soupy concoctions, with a couple notable deviations. Ash's custard (it didn't set up enough to be ice cream), Eli's take on sweet potatoes and marshmallows, and Laurine's potato "burger" served on fried portabella "buns" come to mind.

Chef Peel is a good judge, taking into account mouthfeel and color among the usual points of evaluation. He dislikes Eli's yams, finding them way too sweet even for Southern cooking. Ron's bland yams were wrapped around an overcooked piece of fish. Jesse's soup, the texture and flavor of which Mark actually liked, had way too much cayenne.

On the other hand, Jennifer struck a good combination of flavor, texture, and color with her steamed mussels and yukon gold, blue, and sweet potatoes. To Ash's extreme surprise, his custard rates highly for flavor and for not overreaching (seems like a failed ice cream is the pinnacle of overreaching, but what do I know?). And Ashley recovers from the water debacle nicely; her gnocchi were good and her hen of the woods mushrooms were handled well. Mark even throws an umami reference in there.

The winner, to Isabella's consternation, is Jennifer. She gets immunity; he gets petty. Claims to the confessional that it's "favoritism." I'm not entirely sure where he gets that. To quote Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Some moody, dramatic music shepherds us into the Elimination Challenge. To introduce it, Padma welcomes Colonel Dave Belote of the US Air Force into the kitchen. I cannot tell you how relieved I was that no one felt the need to snap to attention. Col. Belote serves out of Nellis AFB, home of the Thunderbirds air demo squadron. For this Elimination Challenge, the chefs will be cooking for 300 or so airmen and women from Nellis, some of whom are either readying to deploy or just coming back from deployment, dontcha know.

Okay, so there's some topicality in that the Voltaggio brothers (can't help but think of the trial scene from Ghostbusterangs 2 every time I say that) have a younger sister who is in the Air Force. Kevin's male relatives going back decades have all served. But is there any doubt that this note is being struck solely because the anniversary of the September 11th attacks is coming up? Blech.

All the chefs will cook together in one team (USA! USA!), but they won't learn their available ingredients or cooking equipment until the next day. Right there, in Vegas terms, that's a tell. The chefs should have expected military-style surroundings and shelf-stable ingredients. Did they? Probably not. But that's what they'll get just as soon as they figure out how they're gonna arrange 15 people into a cooking unit.

Isabella decides that everyone should pair off, and Jennifer should take the reins as the one with immunity. Everyone's amenable with this, and chefs find their buddies. The Mikes join forces, Ash and Ashley hook up in the only way either ever would, Bryan teams up with Mattin just to make sure he doesn't surrender to anyone while they're at the base, Hector and Robin create Team Old, Preeti and Laurine put their San Francisco connection to work, and that leaves Ron and Jesse. Bottom-dwellers. Team Suck-by-Attrition. Ron's afear'd. He should be.

So would you like to know the first thing to come to Preeti's mind after 9/11? Becoming a chef. You mean that wasn't the first thing you thought of? Pfft. Communist. The fact that it took her two or three years to corral that upwelling of patriotic gastronomy into going to culinary school is really neither here nor there.

The chefs all start to come to grips with their surroundings and supplies. Ron's bright idea is a clam chowder. Sure, it's hot. But troops love chowder! Seriously, he said that. I don't care how many chowder awards you've won, Ron--Jesse's suck is clearly infiltrating your noggin. Ash, who will be doing dessert with Ashley, has to find a way to make peanut butter creme anglaise. "I've never made creme anglaise in a wok," he notes to Eli. "Have you?"

Laurine's got some kind of disorder where everything has to be familiar. Once again she trots out that imperative to make things that people are comfortable with and used to. It's a great idea--if you're making underwear. Elsewhere in the kitchen, Ron calls Mattin "Frenchy" in the "I don't know any better" proper noun sense, Jennifer kicks ass as chief of the deck, and Eli hopes that the military will handle their supplies and foodstuffs with care when they transport it. I'm sure they'll be gentle as a soufflé.

En route to the hangar where dinner will be served, Isabella is first to make an inappropriate analogy to battle--I'm shocked. The chefs set up shop and are alarmingly well-mannered with each other. What is this, Top Chef: Masters? There's a nice, even artistic shot of Bryan walking in front of a massive American flag. Preeti and Laurine express some consternation about how simple their dish is compared to some of the other offerings. They made bowtie pasta salad--YA THINK?

Anyway, the dishes broke down thusly:

Mike/Mike: Braised slab bacon "pork belly" and crunchy peanut taco. Also, a "Greek" shrimp salad with cucumbers and olives.
Preeti/Laurine: Farfalle pasta salad with broccoli and peppers.
Jesse/Ron: Clam chowder with roasted corn.
Hector/Robin: Three-bean chili with roasted chicken and celery leaves.
Eli/Kevin: Georgia-style pork shoulder and potato salad.
Bryan/Mattin: Beef strip loin with cauliflower gratin and mushroom demiglace.
Ash/Ashley: Chocolate "brioche" bread pudding with peanut butter creme anglaise.

The commentary during the meal reveals a lot. The strip loin? Good. The chili? Authentic, and the celery leaves in lieu of herbs is a good touch. BBQ and potato salad? Chef Peel puts the salad on par with his aunt's fabled recipe. Pork belly taco? Socks are getting knocked off all around the hangar. But that shrimp salad? Bad. The pasta salad? Gail falls just short of calling it half-assed, but you and I both know that's what she was thinking. And the chowder? Well, it's good. But it's also 100 degrees outside and that bowl's full of creamy goodness. Ugh.

A very sappy thank-you moment follows the meal, including the announcement that a couple in the crowd just got married and will be deploying shortly, so this was like their last nice meal at home. Awww. Plus, IN YOUR FACE ASHLEY YOU GAY GAYERSON. Although, the colonel does come around to shake hands starting with Ashley. I expect he's already been court-martialed.

We've come to it, then. The Judges' Table. The culmination of almost an hour of mediocre build-up (yes, this was an outsized 75-minute episode). Padma calls out the Mikes, and Team Fat Kid. Eli and Kevin are both Southerners, and Kevin's family does competition barbecue. The judges all dug it. The Mikes' creative treatment of boring old slab bacon actually renders (get it? a pork fat joke!) Tom Colicchio speechless. He's reduced to calling it "cool." But after another inappropriate war analogy, Isabella is asked whether he was happy with his shrimp salad. He says yes...and gets no challenge from the judges. Odd...?

The winner? Mike Voltaggio, author of the innovative and quite tasty bacon taco! I got no beef with that. And I'm still wondering what's going on with Isabella when Padma starts telling the chefs who to send back. This is odd, I think. We never see this. She tells them to send out Laurine and Preeti...and that Isabella's got to come back out with them. Yes!! Hang 'em high!

Isabella's obviously shocked, and the rest of the chefs in the stew room are too. The three naughty chefs head back out, Isabella with hands on hips. Tom notes that while the other two chefs don't look happy, Isabella looks pissed. Isabella cops to it, but says there were no salads at all and they needed one and then all of a sudden he's saying that y'know, he wasn't ever 100% on serving that shrimp dish. Padma, sterner than usual, hammers him with a "then you shouldn't have served it" that made even the camera man swing around wildly to catch it.

Tom turns to Preeti and Laurine. Who was responsible for this dish? It was collaborative, Laurine says. Usual Judges' Table schtick from chefs on the losing end of team challenges. Tom's not buying it. "Let's cut to the chase here--who said 'Let's make pasta salad!'?" Laurine, defensive, says she honestly doesn't remember. Preeti thinks the pasta was better than some of the other dishes out there. Tom nails the creativity aspect, which was lacking in their salad. Preeti asks if a clam chowder in the desert is creative. Tom says no, but that was a better representation of clam chowder than your salad was of pasta salad. And also, STFU.

So Tom goes back to Laurine, asking her why her internal editor didn't wake up at the prospect of serving this kind of tepid dish in a cooking competition. Her response? "I think I forgot about the competition aspect." Followed shortly by "That was a bad answer." I like to think Laurine's inexplicable behavior at Judges' Table was in honor of the military setting. She gets positively Rumsfeldian with the self-answered questions/statements and denials. Tom just doesn't relent, chiding them like a pissed-off dad: "Do you both want to go home?" It was brutal.

The three chefs go back to the stew room. Laurine pompously declares, "They want us to incriminate each other but I won't do it." No, Laurine, you're doing fine incriminating yourself. The judges call them back out, and Tom lays down the facts. Isabella, you made what you yourself seem to think was a throwaway dish. Preeti and (here, Tom hangs up briefly, apparently struggling to remember Laurine's name) Laurine, you guys made an uninspired dish. Preeti, you don't seem to get it at all. Laurine, you do, but we wonder why it's only dawning on you now. I'm at a total loss for prediction, and for the last time, Padma lovingly forms the name on her tongue and tells Preeti she's done.

Love it! Damn near felt like I needed a cigarette afterwards. I hope Isabella's got the fear in him, and that he makes some kind of assholish move next time. French chefs are the judges, so I wouldn't be shocked. Mattin's gonna be all a-quiver. PLUS, there will be a Quickfire elimination. First time since last year's premiere. Good stuff, people. Good stuff.