Top Chef - (Up)Chuck wagon

Well shee-ewt, it's another episode of Top Chef: Wild West, and this rough-n-tumble outing kicks of with a honest-to-goodness verbal gunfight, as the about their feelings and identities? This isn't very cowboy.

No, it's just our regular bunch of tattooed, shiny-haired and/or doughy contestants. Eli wonders about making changes solely for the judges. Bryan's feeling confident, while Mattin feels ze shame. Ashley is missing home, because her twin brother just had a baby, and--ASHLEY PUT DOWN THAT PHONE IF YOU WANT TO MAKE IT TO RESTAURANT WARS. Alas, she makes the dreaded Call Home­­™, thereby ensuring not only her prompt dismissal but some kind of fiery Toyota cataclysm on the way to the airport.

Padma is having a little Love-time when the chefs arrive at the kitchen--Tim Love, that is. The cowboy chef with the late-night DJ name (not to mention Top Chef: Masters competitor) is there to serve as guest judge as well as bridge to the elimination challenge. But first, the Quickfire. Remember back to the Season 5 finale, when the Bravo phone poll was a question of which ingredient would you like to assign the chefs to use for a Quickfire? Well, with 57% of a highly questionable vote, the cactus is coming home to roost, y'all.

Rather than rattlesnake or kangaroo, the chefs will have to harvest some cacti (from the countertop, not the arid plains unfortunately) and make any sort of dish they want. They'll have 45 minutes, and a $15,000 chip is on the line--but no immunity.

Isabella seems to know his way around the succulents (more like SUCKulents, AMIRITE), and sets about de-gooping them. Mattin keeps on saying "catcu-ees," so I'm not sure he'll be cooking the right ingredient because I don't know what a cactuees is. Laurine, intent on being true to herself rather than comparing herself to other chefs, will be making a pork chop stuffed with cactus and Ambien. Ash is trying to channel Hector, which is a pretty funny mental picture. Ron seems to think (and I'm happy to see that other bloggers picked up on this) that Haitian cacti are poisonous, which he uses as an excuse to make something totally unrelated to cactus and then just whipping up a cactus sauce.

But poor Eli. For yet another week, he--along with Robin, this time--is shorted on camera time when it comes to seeing his output. I guess it wasn't that impressive, but do we really need a supersized episode to see all the chefs' work? Come on. That's lame.

There's a lot of pickling and ceviche-ing for this Quickfire, so the particulars are kind of a wash. Tim's bottom three are Ash's very un-cactusy cactus grilled cheese, Michael's incongruous avocado roll with cactus coconut ceviche, and Ron's overcooked fish, rancid-tasting crab, and inconsequential cactus. His top three are Laurine's flavorful achiote-glazed pork chop with cactus salsa (sans Ambien), Isabella's technically successful tuna and cactus ceviche/sashimi, and Mattin's tequila-pickled cactus with halibut.

Aside: if you bred Tim Love and his usual cowboy hat with Mattin and his neckerchief, know what you'd have?

Anyway, Isabella's successfully unslimy cactus takes the win and the $15k chip. Bryan's a little catty about the win, saying he'd rather be able to make a flavorful and interesting dish than know how to take the slime out of a cactus. Mee-OW, Bryan.

What would a cactus Quickfire and a cowboy chef guest judge be without a Western-themed Elimination challenge? Love and Padma tell the chefs that they'll be serving an outdoor lunch to two dozen cowboys. They can make whatever they want, but it has to be "high-end," which means what, exactly? No beans-on-toast? I'm sure that would have been everyone's first pick.

The chefs all cotton to the likelihood that kitchen basics like stoves and electricity might very well be at a premium, and they adjust their plans accordingly in advance. (They're learning!) They arrive at the lunch site after a gallop through Whole Foods to find...teepees. Fire rings. And an outhouse. Michael seems to think this looks like the set of a horror movie; I'm not entirely sure where he's getting that, but I think he's got some kind of irrational hatred of the outdoors. Ashley, on the other hand, apparently equates her poor single mother upbringing with a familiarity with outhouses.

Aside: what was up with all the pan-and-scan during this episode? I've almost gotten used to the crappy ADR on Magical Elves productions, but now we've got to deal with mid-90's era VHS editing? Has this episode of Top Chef been formatted to fit my television? Blech. Maybe all that lurching visual frame is why Tom and Chef Love get so ill--but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The chefs get to spend the night in the teepees, so they pair off and bunk up. Ron starts doing something he apparently calls voodoo to repel snakes, but that looks like piling up sticks at the door of the teepee. Eli--who is turning out to be a major dork--is just pissed and finds camping an abomination. Kevin is just jazzed about the horseshoe pit, and as seen in the mid-break vignette is a total shark at 'em. Around the campfire, Isabella makes a leering joke about leaving food out to attract Robin the fortysomething sits next to him. She doesn't find this stuff amusing.

Ten-bells, and the chefs start cooking. Mattin plans a ceviche because even though he proclaims a love for camping, he doesn't want anything to do with the fire pits. Ron, the same. Michael isn't giving two shits about the demographics of the diners; he's doing his food and if they don't like it, they don't like it (yes!). This means black cod dashi. Laurine is happy with her Southwestern food literacy, while Bryan just shows his comfort level with a complex but totally authentic menu. The ranchers arrive, and as Bryan barely gets his food plated, the triangle rings for chow time.

Isabella: pork gyro with an apple-fennel tzatziki. Good, but not blowing up anyone's chaps. Plus, again with the fennel. And he pronounces it with a soft G, which drives me nuts.

Eli: tuna sandwich with sun-dried tomato mayo. A little bland, and the accompanying radish salad is boring. Ranchers find the bread too hard.

Laurine: sauteed arctic char with tomatillo and corn salsas and a fire-baked potato. Anyone who actually goes camping knows that cooking potatoes in the fire isn't all that revolutionary. But in the context of this competition, Gail Simmons finds it ballsy as hell. Everyone likes her flavors, and the use of the grill in general.

Ash: grilled chicken paillard with bourbon and a corn succotash. Pretty good succotash, but maybe too much bacon in it. The chicken is unimpresive.

Mattin: ceviches of salmon with apple, spicy tuna, and cod with corn. Tim can barely spit out his analysis of the cod as extremely fishy before Tom actually spits it out. Very raw, very bad. Tom uses the word "gross."

Robin: grilled romaine salad with "drunken" prawns and spicy chicken sausage. Tim tastes chlorine on the "terrible" shrimp. Nasty.

Bryan: roasted pork loin with polenta and braised dandelion, glazed rutabaga, oyster mushrooms. I love this dish on principle, because it goes in all the right directions. It's nicely cooked, everyone's quite happy, and Gail goes so far as to say that she'd feel comfortable camping with Bryan. Well then, Ms. Gail. Whatever would your husband say?

Jen: snapper with cold duck confit and a daikon-carrot slaw. They're loving the slaw, and the duck (which I'm sure has nothing to do with the crappy non-alcoholic beverage) is perfectly cooked by Tom's standards. Tim's not exactly wowed, but everything tastes good so there's that.

Ashley: Seared halibut, bacon, braised romaine, and avocado mousse. This is Ashley's take on a club sandwich--what's with all the faux sandwiches this season? Anyway, the judges like the avocado and note that it's far and away her best dish of the season. The flavors are very reminiscent of a club sandwich, which I guess is a good thing and high-end enough. (?)

Ron: coconut, lime and mango tuna ceviche with a Haitian coconut mojito. Definitely the best of the ceviches (damning with faint praise), if too sweet. But the cocktail is described as both terrible and disgusting.

Kevin: roasted duck breast with a faux mole and a tequila-marinated watermelon salad. The duck is cooked right, the "mole" is a good touch, and Gail's digging the presentation.

Michael: Dashi with miso and mirin-marinated black cod, and watermelon. Gail likes the flavors, while Tim is surprised by the unexpected and tasty combinations.

As the chefs discuss the suspected presence of some sort of spoiled ingredient in the coolers, Padma arrives to call out Laurine, Ashley, Michael, and Bryan. I'm quite surprised that Ashley got in over Kevin, which makes me wonder if they were throwing her a bone for finally making something good.

Judges' Table is very brief indeed. Obviously, these are the top four. Tom praises Ashley's technique on a seafood protein, given the conditions. Gail thought Bryan's dish was well-focused and was definitely restaurant-quality. Laurine's use of the grill made Tim happy, and the simplicity of the dish was what allowed its quality to shine. Michael's dish was unique and very well-prepared. The winner? My personal favoite, Bryan Voltaggio--his third Elimination win. He takes a little shot at his brother in the confessional, pointing out that the only Elimination win Michael has came when Bryan wasn't in the final group.

Robin, Ron, and Mattin are called out for the back end of Judges' Table. As soon as she's given the podium, Robin starts rambling about how steak and barbecue were her inspirations for...prawns and chicken sausage. Tim calls her on it, and they all agree that there was a good dish in those ingredients somewhere, but Robin lacked the chops to bring it out. As such, she was clearly trying to cover for her inadequacies by loading up the bacon; it was unsuccessful. Bacon is clearly the retreat of the incapable chef this season.

While Robin was expecting to be at the bottom, Mattin expressed shock and dismay at his presence there. The judges tell him that his dish was poorly composed, but also ask if he tasted his ceviches. He says of course, and Tim tells him flat out that the raw cod has made him physically ill. Mattin is clueless, and the judges ding him on his obliviousness and his choice to do three half-assed things instead of one good thing (to his credit, he makes the same comment back in the stew room before the verdict is handed out).

There's no doubt that Ron's safe, but they still give him the business for his hideous cocktail. Tim was also bewildered by the sauce and the overall presentation. Ron explains his bad beverage by saying he doesn't drink but didn't want the coconut to go to waste. Too late! Tom tells him that without that cocktail, Ron wouldn't even be at Judges' Table. Gail hails Ron's dish as "the most edible" of the three. I take it back--that's damning with faint praise.

So if Ron's safe, it's down to known error versus oblivious error. Considering the strength of Robin's concept if not her execution, I felt that Mattin had to go. And when the judges lay down the law, it is indeed Mattin who is sent off into the sunset. Two comments to the confessional show that Mattin was oblivious to the end. "Maybe ceviche wasn't the best for cowboys," and "I mean, I'm sure they gonna miss me."

Next week, Penn and Teller! Eli's pressure cooker explodes! And--aww, FUCK. It's Toby Young again!