Top Chef - What's missing?

[Ed.--Thanks again to Jessica Underwood for topping off a long night of TV viewing with a great recap. Be sure to leave a comment here or shoot her an @reply at twitter.com/junderwood to say thanks!]

As you may have noticed, your usual bard is out of commission today. But no worries, Kyle will be back to business as usual just as soon as he unpacks his computer. In the meantime, I've offered to pinch hit and hopefully keep pace with the level of wit and quip that you have become accustomed.

That's not the only change in the Top Chef arena today. No sirree, hold onto your hats - today's episode will offer you the usual cast of characters, along with some hearty surprises.

The first surprise - no one makes a ceviche! No, no, don't be scared. This is still the same Top Chef we know and love. We still have: duos of scallops, foams, and risottos on the menu for this evening. Okay, good. Just keep breathing into the bag.

Before we jump into the Quickfire, there's something else that's missing that must be noted. It looks like the cast ees meesing a Frenchman. Alas, Mattin has been sent off to the other wing of the Top Chef mansion where the kicked-off chefs are tossed to stew about what they did wrong and share stories about "how this isn't the last time that America will hear from them."

But I guess our leetle Frenchman has not yet packed his bags. Mike Isabella takes it upon himself to uncover some goodies. And when I say "goodies," I mean nearly 50 red bandanas – seesh, those things multiply like bunnies, or Mattin had hopes of running away to become a magician while in Sin City. I'm hoping a veil dance was never in the cards.

Isabella does what any self-respecting camera hog would do, he decides to run around the house telling everyone to don a bandana in remembrance of their fallen Frenchie. (No, Kyle, no one wore it Tupac style.)

Robin (our most cougariffic contestant) had to beg Isabella to share. Isabella wasn't ready to play nice with Lady Cougar. Sounds like he, along with the rest of the chefs, believes Robin's cooking on borrowed time.

Ruh-roh.

Generally, when a chef takes that much bashing (or shows that much weakness) within the first 5 minutes of the show, they better have their bags packed (or Isabella will dig though them looking for ways to accessories his chef coat).

And we're off to the QF...

Walking into the Top Chef kitchen, the chefs are greeted by James Beard Award Winner, Chef Michelle Bernstein and Padma (in pants!).

Padma is forced to reuse the Las Vegas "Sin City" cliché. Today's QF will be to create something inspired by your personal battles as a chef to cook while fighting your inner "angel" and "devil." This is not, however, to be confused with “cooking something that represents a personal vice of yours” - no way - that is COMPLETLY different.

The winner gets immunity. And go.

Ash doesn't take long to utter one of my favorite phrases of the episode: "I've decided to make a duo of custards...I could win a Quickfire with two custards!" Ash, as we know has a bit of a history with custard (see the Potato/Peel QF).

Eli tells us he wants to do scallops, two ways. Eli, did you not get the memo? Dees ees Top Chef, not Top Escallop (sorry, past season ref).

Meanwhile, Ash is fighting with his custards. He ends up with "kind of heated eggs" – yum!

Cue the montage of chefs stuffing food into metal rings, beads of sweat dripping precariously close to Padma's food (although I'm pretty sure we all knew that was how Howie flavored all his dishes in season 3), and boom! Utensils down! Hands up! Walk away from the food!

Highlights:

Ginger Santa makes a slamming hunk of bacon.

Ron (surprise!) does Chilean sea bass. And the fish bones nearly kill the guest judge. I guess that’s the devil part?

Ashley makes scallops two ways (drink!).

Jennifer makes scallops two ways (drink!).

Ash serves only one custard but tells Chef Bernstein the coffee custard was DELICIOUS in his head. He’s just adorable – not Ginger Santa adorable – but definitely up there.

Robin again tells us about her battle with cancer.

Laurine makes something forgettable (drink!).

Isabella makes something Greek (drink!).

In the end, Ash, Bryan, and Laurine are on the bottom.

The other Voltaggio brother, Eli, and Robin (SURPRISE!) are on top.

The winner and immune chef is…drum roll…ROBIN! The cougar rises victorious. But wait, now who’s going home?

Eli is noticeably peeved and makes fun of Robin for playing "yhe cancer card" – now that’s bad karma buddy.

Bring on the Magic Act...

Ginger Santa wets himself a bit when he sees Penn and Teller are guest judges. GS tells the camera how awesome they are because they deconstruct magic, all the while, making it better…foreshadowing? Maybe – but first a magic trick...

Okay, back to the cooking show. Padma tells the cheftestants that their task is to deconstruct a classic dish. A quick camera pan to Michael V. shows him straining to keep his man-posure and not smile and jump up and down like a little schoolgirl.

For those new to the cult of Top Chef – deconstructed food refers to the taking apart of the elements of a dish, serving them in a new and inspiring way, but still keeping all the flavor profiles in tack so that the diner still receives the original feel of the dish.

Deconstruction has traditionally been a saving grace and a nail in the coffin for Cheftestants Past. Just last episode Isabella served a deconstructed béarnaise. It’s not uncommon for an uninspired chef to just serve something tired and call it "deconstructed" and hope for gourmet points.

Let’s see who really knows how to deconstruct a classic dish…

Chefs pull knives:

  • Jennifer – Meat Lasagna
  • Michael V. – Caesar Salad
  • Ash – Shepard’s Pie
  • Robin – New England Clam Chowder
  • Eli – Sweet & Sour Pork
  • Laurine – Fish & Chips
  • Kevin – Chicken Molé Negro
  • Bryan – Ruben
  • Isabella – Eggs Florentine
  • Ashley – Pot Roast
  • Ron – Paella

With the knives safely out of reach, Padma tells the chefs they will be cooking for Toby Young, the Simon Cowell of food.

Off to Whole Foods, then 2 hours to prep...

There's the usual back and forth between chefs thinking they got this in the bag. That role will be played by Ron today, who screamed "paella" through a gaping smile and with the enthusiasm of a kid who got to ride the big bus for the first time. Ron then tells the butcher that "he’s got this in the bag"... ruh-roh.

Bryan is being his usual self and explains to the camera in monotone wonderment about how he is going to cook tuna like you would cook a Rueben. By the way, did you know he has won 3 Elimination challenges so far? All kidding aside, I do like Bryan. The Voltaggio brothers are the Mario and Luigi to my Top Chef this season.

Jennifer is showing some stress and second thoughts as she wanders the aisles of Whole Foods – which Eli is quick to jump on. But Ginger Santa is in the background of that scene smiling a big Santa grin and before I know it, all is right in the world.

Isabella and Ash have a mildly creepy exchange over the burners in the TC kitchen. The word "Sunshine" used as a term of endearment is thrown around a bit too generously. However, we do learn that Isabella is flying blind in this challenge. I guess he fell asleep in class on the day in cooking school that they learned what eggs Florentine are exactly. But no biggy! He's Isabella. He'll be fine. Eggs Florentine...it's Greek, right?

Cue Michael V. wielding a butcher knife. This kid has got some intense breakdown skills - as witnessed last episode by Jennifer. I agree with Kyle, they are a steaming ball of sex waiting to explode. And what? He’s baking his own bread?! If Jennifer wasn’t so busy flipping out, she would probably be on him in the back coolers by this point.

Ginger Santa feels like he has been given a second chance. Apparently, he thinks his mole from last week was a disaster. I don’t know which dude ranch he was on, but just because you didn’t win does not mean you’re horrible. Cheer up, Santa! The judges thought your dish was pretty last week, remember? Either way, GS is ready to hit it out of the park this week with mole, take two.

Jennifer pulls the "I'm a classically trained chef, I can't do deconstructed" nonsense in the confessional. Come on girl, pull it together! Where’s the fire we saw when you were running that military kitchen in our GO AMERICA! themed episode? Do you need to go watch Michael Voltaggio breakdown a whole chicken with his bare hands to get you back in the game? Whatever you got to do, get on it, girl. You can't go home yet!

Cut to Ron talking some utter nonsense. Half is bleeped out and half is nonsensical. All I heard was, "I teenk I gonna win." Eli is quick to point out in his confessional that Ron has no idea what he's doing.

When did Eli become the villain? Wait, since when did Eli get screentime? And wait! Where the hell is Lady Ben Folds? Black is white, good is bad, Top Chef is going crazy. Ginger Santa, save us all!

And now for your slapstick portion of the episode…

Eli is apparently emotionally attached to his own pressure cooker (and he thinks Ron is crazy). So he opts to use the most beat-up piece of kitchen gadgetry I've ever seen, instead (as Ash points out) of one of the many sparkly, new pressure cookers in the back. Eli's cooker is held together by duct tape for crying out loud!

Oh my gosh, it's Ashley (drink!). She has come out of the B-roll footage to tell us something about deconstructing pot roast and how she grew up poor...or that she's gay...or something. I couldn't hear her over Ron screaming "PAELLA!" and Eli's pressure cooker finally exploding all over the set.

Robin the Cougar decides to run wild with her immunity. She drew clam chowder, yet somehow arrives at the idea that fennel flan would be a solid dish. She has also decided that she needs to give her own play-by-play out loud while she cooks – which pisses off nearby Laurine to no end.

Laurine is about to explode all over Lady Cougar like Eli's ghetto pressure cooker, but she stops long enough to tell us about her frustrations regarding fish and chips. Forgettable.

Back at the Mansion...

There's an exchange between Ron and Eli that I swear, I lost brain cells having to listen to.

Look! There's Ashley (drink!).

During the break, we are treated to a vignette; it's basically Isabella making his usual crazy eyes and creepy smile at people, using the same tired joke, and still trying to figure out what the hell eggs Florentine are.

Food Service

The chefs serve in pairs, but will be judged individually. The table is set. Toby is ready to scowl. I'm wondering how Teller can critique food.

Michael V. & Isabella
Voltaggio makes an inspired Caesar salad, complete with salad dressing encapsulated in a bubble designed to burst and then mix in with your food. Penn Gillette apparently wanted an explosion. But his dish is elegant and well received, nonetheless.

Isabella, on the other hand, serves after Voltaggio and mumbles some nonsense about a dish he obviously knows nothing about. Not to mention there is a soft-cooked egg yolk wobbling smack in the middle of his hot mess of a plate.

Bryan and Laurine
Laurine's fish and chips prove to us that the Top Chef curse of trying to fry anything on-site still lives. She ends up with 14 usable chips. The judges knock her for it. Plus, her fish is undercooked.

Bryan is worried about serving such a tiny plate of food to Penn. What he should have been worried about was his idea to sub in tuna for the a typical Rueben's corned beef.

Ash and Jennifer
Ash has a fumble with the potato puree. His shepherd's pie was left potatoless and thus well within reach for the criticism of Englishman Toby Young. Also, Hector was apparently reaching out from beyond the chopping block. Ash's lamb came out overdone on some plates and undercooked on others.

Jennifer ended up with a good-looking plate of lasagna. Padma can't help but smile when she eats it. Jennifer still thinks she's going home.

Eli and Ron
This is a complete shitshow. Ron channels Top Chefs past in the confessional and tells us "it is what it is." Teller looks bored with Ron's paella. Ron seems to have interpreted "deconstructed" to mean serve on a plate, instead of a bowl. The paella comes out missing the usual crunchy goodness. All around, a poor cooking job.

Eli's sweet & sour pork reminds the judges of bull testicles. Jokes abound. There are some impossibly cute shots of an embarrassed Chef Tom Colicchio. And Penn decides the dish is "unhealthy and unpleasant" – and that’s exactly why he likes it.

Ashley (drink!) and Kevin
Ashley serves a wonderfully done piece of meat with carrot foam. Marcel and Wylie Dufresne would be proud. The judges think she nailed it.

Kevin’s mole is reinvented with Mexican coffee, chicken thigh meat, pumpkin seeds...after that I zoned out for a bit as I thought about how magical that dish must have been. It was so good Teller almost spoke.

Robin
This was purely for comedic relief. Her "fennel flan" came out more like "soup that had been left out over night," said Toby. The judges asked Teller to make it disappear.

Judges Table

Ashley, Michael V., Kevin, and Jennifer make the top.

Chef Tom tells Michael V., "Dishes like that make you excited about food." Well done. And your brother is noticeably absent from the top group.

But the winner – Ginger Santa! He wins a brand new set of Calphalon cookware. GS tells the camera that he has learned to just "cook what he believes in." Simultaneously, he has made me believe in Santa all over again!

Time for the bottom 3 – Laurine, Ron, Ash. No surprises here, Ron is sent packing. I think he is still confused about what deconstructed means.

Next week, the cheftestants try to whip up a Top Chef quality meal in their Top Chef bachelor pad of a kitchen. Hilarity undoubtedly ensues.