Top Chef - A pig in a poke

The phrase, "Buying a pig in a poke," has come to mean getting into something unawares; "Counting your chickens before they're hatched" is a close analog. A poke was a sack, and the pig would often turn out to be a cat or raccoon or some other animal worth significantly less.

For Top Chef purposes, let's say that it might mean scrapping your own concept of a dish for someone else's--someone else's concept that might not be anywhere in your repertoire or comfort zone, but that sounds good at the outset. Like buying a pig in a poke, tossing your own ideas for someone else's is a risky move at best, and usually augurs disaster at Judges' Table.

It's also Top Chef-relevant because this week's guest judge is Charlie Palmer. He presides over another corporate-sponsored Quickfire Challenge--this time from Alexia natural crunchy snack chip thingies--and then over a knife draw that reveals a little drawing of a pig and names of various sections of the pig.

(The Quickfire Challenge was to pair a dish with the chips. Meh. Eli was very confident, and didn't think much of the ability of the other chefs to understand flavor pairings. The Voltaggios had worked with Palmer before, but he swore objectivity. The bottoms were Robin, Ash, and Jen. Tops were Bryan, Eli, and Kevin, with Eli taking the win and nothing else. Lots of people used the onion straws. It was kind of boring.)

The Elimination Challenge, then, is to work with the part of the pig you've drawn from the knife block, and pair it with a particular variety of pinot noir. Yes, it's Charlie's Pigs and Pinot charity event with Food & Wine magazine, and the chefs will be catering it. Another catering challenge, another outdoor serving challenge. In this case, 150 tasting portions.

After the chefs all take in the spectacle of wire-hoisted "wine angels" pulling down bottles from three stories up at Aureole, and then participate in the extremely wasteful spectacle of wine tasting, they all select their pinots and head out to Whole Foods.

Eli continues to be confident, commenting on the amateur wine picks of some of his competitors; camera pans to Robin. Ouch, Bravo. Kevin's gunning for the win, what with his pig tattoo and overall porcine focus. Laurine's thinking of doing a rillette, while Ash has polenta and cherries in mind for his tenderloin. Drawing the "wild" knife, Jen had the option of picking any part; she went with belly along with Eli.

At the apartment that night, we're finally treated to the Eli/Robin blow-out that's been teased for weeks. Robin is astutely picking up on the dislike the rest of the chefs feel for her, and is for some reason being very cutesy/passive-aggressive about it with Eli in particular. He's having none of it, and just ignores her. She keeps it up, makes a remark about cleaning up after him, and he finally pops. Ask me to clean the cutting board, don't cop an attitude, be a martyr if you want but leave me out of it, you're not my mom. Of course, she's more like his mom than he wants to admit, considering he lives with both of them (we were given that little nugget in the opening scenes, when Eli called home).

I tend to side with Eli not just because Robin's a low-talent nutbag (see: flapping around doing Pilates on the front lawn), but because Eli was clearly trying to take the high road. He didn't engage her until she had poked at him at least four or five times--that we saw. And I don't see a lot of fault in the things he specifically said, although the martyr comment is debatable. In the vignette, we see him trying to take some sort of credit for being the first to really confront Robin, and Michael--who likes Eli--keeps on arguing that it was just flirting, and asks if they got to second base. Pretty funny, and an endearing side to the often blank Mike V.

As the chefs get to work, we see Ash talking about how it's time for him to stop being in awe of other chefs, and to do his own thing. Within minutes, we see him scrapping his polenta idea for a cold tenderloin with corn. On Isabella's suggestion. Is this guy a total idiot manchild or what? Does he have any idea what's going on? Kevin certainly does; he's making a pâté and is grooving on the nice fat marbling his pig leg. He also breaks down what's going on with the overt aggression between the Voltaggios, calling it out to the confessional camera as Michael playing mind games with his older brother, trying to goad him into blowing up and thus screwing up. That Ginger Santa, he knows when you've been bad or good.

Robin's trying to pep-talk herself by saying that she didn't come here to make friends, she came to cook. I remember when Nimma said that back in Season 4...right before she was the first chef eliminated. Robin should be quietly thanking her lucky stars there's always been someone arguably worse than her, because she cooked her way out of this competition at least three times.

Food & Wine's Dana Cowin, Toby Young, Charlie Palmer and Tom Colicchio join Padma as the service begins.

Michael: Root beer-braised cheeks, Cuvaison cherry vanilla sauce. The judges like the pairing. I like Michael's analysis of the pinot; I think it'll keep him near the top, if not at the top.

Ash: Chilled pork tenderloin, cherry corn salad, with Sandford pinot noir. The judges find the pork clammy, overcooked and oversalted. The flavors just aren't big enough for the wine. Way to scrap your own concept, Ash!

Eli: Braised pork belly, raw celery, fennel and carrot salad, with Terlato pinot noir. The carrots have good flavor, but the overall pairing with the wine is poor.

Kevin: Pork leg pate with cherries and hazelnuts, with Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills pinot noir. Tom calls it a "great decision" to do the terrine/pâté, works great with the wine. I personally love the inclusion of hazelnuts based on the fact that hazelnuts grow on the grounds at the vineyard. Details like that are what keep Kevin at the top.

Isabella: Pork shoulder kibbeh stuffed with dates, pine nuts and prosciutto, with Wairau River pinot noir. There were powerful flavors that divided the judges. The inclusion of some orange didn't sit well with some palates.

Bryan: Braised pork spare rib with parsnip puree, with Rochioli pinot noir. The diners are digging the parsnips, anyway. The judge commentary appears to have breezed past me.

Jennifer: Soy braised pork belly, tomato sauce, black olives, apples, celery, with Chanson pinot noir. The pork is delicious, works great with the wine. Jen seems to have a knack for sauces and broths.

Laurine: Pork butt rillette, pearl onion chutney, with Chanson Clos des Fèves. Cowin calls it cat food, and asks the usual judges whether they think this counts as a good rillette. Toby agrees--it's a disaster.

Robin: Brined center cut pork chop with sweet potato apple roulade, sour cherry coffee demiglace, with Mischief and Mayhem pinot noir. And a lot of TALKING. The coffee flavor is too strong, there's no porkiness, no cherry flavor, a slimy texture, and the chop is cut too thin. Other than that, sounds lovely.

As the chefs wait in the stew room, Robin says something about how someone told her that she "was their favorite." I don't know who that could have been, but I'm betting it wasn't Padma, who calls out Michael, Bryan, Kevin, and Jennifer--"the usual suspects," as the wife points out. We're getting used to this lineup, aren't we?

Charlie does a lot of the talking at Judges' Table. He praises Michael for taking daring steps with his very sweet ingredients. Jennifer's pork belly is the lightest he says he's ever had. Toby makes some kind of parallel between Jen's barnyardy European pinot noir and an unshaved armpit that actually breaks Tom up, right there on camera. I think I actually heard cameramen laughing.

Tom gives a shout-out to Keving for "going deep into that wine," a guttural sort of compliment but a valid one nonetheless; told you those hazelnuts were a smart move. Bryan, Charlie says, chose a great wine. The flavor of the pig was pronounced and quite nice. Our guest judge is duly impressed with all four chefs, but gives the win to our man Ginger Santa once again. That's three Elimination wins for Kevin, plus another two from Quickfire. He is unstoppable!

When the conquering heroes get back to the stew room, I'm not sure I've ever seen the waiting chefs appear less enthusiastic for the winner. It's two competitions at this point, and I'm not even sure there's room at the top for both Voltaggios. The talent level is just that high. Anyway, there's little drama involved in calling out Ash, Robin, and Laurine, whose roller coaster is back on a low swing again. The other chefs discuss, in thinly veiled language, who should go. Isabella hits it on the head with "Big R, little -obin," and "I hope Grandma goes."

Robin stands by her dish, making it plain that she's experiencing the first stages of a psychotic breakdown. Toby wanted more meat, everyone thought the sauce was gummy and strange. Charlie finishes her off, saying "You have to be honest with yourself, 'Was this dish great?'" Obviously, no.

Tom tells Ash that simple is fine, but that flavor development is still important even in un-complex dishes, and he didn't do it. Padma asks if he tasted his dish. Ash stupidly comes clean with his original idea, which Charlie tells him sounds wonderful. What a moron. Tom notes this pattern of second-guessing and star-chasing.

Laurine says she went in confident, and then lost her footing a little as she started to run out of time. Toby says that her dish made it seem as though something had gone very wrong. Then Charlie really delivers a whammy, telling her flat out that she doesn't know what a rillette is supposed to be (poached in fat, not braised in stock). He purposefully withholds the "cat food" commentary from Dana Cowin, but just tells Laurine, "That's not a rillette."

I want to know if all three can go home, but that'd be just too awesome. As we go to commercial, my money's on Robin getting a pass yet again, with Laurine fallig on her grenade. Despite Robin's second-guessing and lack of pig presence, and Laurine's non-rillette with clashing wine flavor, it is Ash who is give the order to depart company for his one-dimensional, flavorless, talentless display of no confidence. I guess when you put it that way, it's not too much of a shocker.

Still, is Robin the luckiest hack on teevee right now? Other than Kathie Lee, of course. Isabella, receiving the news that Robin's still around, is visibly seething with rage. Ash flagellates himself to the confessional as he packs his knives, and just doesn't seem to have an adult's conception of how to be a professional chef. Very odd.

Next week: As Voltaggio is teamed with Voltaggio, and Robin is just plain picked up and set off to the side by the other chefs, we get to witness Season 6 of RESTAURANT WARS.