Top Chef - Two ladies in bed, and some other stuff

I hope everyone has awoken from their naps induced by the snoozefest that was last week's reunion dinner (non-)event. Obviously, the staggering uninterestingness of it even knocked our dear Padma Lakshmi, who kicked off this episode still shaking the kinks out of her, frankly, fierce mane of bedhead. The chefs had just arrived at the kitchen of the Venetian Hotel when a calll comes down on the hospitality hotline from Ms. Lakshmi's room. She and her bunk-mate, the equally comely Nigella Lawson, demand breakfast!

Now, allow me to pause the recap and be totally honest with you. I might not be around to recap Top Chef for you any farther than this week's episode. You see, my wonderful wife harbors suspicions that my thoughts about Ms. Lawson verge on the unchaste. When she reads me calling Nigella "comely," that may very well be the end of me. So I hope you enjoy this one, dear readers.

The chefs find out for whom they'll be cooking, and they're all--well, this isn't exactly a starstruck bunch. Thank god there's Eli, who is happily starstruck of pretty much anyone with a fan site. His praise of Nigella Lawson, best-selling author and winner of the 2000 British Book Award Author of the Year? "Gordon Ramsay named a turkey after her. She's legit." I'm sure Nigella's parents are so proud that finally their daughter has something to hang her hat on.

The chefs stagger their 30 minutes of prep time and serve in twos. Eli and Robin go first, and there are remarkably few sparks. Eli goes with a reuben benedict, which looks terrific. Robin wants to do a couple blintzes with pineapple compote, goat cheese, and blueberries, but only manages to finish one blintz per diner. One of this season's slow-simmering rivalries goes next: Kevin and Michael. Michael probably wouldn't start shit with Kevin face-to-face (he prefers the safety of the confessional), but he's also probably distracted by the huge fucking mess Robin left behind. Nice. Anyway, Michael manages to bang out a huevos cubanos with bacon and bananas. Kevin goes coffee-dusted steak and eggs with aged cheddar and crème fraîche.

While Michael finishes his work, in breezes Robin to clean up her station. Again, nice. She gets all huffy because "when the next chef is hard at work in the space" is apparently not "time to clean up the mess you left." Michael sends her packing, and the last two--Bryan and Jen--start cooking. Jen does room service all the time at her restaurant, so she makes...creamed chipped beef? And indeed refers to it by its more common name, shit on a shingle, for the judges? Is she on meth? Poor Nigella looks horrified, and remember--she's from England. The home of ugly food. Bryan does a warm four-minute egg over polenta with a vanilla beurre fondue, asparagus spears and king crab. Nigella takes a double-whammy from this course, as the sweet vanilla aroma turns the savory breakfast on its head in an unpleasant way.

After all the chefs depart, the ladies get dressed (off-camera) and deliver the results. At the bottom are Bryan's overpowering vanilla crab, and Robin, whose one-note blintz caused her to remark once again "I wasn't proud of what I did today." Tell me, doofus, are you ever proud of your work? At the top are Kevin, who demonstrated a clear understanding of the challenge (it was just "breakfast," right?), and Eli's witty reubenesque (oh hello, Nigella, didn't see you there) dish. Eli will win the honor of being the only Season 6 chef featured in the new-on-shelves-now Top Chef Quickfire Cookbook. It's quite a nice-looking book, by the way.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will celebrate the Strip. No, not Padma and Nigella shedding their robes post-breakfast, and not even the steak. The Las Vegas Strip, and specifically six casinos that represent the 24/7 carnival of excess that is Las Vegas. Via the knife block, Bryan gets Mandalay Bay, Eli gets Circus Circus, Michael gets New York New York, Kevin gets The Mirage, Jen draws Excalibur (without a glimmer of recognition of the humor of it), and Robin gets the Bellagio, about which she knows nothing. Shocked.

Each chef will individually cater a meal for 175 guests atop the World Market Center. That's a lot. Each chef gets carted to his or her casino and starts observing and taking notes. Very Project Runway. Mike's leaning towards a firefighter inspiration. Jen digs the Tournament of Kings but can't seem to wrap her brain around any sort of conceptual inspiration. Bryan gravitates to the shark exhibit and sustainable fishing. Robin really wants us to know that she recognizes the artist whose work adorns the ceiling of the Bellagio, and wants desperately to use it as inspiration to show she's an artist. Kevin's mind goes frmo the tropical setting of the Mirage to organic, slow-food minimalism. Not sure about that. Eli, as you'd expect, is just bopping around Circus Circus, digging on the junk food and novelty aspect of the place. Back at the ranch, though, he seems to struggle with a lack of literal translatability. What, did he want to cook giraffe?

The chefs wake up on the day of the challenge, with Robin doing her usual "alone again, naturally" routine out in the yard. The rest all slide out of bed, with conspicuous quantities of VitaminWater bottles on bedside tables. A little drinking goes on here, maybe? In the kitchen, Robin keeps on deciding to do things she's never done before--in this case, faux glass sugar candy and panna cotta. Why does she keep doing this? Eli throws out a couple precious malapropisms, calling Robin lucky for often being "the lesser of two equals," and noting that "the buck's about to run out" on her. Just let those sink in for a minute. Yeah.

Bring on the eaters!

Jen is scrambling up until the moment the doors open, and when the judges arrive at her table, she happens to have absolutely nothing ready. So basically, she's in perma-scramble. Her dish is a grilled New York strip (hey!) with red wine reduction, beets, truffles and herbs, with the steak and herbs doing a "sword in the stone" routine. This turns out to be a little too on-the-nose, as Nigella gives up on cutting it and just eats it with her hands. V.v. tough.

Kevin, on the other hand, is his usual composed self. He's serving a wild sockeye salmon with napa cabbage, cucumber, mint, and a tomato water broth. He recommends eating the veggies and salmon together, saving the broth to sip at the end. I like the three-dimensional approach, and so do the judges. Tom loves the tomato water finish. Toby notes the vaguely Thai-ish flavor profile, which works for the heat of Vegas.

Michael has taken liberties with the buffalo wing concept, doing a boneless chicken wing confit with curry and a semi-freddo-ish looking dollop of blue cheese dressing. Everybody comments on the crisp exterior, and the cold dressing proves a solid counterpoint. Toby notes that the flavor of the cheese isn't exactly singing to him, but he's still mostly complimentary.

You'll never guess what happened with Robin's dish full of things she didn't know how to do. It didn't turn out! Her sugar didn't set, so she discarded it. But as soon as the judges ask her what she's serving, she tells them that it's a panna cotta based on floral flavors, and I was going to put on this sugar element to mimic stained glass but it didn't turn out, and here, look at it! What a maroon. Not that silence would have served her much better; the panna cotta is too gelatinous and solid, and the syrup is, by Toby's estimation, Slushee-grade. Decent enough inspiration with the glass art installation, but you can't eat an idea.

Bryan didn't exactly wow the judges with his menu wording; "parsley fluid gel" doesn't bring in the checkbooks. But his escabeche of halibut with bouillabaisse consomme, parsley coulis (see, was that that hard?), pine nuts and garlic chips definitely impressed. Nigella finds it well-balanced, and Toby says it tastes professional.

Now, I haven't said anything about Eli's actual dish conception, despite all my inclinations to do so, because it's worth the big reveal. Remember, he's working off the inspiration provided by Circus Circus. The result? A caramel apple white chocolate peanut soup topped with pulverized popcorn and a dome of raspberry froth to symbolize the shape of the Circus Circus building. Just let that sink in for a minute. Nigella's first comment: "I'm more frightened than I can say." Tom is remarkably even-keel about it, but the opinion is obvious: it's awful. Toby admires the "death or glory" aspect of the choice, but is sure to note that Eli "gambled and lost."

Service complete, the chefs retire to the stew room; Kevin is either eager, or playing eager, to chat about everyone's dishes, but no one's buying. Padma arrives, and calls out the Voltaggios and Kevin. No surprises at this point in the game. Robin mutters, "Can I just go now?" Hold your horses, Losey McLoserton.

Kevin, your salmon had great texture and the vegetables were bright and complimented the fish well. The broth was a home run. Bryan, your dish was beautiful, with a quiet elegance. Michael, you classed up buffalo wings in a way that perfectly expressed the way you cook. Winner? Michael! You get a massive bottle of Terlato and a two day/three night trip to the Terlato family vineyard. Now send out the stinkers.

Robin's all negative en route to Judges' Table, and oh man, is that a stern, sourpuss look of disappointment on the face of Nigella Lawson. Positively scalding.

Jen, are you surprised to be here? (tacitly, "yet again?") Nope. She acknowledges that she had no clear vision, couldn't get inspired. Tom wanted her to take the medieval thing a little farther, but figures her lack of experience in that arena doomed her. Obviously, the tough meat was a big fault. Robin starts her defense with the usual "I know I didn't do what that last chef did wrong. She talks about how the inspiration sung to her, but the execution failed. She calls herself a "jerk" for trying untested methods once again. Are you getting overrun by the talent of the other chefs? Maybe, she says. Eli's dish was just a trainwreck. No questions for it. Nigella was totally befuddled, Tom calls it a complete textural failure, and Padma says "I personally would never want to eat that again."

Back in the stew room, Robin is crying. Eli is grimacing and maybe on the verge of tears. Jen is stone-faced, pallid. She's got no fight left in her. The judges comment on how her sauce was a big disappointment, which is telling; remember how many times she's impressed me and the judges with her saucecraft? Robin's inspiration took her places her skill level couldn't navigate. Couldn't hack it, plain and simple. Eli's dish was worse than sawdust for Nigella, who did everything she could to keep from spitting it out.

The chefs return, and between Eli's mess of a dish, Jen's bore of a dish, and Robin's uninspired failure of a dish...well, that makes it pretty clear that even though I thought Eli was done for sure, Robin gets the boot this week, at long last. No more "trying to impress people with shit I don't know how to do yet." (Notice once again how she all of a sudden sides with a position she was iffy on once a good chef says it?) Apparently, she cooks comfort food when she's not trying to reinvent Western cuisine. We can all take comfort in the fact that she won't be this year's Lisa or, if you prefer, Elia.

Next week looks to be the culmination of Michael's seething antagonism towards Kevin. Should be interesting!