Monday, January 29, 2007


Whole Lotta Luau

Previously on Top Chef: A bunch of chefs showed up to compete. Conflicts! Cliff pinned Marcel. Marcel punched a camera(person?). Cliff had to leave. Marcel proclaimed that it was all about the food. People won. People lost. Sam, Elia, Ilan and Marcel made the finals in Hawaii.

Las Vegas. House of Joël Robuchon. Marcel works in a black and white kitchen. He explains that, despite what the competition looked like, cooking is like a "team sport" with everyone pulling together. A co-worker says she's never seen someone work so hard to keep up with the latest foodie developments. Marcel interviews that he has been "working really hard" in the hiatus. He and two friends (Gary and Kenny) cook busily in a smallish kitchen (looks like a condo/apartment). Marcel explains that they've formed an "super-exclusive gastronomic society." I can't wait to see the secret handshake. They try to advance their skills above what they learn at work. Marcel interviews, "Studying the science of food ultimately makes me a better cook." He explains that the chefs are allowed to bring their own equipment and ingredients. He painstakingly transfers xanthan gum from one Tupperware container to another. "I've got a whole new culinary repertoire to choose from," he announces. So, no more foams? He threatens to make food "they" have never seen. If he means the judges, I'm thinking there's not a lot they've never seen.

In another part of Las Vegas, Elia works at her hotel's restaurant. She interviews that she started researching as soon as she heard the finals would be in Hawaii. In addition to the usual book and Internet resources, she spoke with Hawaiian chefs who worked at the hotel. The assistant manager is all, "She has what it takes." Elia emphasizes that she really wants to win. As opposed to just sort of wanting to win, I suppose. At home (unless it's her parents' house), the walls are covered with medals and certificates. The medals are from swimming. Elia claims she was two seconds away from qualifying for the Olympics. I only watch swimming at the Olympics, but two seconds is easily the difference between first and eighth place, so not that close. She switched her passion to cooking. She interviews that she's not thinking about losing.

New York. Ilan has gone back to his usual routine, working at his Spanish restaurant. The chef/owner is proud to say that Ilan has "put his stamp" on the menu. Ilan has been researching Hawaiian food, but "not too much" because he doesn't want his brain to explode. (I'm paraphrasing.) Back in his typical tiny apartment, a nice-looking dog watches him pack. Ilan says he wants to win the money and the publicity. "I think I deserve it," he says. Okay, other than an outsized sense of entitlement or beating out the rest of the field, what makes someone "deserve" to win a competition?

Sam interviews that he tracked down one of Chef Tom's former pastry chefs and begged her to teach him. His teacher praises him for his work habits and lack of ego ("in the kitchen"). Sam interviews that his main competition is himself; he has to manage his nerves. He packs a bunch of ingredients in his suitcase as his dog watches. He knows how to cook, so he's going to go do that.

At the Los Angeles airport, Sam checks in and discovers that he'll be flying first class. He interviews that he has already gotten "a lot of buzz" from the show. Elia arrives. She interviews it was good to see him again. Ilan arrives. More hugs. Ilan interviews that he has never been to Hawaii. Since Sam and Elia have already claimed their seats, Ilan realizes that he'll be sitting next to Marcel, who arrives at the airport next. He interviews that it surprised him to be seen as the villan and outcast. Huh. Back in the GiantChainRestaurant episode, he told Elia that he expected to be the "odd man out." I suppose he was expecting to be the outsider from choice rather than rejection. Greetings are exchanged but no hugs. Marcel interviews that it's a competition, so there's tension. Elia reviews that Marcel aggravated people during the show. She explains, "I've been putting up with it because he has never been a threat for me." She could mean that he was beneath her notice, which doesn't sound quite right; she did stick up for him at times. (I suspect, from other comments, she means that he didn't do aggravating things to her.)

The chefs get a special appetizer created by Chef Roy Yamaguchi, who is a Hawaiian culinary star. Marcel interviews that it's strange to be sitting next to Ilan since he has started watching the show; Ilan is friendly in person but who knows that he's doing "behind my back." But it would be even more unpleasant if Ilan did the "behind your back" stuff to your face, so don't pooh-pooh the upside of hypocrisy. Ilan interviews that he'd thought he'd have gotten over his unhealthy Marcel obsession during hiatus (paraphrasing again) but he's "sick of him already." Yes, it's amazing how annoying people just pick up where they left off, Ilan.

Beauty shots of Hawaii. The chefs are greeted by Pilialoha Gaison, Miss Hawaii. She's wearing her tiara and sash, so she's all official. Marcel interviews that she told them they were getting a special lunch; he was half-expecting to have to cook something in an airplane hangar. Miss Hawaii leads them to a helicopter. Elia is psyched. She interviews her happiness. Sam confesses to feeling a little wimpy. Miss Hawaii gets left behind. Elia describes the view. Elia, Ilan and Sam have the back seats and they're yelling with excitement. Sam interviews that he was clinging to Ilan's leg at one point, "freaking out." Ilan describes flying into a valley. The helicopter lands and the chefs walk over to the judges. Along with Chef Tom and Gail, Padma introduces Chef Alan Wong. Chef Wong says they're in Waipio Valley, which is a "special and spiritual place." This is where the first Polynesians landed, and it's also a taro farm. He has prepared traditional Hawaiian food for their lunch. Ilan does the "ooh-ahh" interview.

But first, a traditional blessing. Elia recaps; everyone holds hands as a Hawaiian woman prays aloud. Marcel recaps the spread of food. Chef Wong explains that poi was a sacred food; they have poi made from breadfruit, sweet potato and taro root. Every part of the taro plant has to be cooked thoroughly or a chemical will cause the throat to itch. Ilan interviews that it was nice to have a chance to eat the food he's been reading about, since you don't find real Hawaiian food much outside Hawaii. Lau lau is a dish with any kind of meat wrapped in taro leaves. The lomi lomi salmon looks a lot like salsa. Poke is cubes of raw fish. Elia recaps how Chef Wong told them all about the food and that's what is "beautiful" about being a chef -- "Food tells a story."

Padma winds up the lunch, sending the chefs off to the hotel. Next day, she and Chef Wong will get them started on the elimination round. The chefs are all, "Whoa, reality check." Elia interviews that this is when they all realized that not all four would make it to the finale. Well, that depends on whether you call this the last round before the finale or the first round of the two-part finale. Elia says it's kind of sad, but "someone has to win and someone has to lose." Yup, that's the way it works.

The helicopter takes the chefs to the resort. A bunch of rocks spell out "Top Chef." Sam recaps the arrival. The chefs check out their suite. They find two bottles of champagne on ice. Run, Marcel! Remember what happened the last time these people got drunk? But they all have a big toast. Elia, Marcel, Sam and Ilan interview about their anticipation. Everyone goes to bed.

The kitchen has been set up on a big, open stone patio. Hope it doesn't rain. Padma welcomes them. Chef Wong explains that his birthday was the previous day, and the chefs get to prepare the food for his birthday luau tonight. Padma explains that they have to prepare traditional Hawaiian dishes but with their own interpretation. Chef Wong has invited 30 guests, and they're expecting good food. Padma assigns three hours to create two dishes. The criteria: taste, presentation and invention. The judges will boot two chefs at the end. And go!

Ilan recaps the jangle of emotions as the chefs run around. Elia turns on the front left burner of the big gas range. (This will matter later.) Marcel is impressed with the hamachi and the salmon, so his picks them to work with. He's making a lomi lomi salmon of seared salmon with tomato water and chili pepper foam, and hamachi poke with pineapple poi. Sam claims the opakapaka (Hawaiian snapper) to make a poke with sea beans; he also found mascarpone cheese for a mascarpone mousse with Hawaiian salted coconut milk and citrus tuile. He explains that he usually does both sweet and savory, and the judges want to see their styles. Elia falls in love with a tuna filet, so she'll make an ahi poke with olives, capers and lemon confit (which she calls "Mediterranean flavors") and her special tuna juice. For her second dish, a luau of snapper steamed in ti leaves with carrots and bell peppers. Ilan likes the lau lau, so he's boiling up some taro leaves for a long time, just as Chef Wong advised. His version will have squid and morcilla (blood sausage). He'll also do a dessert with coconut and saffron.

Elia interviews that she has never made Hawaiian food, so the luncheon was a big help. Ilan begins working on his dessert; it will really be a blend of Hawaiian and Spanish. Marcel is psyched to be using his gadgets and goodies for a change. He'll be using a few "bumps" of xanthan gum to create a poi-like texture from fresh pineapple without sacrificing the fresh taste. Sam pooh-poohs Marcel's use of chemicals; he could make "rat crap" look nice, but how would it taste?

Chef Tom arrives to check up. Sam explains his dishes. Chef Tom sums it up as "kind of halfway between tradition and new stuff." Sam figures that was the challenge. Elia is working on her snapper in ti leaves. She's going to sear her tuna, even though she knows poke should be raw, and then add her "Mediterranean flavors." Chef Tom figures seared poke could be her twist on it. Chef Tom teases Marcel about his "experiment;" he's making tomato foam. Chef Tom suspects this is the first time Hawaiian food has been made with a thermal immersion circulator. He doesn't seem disparaging of the molecular gastronomy approach; his joking comes from it being Marcel's shtik, I think. Ilan is doing a version of haupia for his dessert, and then he's working on a lau lau. Chef Tom recaps it as Hawaiian food with Spanish flavors. Out by the pool, he sums up the main ideas of the contestants. He thinks Sam is "playing it safe" by not introducing many new flavors, unlike Elia and Ilan with their Mediterranean and Spanish influences. Marcel is deconstructing, making lots of little pieces. He's happy to see them all busy with cooking and not "backstabbing."

So, Ilan's pan is on fire. He looks for a place to dump it and winds up setting on the stone floor. Marcel teases, "Ilan, you should have done that for the flambé challenge." Later(?), Ilan points and says, "Can somebody stop turning this to low?" Marcel agrees to stop. Ilan interviews that the "animosity" towards Marcel is because he acts superior when everyone -- including Marcel -- "knows he's not." Elia wonders who moved her steamer. Marcel says he did; there wasn't any heat under it and he says he announced it when he did it. Well, there's steam coming out of it, so it got hot somehow. Elia recaps that Marcel moved her "handcrafted steamer." She complains about his failure to respect "the dynamics in the kitchen." She's fed up with it. Marcel asks, "It's okay?" Elia does not reassure him. If Marcel has always been fiddly with other people's stuff, I can't blame them for wanting to feed him hair-first into a meat grinder. (I could blame them if they actually did it, but it's hard enough to correct people's behavior without having to police their thoughts, too.)

Night falls. Sam interviews that when it's 10 minutes to serving, he gets nervous even when he's working well because it's "go time." Elia explains that she was going to sear her tuna, but she ran out of time. Guests arrive. Miss Hawaii is wearing her tiara but not her sash, so perhaps she's incognito. Plating starts. The timer goes off.

Marcel interviews that his "adrenaline is pumping." Elia is feeling confident; she does this every day. Chef Wong welcomes the guests and explains the challenge. Ilan interviews that he didn't have everything ready when the timer went off. I'm surprised I haven't seen a rehash of the great "Tiffani should be disqualified because she continued to plate after the timer went off" debate. I figure, if there isn't a disqualification, there wasn't a rule. Sam is the first to serve the judges.

The judges visit Elia next. She interviews that she had everything "done traditionally" -- presumably, with traditional techniques -- while having her own flavors. She feels confident, given the guests' reactions. One diner gives her a big thumbs up across the patio.

Marcel's turn. He's happy to be able to explain to the guests what he was doing. Elia interviews that Marcel spent a loooooong time explaining the dish to the diners while he's plating. Marcel, stop turning into Stephen! One is enough. Marcel interviews that he wasn't trying to charm people, but a charismatic delivery comes naturally to him. If he means "charismatic" in the sense of "evangelical," I'll let that pass. Otherwise, you don't get to claim you're charismatic. He continues that he's just trying to respect the people and the culture and the food, but with his style. Guests make happy noises. Ilan interviews that Marcel's food probably tasted good, but it was "extremely deconstructed, maybe destructively deconstructed."

Last up is Ilan. He thinks his food has "high quality" and strong flavors, and he's proud of his creativity.

Ilan mopes to Sam that his plate "wasn't beautiful." Sam scoffs. Ilan interviews that he tries to ignore the guests' reactions. A fire dancer winds up the festivities. All the chefs interview their anxiety/anticipation.

[Sam wins Fan Favorite and collects $10,000. This is not a huge surprise.]

Judges' table. As usual, Padma asks the guest chef for his impressions. (Happy birthday! Now dash the aspirations of two chefs who just cooked for you.) He's very happy; everything was "perfect." Except for all the little nitpicky things the judges are about to point out. Padma thinks the decision will be a hard one. Chef Wong enjoyed Sam's version of haupia. Chef Tom nominates Ilan's lau lau; he's impressed that Ilan attempted the taro. Gail brings up Marcel. Padma thinks the pineapple poi was a stretch. Chef Wong reviews his poi lecture and agrees that pineapple poi is "kind of a stretch." Gail liked the airy texture, but Padma found it runny and it didn't work for her. Chef Wong found Elia's olives creative. Chef Tom complains that it wasn't Hawaiian. Chef Wong gives them all credit for doing so well in the allotted time. Chef Tom decides it's time to grill the chefs.

Chef Wong thanks them all for his party. Chef Tom compliments them for the overall excellence. Gail thought their personalities really came through. Marcel goes first. Padma asks how he chose his ingredients, and he explains how he fell in love with his proteins. Chef Wong asks if he put any onion in the tomato water; that would have kicked it up a notch. Padma asks about his pineapple poi; he explains that he was trying to preserve the freshness of the pineapple. Chef Tom compliments him for using an over-used technique in an appropriate way, since it was the only method to accomplish that dish. Chef Wong calls it "adventurous."

Elia enjoyed the chance to experience authentic Hawaiian food. She was happy with her tuna juice, which Padma agrees was "very creative." She thinks she took a risk in cooking the snapper with traditional methods. Gail agrees that the fish was beautifully cooked, but the method reminded them of a traditional French method, which is something Elia could pull off. Chef Tom talks about the poke straying too far from the traditional. Elia says she wanted them to taste her style. Padma reminds her that they were supposed to use the Hawaiian flavors; Elia thinks she did.

Padma prompts Ilan to talk about the Spanish influences. He says his first dish was sort of a cross between a luau and a lau lau. He used sausage that he had made and tried to separate the layers of flavors. Gail points out that he was the only one to use meat and the only one to use taro leaves. She likes the bold flavors. Chef Tom thinks this is how Hawaiian food would taste if the Spanish had arrived a few hundred years ago. Padma brings up the itch. Chef Tom didn't get that, but Chef Wong says everyone reacts differently. Padma asks about the croqueta and Chef Wong would have liked it better without saffron, just because it's not a big Hawaiian ingredient. Ilan said he's had a lot of saffron and coconut dishes, so he wanted something he knew would work.

Sam explains how he took a risk in using mascarpone cheese to replicate haupia. Padma calls it "spot on" and Chef Wong also loved it, especially the balance of the salt. Gail really liked the pickled sea beans in the poke; they were very Sam. Chef Wong liked it, but maybe just a little more yuzu. Sam is surprised; he thought if anything they would say he used too much yuzu. Chef Tom thinks his knife skills were a bit lacking; the opakapaka was a little ragged.

The chefs go away. Chef Tom asks about favorites. Gail proposes Marcel's poke, which was Chef Tom's favorite poke. Gail says it showed a lot of thought. Chef Wong pegs him as a thinker, and Gail says sometimes he's an overthinker, but this worked. Home run!

The three non-Marcel chefs sit around a table and complain about him. Ilan claims he was on the chopping block a lot and Elia thinks he's "rude" and "disrespectful." He was cheating all the time. Ilan wants Elia to back him if he speaks up. This is their last chance to say something. Sam advises the cheating angle.

Chef Tom gets consensus that Elia strayed too far from traditional Hawaiian. If he had eaten her poke in New York, it wouldn't have made him think of Hawaii. Chef Wong observes that she used very European vegetables in her snapper dish.

Time to talk about Sam and Ilan. Chef Tom complains that Sam didn't actually cook anything. Padma doesn't care, but Chef Tom laughs, "It's a cooking competition!" He didn't find any progression of flavors. Padma disagrees; Sam just didn't use heat. Chef Tom argues that he took the "easy way out." (Cooking provides more opportunity for things to go wrong, so it's riskier.) Chef Wong is surprised to realize that he didn't cook. Gail wonders if Ilan was playing it safe; using Spanish is bold, but that's what he does everyday, so it's not a stretch for him. Chef Wong observes that coconut milk is common to many cuisines, so the saffron took it out of the Hawaiian realm. Gail thought it was great; the filling did taste like haupia. Chef Tom points out that he was the only one to use taro; that's his nomination for his favorite. Gail is finding it hard to choose. Padma observes that Sam has the most QuickFire wins but Ilan has more Elimination wins.

The chefs return to learn their fates. Chef Tom says they're not picking two losers but two winners. He compliments Sam's dessert for the flavor and the yuzu in the poke. Ilan is praised for using taro and Spanish flavors. He compliments Elia's fish, although the Hawaiian flavors could have been stronger. He thinks Marcel found the right way to use his techniques. But two will have to get the boot.

Ilan starts whispering to Elia, and Padma has this wonderful look of apprehension. Finally, Ilan speaks up that he was talking with Elia. She doesn't know "if it's worth it to be said or not." She waffles. Ilan jumps in that they "all feel" that some people "disrespect the kitchen and disrespect food." Chef Tom closes his eyes like he's praying for a volcano to swallow them, or him, or anybody, to make it stop. Ilan and Elia manage to say that someone tried to "gain an advantage." Marcel's like, go ahead, talk about me. Elia says, "Come on, Marcel. You cheated several times." Chef Tom asks if they're talking about that round. Elia says no, today was just the usual annoying crap, like Marcel moving her steamer. Marcel protests that the burner wasn't on. Although from the steam, it looks like the burner was on at one point. I don't know if the product-placed stoves are rated for outdoor cooking in windy areas. Elia says he didn't ask before moving it, but Marcel says he checked first. Chef Tom wants to know if it injured her dish, and Elia disclaims. She looks at the others and asks, "Am I the only one here?" Sam suggests waiting to see what the judges say. Gail asks for specifics, but Elia can't think of anything. Gail says it's hard to make a determination without facts. Elia agrees; it's just an example of his behavior. Chef Tom protests that they aren't judging the behavior, they're judging the food. He doesn't care. Elia says, "It's hard to hear that, but it's cool." If you're going to accuse someone of cheating, you need to have the specifics to back it up. Otherwise, don't waste your time. And if someone cheats, don't wait until the end of the competition to bring it up. There was a big fuss on Project Runway in the season 3 finale when Laura suspected Jeffrey of cheating, but she brought it up before the final shows and she was able to point to specific things about Jeffrey's clothes that bothered her. (One of the unintended consequences of this season is that people are revisiting their previous standards of villainy.)

Decision time. Padma tells Marcel he's in. Elia barely shakes her head. Elia gets the boot. Ilan kisses her on the cheek. Sam gets the boot. Marcel looks surprised. Ilan is in. There are hugs of congratulation and consolation. Elia interviews that she wasn't trying to save herself; she was Marcel's only friend in the whole competition. I'm not sure they were ever really friends -- more like acquaintances -- and the relationship eventually wore down. Sam interviews that he was surprised, but "for whatever reason" the judges didn't think his dishes stood up. But he is grateful for the experience, and it has definitely helped him. Elia interviews that her lesson learned is to be herself and stand up for her beliefs; she's proud that she didn't compromise herself. So, she really believes that Marcel needs his hair shaved? Marcel interviews that he's glad to be competing against Ilan because now it's personal. Ilan interviews that he has his own motivations to win, but beating Marcel would just make it better. The two stand around a table. Ilan looks forward to making Marcel cry in the next round. Marcel pooh-poohs that Ilan doesn't scare him.

Well, I wonder what they'll do for drama next week?

Right finalists? I have a philosophical difference with the judging. When it comes to naming the best whatever, I think an overall record of excellence is more important than a good day. As far as I can tell, they haven't looked at anyone's record. Padma mentioned that Sam had more QuickFire wins, while Ilan had more Elimination wins, but it didn't sound like that was a factor in the decision. So let's look at the results across the competition:

  1. Sam (flambé), Ilan (mystery box)
  2. Cliff (sushi), Betty (Asian fusion catering)
  3. Cliff (ice cream), Betty (GiantChainRestaurant)
  4. Carlos (vending machine), Frank (Camp Glucose)
  5. Sam (offal), Ilan (leftover lunch)
  6. five (canned goods), Elia (Thanksgiving)
  7. Marcel (raw foods), Elia (surfer breakfast)
  8. Cliff (cocktail/snack), Sam (red carpet cocktail party)
  9. Michael (color), Michael (7 deadly sins)
  10. Sam & Marcel (condiments), none (restaurant)
  11. Sam (chocolate), all (romantic dinner)

I'm ignoring team challenges when noting if people were in the top or bottom, because it's hard to parse out someone's abilities from team performance. However, I'm keeping (but noting separately) the pairings from the leftover lunch challenge.

If we're going strictly by their records, Sam and Elia would be the final two. However, that means the luau challenge didn't matter. So how did that turn out? The judging criteria were taste, presentation and personality. I didn't hear anything about presentation during the judges' table; that's the easiest thing for the view to judge. It sounded like everyone did well on taste, so that wasn't a deciding factor. It seemed to come down to personality or style.

Since Marcel hit a home run for the luau challenge, I would give him a spot in the finals. If there's a clear loser to the challenge (in this case, Elia), that person is out. The remaining spot goes to the person with the best overall record, which would be Sam.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Previously on Top Chef: Marcel hung out on the roof. Cliff described Marcel as someone he had to put up with. Padma assigned the Restaurant Wars challenge. Everybody did stuff. Sam called Mike an amateur. The guests weren't entirely happy with the food. Padma found an olive pit on her table. Chef Tom refused to declare a winner. Mike got the boot for being a drag on his team.

Sleeping chefs. Sam interviews that they're close to the finale. He vows not to "step on anyone" to succeed, but he's sure his cooking skills will get him a spot. Elia interviews that she's excited to be so close to the finale. She and Ilan are wearing sunglasses in bed again. Ilan interviews that he moved in with Elia because she was lonely in her room, and she's a much nicer roommate than Marcel. Oh, right, I remember now, Ilan is obsessed with Marcel. Thank goodness I wasn't allowed to forget that for more than a minute. In the common room, Ilan urges the other chefs to get a move on and finish up the contest. Marcel interviews that he identified Elia, Sam, Ilan and Cliff as his "biggest competition" from the outset, and look who's in the final five.

Padma proudly introduces Eric Ripert of New York's Le Bernadin. Cliff delivers the "ooh-aah" interview, which in this case is particularly well-deserved. Padma babbles about sensuality and Chef Ripert agrees that artistic impact is important. Padma announces that the QuickFire will use product-placed chocolate, and I'm already giving Elia the edge. Marcel interviews that he's not fluent with chocolate, and so he's trying to impress the judge he admires most with the ingredient he understands the least. Padma assigns them 90 minutes to make a dish with either dark or bittersweet chocolate. And go!

Marcel decides to make potato cannellonis, working with Guajillo chilis, coffee, vanilla and chocolate. Everybody cooks. Ilan describes his dish as chocolate truffles with sautéed chicken liver centers. Yes, you read that right. He thinks the flavors will work together. I've never had any kind of liver, so I don't know, but I'm sure you'd have a hard time getting people to order that off a menu. Marcel hasn't made the "cannolis" before, but he's sure he can do it. I thought they were cannellonis. Pick a term, dude. He tries rolling thin dough around a tube, but it doesn't work out and he tosses the results. "That was non-excellent," he declares. A different technique, possibly involving string, is more successful. The chefs start plating. Padma arrives and calls time. The hands in the air have gotten a lot less strenuous now that Betty "No, Really, I'm Not a Cheater" Fraser has gotten the boot.

Padma asks for a recap. Chef Ripert observes that chocolate can be difficult if you're not doing a dessert. Sam had chocolate in only one sauce, but it created a balance among the flavors. Marcel's dish was an original idea. Cliff's mole-like sauce was "excellent" but the dish could have used a little more imagination. Elia's "Kiss" mousse was "perfection" but unfortunately she also made the chicken dish, which seemed like a refrigerator accident. Elia interviews that yes, mole is not usually so chocolate-y, but she didn't think the flavor was bad and she wants credit for taking a risk. Ilan's dish wasn't sexy or impressive; it's not something Chef Ripert would serve. If Elia had stuck with her mousse, she would have won, but since she messed up the chicken, Sam gets the win for his originality. He does the "yay, me" interview. Marcel, standing next to him, shakes his hand in congratulations. Cliff finishes the "ooh-aah" interview: "His palate knows more than all five of our palates put together."

Elimination challenge: The chefs have to create a romantic five-course meal, including wine pairings, for celebrating couples. Sam interviews that this is the big one, partly because Chef Ripert is judging and partly because this determines the finalists. They will serve the meal in Santa Barbara, which Padma calls the most romantic destination in the state. Highly debatable, but it is a pretty town. As the QuickFire winner, Sam gets to choose a course and the protein(s) he'll use; no one else can use the same thing. They'll shop in the afternoon and head to Santa Barbara the next day, where they'll do their wine shopping.

Sam tells the others he's thinking of taking the first course. Cliff recaps the rules; Sam could really throw a spanner in the works if he chooses to do bouillabaisse, since none of the other chefs would be able to use shellfish or pretty much any kind of seafood. Marcel tells Elia he's thinking about a lobster soup. He interviews that it's a tough challenge, and an important one. Yes, yes, I get it; this determines who goes to the finals. But tough? They've done a lot of multi-course meals, and if anything, this sounds easier than the others. I think the challenge for getting into the finals should be to outcook LeeAnne from S1, because I'm pretty sure she could kick all their butts and I think they all need the wake-up call.

Sam announces that he's definitely doing the first course, and he'll be using scallops and lobster. Marcel reacts like Sam just messed him up big time; Sam says, "Sorry." Marcel recaps that Sam chose lobster and scallops, so he had to check those off his list. Yep, those would be the rules. Stop taking it so personally. Ilan wants the second or third course and clams. Cliff is taking sirloin. Elia's thinking about dessert. Sam observes that if no one else wants to do it, not being pastry chefs (drink!), she'll probably get credit for taking a risk. Elia interviews that they aren't required to make a dessert, but she thinks a romantic dinner needs one. (I agree.) She figures if she makes something good, she won't be compared to the others. Marcel is having a tough time. Elia tells him that he can't pick something that will "probably" work; it has to be something sure-fire. Marcel interviews about the high stakes again. Yes, yes, it all comes down to this; I get it already.

The chefs go shopping. Cliff recaps the challenge, with the usual "big stakes!" addendum. No graphic describing the time limit or budget, so presumably both are ample. The chefs describe their dishes:

The product-placed vehicles zip up the highway and the chefs go wine shopping in Santa Barbara. No budget or time limits here, either. Then it's off to the restaurant where they'll be cooking. Marcel interviews that they have plenty of time to work, as long as they "stay organized." Chef Tom welcomes them and points them to the kitchen; they'll be cooking for about 30 people. (Presumably they were already told this so they knew how much to buy.) The chefs file into the kitchen and start looking around. Chef Tom sets the timer for 5 hours. And go!

Sam interviews that his first task is the bases for his sauces. He'll just keep his head down and get it done. It looks like Ilan and Marcel are complaining that the kitchen is too small for all five of them. Especially since they don't have defined roles and stations, like a regular kitchen team. Ilan says he just needs a corner with a cutting board for his prep. Marcel finds Cliff's vegetables in the sink and asks him to remove them so he can wash his; Cliff's like, "Well, they're in the sink so I can wash them." Cliff interviews that Marcel has been irksome before, and he's being irksome yet again. Marcel wants to keep some doors closed.

Cooking happens. Marcel voiceovers that he's a little nervous, what with the high stakes and all. YES, I GET IT. Sam confides that Marcel is doing beets, too, which he finds "a little silly" but it's Marcel's choice. Elia interviews that she'll be making chocolate hearts, so her dessert will be "cheesy" but romantic. Cliff relates how this is the last chance before the finals, so he doesn't "plan on" screwing up. No one ever does. That's the problem.

More cooking. The clock ticks down. Sam asks Elia if she'll help him plate in about 15 minutes, and he agrees. Then he asks if Marcel can help or if he'll be busy. Marcel thinks he'll be busy then. Sam interviews that Marcel refused to help him, and he's sometimes "adolescent." Marcel interviews that he told Sam he wouldn't be able to help, and he probably wouldn't be able to help anyone who serves before him. I think Sam is stretching it when he complains about Marcel, but I tend to think Marcel could have planned better. The bulk of his work really should get done before serving starts, because things can get pretty crazy in the kitchen after that.

The customers arrive and review the menu. The judges also arrive. Various couples announce their reasons to celebrate. With 15 minutes on the clock, Sam starts plating with Ilan and Cliff's help. No Elia? But there's really no room for another person along the counter.

Ilan has pans all over the stove; he's waiting for all the clams to open. Cliff interviews that Ilan's dish "came right down to the second." Marcel asks if Ilan needs all those pans and gets told to wait. He interviews that "it really threw me off" when Ilan claimed the stove; he can't cook 30 pieces of fish on one burner. I'm not sure if Ilan needed all those pans the whole time, but how much time does Marcel need to cook? He has a certain amount of time between courses. This is yet another area where the chefs are failing to coordinate. They should have worked out the end game ahead of time.

Sam checks with Cliff and finds out he's serving after Marcel. He'll come back and help Cliff, but he won't help Marcel since Marcel didn't help him. Sigh. Now that Marcel has the stove to himself, he starts cooking his fish. Marcel asks Cliff if he can help, but I suspect Cliff is busy with his dish, rather like Marcel was. The others are not being seen. Marcel interviews that no one would help him plate. A pan of fish next to Cliff falls on the floor; Cliff interviews that he saw it "sliding" from the corner of his eye and now that fish can't be served. Some time later, Cliff spoons sauces onto Marcel's plates. Sam interviews that he did think about not helping Marcel, but he's "not that guy," however much he wanted to be. Sam and Ilan also work on some plates, although it looks like they're starting with clean plates, so Cliff pitched in a little later. Marcel interviews that he cut his larger fish sections in half to make enough fish for everyone.

Cliff starts plating his dish. He interviews, "Romance to me is fatty and sensual." If we're talking "fatty" like buttercream in premium ice cream, I'm with him. But gobs of fat attached to meat? Not doing it for me. He continues that his dish has a lot of different components. Sam, Ilan and Marcel take turns helping. Marcel interviews that Cliff is playing it safe, hoping someone else will screw up so the judges won't notice that his dish "isn't even relevant" to the challenge. Because it didn't have hearts on it? A lot of guys just aren't going to be happy without a nice piece of beef for dinner, so I'm not seeing the problem.

Ilan warns Elia to move faster with her plating as the clock ticks down. Then she's in the back of the kitchen bewailing her "big mistake." She interviews that she's trying to cut out chocolate hearts, but the chocolate isn't flexible enough to lift out. She tells Sam that she's "screwed" but he scoffs. She should just break up the chocolate and serve it that way. Sam interviews that Elia's chocolate hearts are sticking to the sheet tray. Sam urges her to decide how she's going to deal with the chocolate; he votes for bits. Elia seems to be going for doing as many hearts as she can, but Sam tells her a mix of whole and broken chocolate would look bad. Elia gives in and they break up the chocolate. Sam thinks it looks better, since hearts are "cheesy" anyway. Elia goes into one of her patented self-defeating funks, declaring that she gives up. She interviews that it looked and tasted good, but not as much as she wanted, especially for Chef Ripert. Outside (behind the restaurant), she tells Ilan that it's the first time she's not happy with her dish. The diners, on the other hand, seem quite happy with it.

Elia continues to pout out back, and Ilan tries to snap her out of it. He interviews that she's a perfectionist who gets upset when she can't achieve what she envisions. Back at the restaurant, he tells her that she's pouting over chocolate hearts when the diners loved her dessert, and she decides to get over it.

Padma and Gail are impressed by the chefs' efforts. Chef Tom didn't see the romance (I guess the hearts didn't do it for him) but Padma points to the dessert and Chef Ripert nominates the scallop dish. Gail points out that this was the time for the chefs to step it up. Ilan interviews that everything looked great, so it might just be a matter of who had the least romance. Sam does the "I hope I make it" interview. Cliff interviews that you just put everything into the plate, and hope the judges get it. Marcel does the "I'm confident" interview. He sabers a bottle of champagne for the chefs. Marcel, please, stop trying to be Stephen. He's the one who didn't make it to the final four.

Back in LA, it's night. Ilan interviews that they asked to borrow a camera (presumably for goofing off) and went back to the lofts. After all the excitement, it was time to get drunk. Cliff starts drinking a beer. Ilan talks about how Elia has always wanted to shave her head. She, Sam and Ilan are in a hallway discussing it. Sam is dubious but Ilan is ready to join her. Elia interviews that she suggested they all shave their heads. The guys are dubious that she'll do it. Ilan interviews that Sam volunteered to do it if she did, and Ilan also jumped on board. And we see Ilan shaving his head with the electric clippers. Sam freaks out and refuses to join in. Elia finishes the job for Ilan. He interviews that it was the first time for him, and he's happy with it. Ilan puts on his glasses and Sam says, "You look good, dude." He does have a well-shaped head. Elia interviews that she has always wanted to shave her head, and if she doesn't do it now, it's less and less likely that she'll do it as time passes. So we see her shaving her own head, and she looks like she's enjoying it. Someone (Ilan?) tells her she could still stop after she has clipped the bottom half on one side. Cliff interviews that he thought it was hysterical, seeing "a woman with a full, luscious head of hair just do away with it." Elia keeps shaving. She interviews, "So I shaved it" and pulls off the wig and headband to show a completely bald head. It's not bad. She has the features to pull it off. Sam evens out her work and she rejoices that she has wanted "all her life" to do this. Ilan interviews that he and Elia are shaved and Sam "is a little bit of a wuss." Elia anticipates the next day, when they'll all be shaved (except Sam) and Marcel will see them. That would be Marcel of the giant pompadour. Cliff interviews, "And then we realized that seeing as how it is our last elimination challenge, we thought it would be a good idea to try to shave Marcel's head." Sam interviews, "And from there, things just basically got a little out of hand."

Cliff tiptoes into the dark common room where Marcel is sleeping on the couch and starts to tug him off. Marcel wakes up and someone turns on the lights. Cliff wrestles a protesting Marcel onto the floor and Ilan calls for Sam to get going. Marcel tries to break free and Cliff tries to hold him still. Ilan keeps calling for Sam, who is lounging on another couch. Sam interviews, "I didn't think that he was actually gonna -- it was weird. It was an uncomfortable situation for all parties involved." Ilan calls for Elia to come over, but she says she can't. Ilan is disappointed -- "He's holding him down for nothing?" Marcel and Cliff are still wrestling. Marcel interviews, "I was rudely awakened by Cliff. I'm like, is this for real? Like, what the (bleep)'s going on right now? Why is there this big guy on top of me? Like, why am I, like, eating the carpet? Like, what are those (bleep)in' clippers doing over there?" The wrestling ends with Cliff holding Marcel in an upright full nelson with Marcel's feet a good six inches off the floor. Cliff sets him down and releases him as Marcel continues, "And so I struggled and like I break free from Cliff's hold and I feel really angry and pissed off." He walks out of the common room into a bedroom, passing Elia, who's doubled over on the floor. Ilan calls for someone to go apologize to him. Cliff interviews that he was obviously upset, because "who really wants to have their head almost shaved? And it was a very stupid 'plan' or 'joke.'" Sam waves Ilan the cameraman to follow Marcel. This part is confusing. There's a shot of Marcel in his boxers yelling at the cameraman to get out of the bedroom, and he smashes into him. But then Marcel's back in his wifebeater and jeans rummaging in the bedroom. He reports that he slept on the bathroom floor that night.

Okay. Lots to talk about. So much, that I'm just going to wait until the end.

Morning. Sleeping chefs. Elia is wearing sunglasses as she sleeps. The camera zooms in on a picture of Elia with a man. Marcel packs with his stuff arrayed on a stripped bed. He interviews that he was cold when he woke because he didn't bring any blankets, and he had rug burns on his arms. As he packs, he tells the camera that he's eager to get back to his "real life", where he doesn't have to "live with these people that are like, whatever." Ilan is also packing. He says, "Marcel was bitter a bit earlier but he's sort of calmed down. I think he was treated unfairly. Last night, I thought -- I think that he was manhandled a bit and we were all sort of in a moment." Compare this with Cliff's statement: "I do feel bad for physically touching Marcel. It was a stupid joke, it was a stupid decision, and I totally regret it." There's a new business book out about hiring people, and one of the points made is that you can tell about someone by how he handles mistakes. Based on those two clips, I would be comfortable hiring Cliff, but I could never hire Ilan. From his statement, you can't even tell he was involved. Meanwhile, Cliff is straightforward about what he did wrong. Even if he's just doing it for damage control, it's working. I'm perfectly happy for people to be fake if it means they do the right thing.

Everyone is sitting quietly in the common area when Chef Tom arrives. Sam, Elia and Cliff are sitting at the table, Ilan is sleeping on a sofa and Marcel is reclining on another. Chef Tom sends out everyone else so he can talk to Cliff. He says, "What I'm sure started out as a very simple prank and I'm sure that you meant absolutely no harm to Marcel, but once you physically handled him, it crossed the line from a simple prank to something much more serious. You broke the rules and, uh, we're going to have to ask you to leave." Cliff seems stunned. "In the rules, it clearly states that if you touch another contestant in an aggressive manner -- you know. Unfortunately, you know the rules." Cliff looks away, absorbing it, then turns and nods to Chef Tom, "Yes, chef." Chef Tom tells him he can pack up and say goodbye to everyone, then shakes his hand and leaves.

Cliff interviews, "To come this far and to do something as stupid as this, uh, yeah, it's, uh, you know, I kick myself in the ass. Now I'll pay for it, so I won't go to Hawaii." Chef Tom finds the other chefs in Elia's room (I think) and tells them that he had to ask Cliff to leave. They all look gobsmacked. He continues that they want to competition to be about food, so they will all have to face the judges. Ilan interviews, "I feel bad about it, but there's nothing I can do to change the past." So, once a weasel, no point in trying to be anything but a weasel, I guess. Cliff comes in to say goodbye. Marcel has moved off the bed and over to the other side of the room, away from the others. Cliff says goodbye to Sam, Ilan and Elia. He then shakes hands with Marcel, who gives him a guy hug and says, "Sorry things worked out the way they did." Cliff tells Marcel, "It was a joke that got way out of control and I apologize. There are no ill feelings, it was just one of those stupid things. I'm sorry." He interviews, "My actions towards Marcel were incredibly stupid, and it's one of those things where obviously you really want to take back." He wishes everyone luck and walks off. The remaining chefs look flattened. Marcel interviews that he regrets the fall-out; Cliff's reputation could suffer. He thinks "Cliff's an excellent cook, even though this was kind of major." Cliff interviews, "I really wish Marcel nothing but the best. Go, cook your ass off, kid." Cliff leaves.

Judges' table. Chef Tom catches up the other judges -- the judges were drinking, they decided to wake up Marcel and "play a prank on him" by shaving his head. Padma and Gail are all, "Are you serious?" Chef Ripert asks, "Make believe or --?" Chef Tom assures the others that the chefs "didn't go through with it," but since Cliff held Marcel down, the producers and Chef Tom decided they had to ask him to leave. The other judges are absorbing the news. Chef Tom continues that it was "unfortunate," because the competition was great. Gail agrees that it was the best meal so far. Padma finds it ironic that Cliff's dish was her least favorite, and Gail concurs. Chef Tom summarizes the opinion that Cliff probably would have gotten the boot. Gail is disappointed because she liked his passion. Padma is surprised he would do something like this to himself and Marcel. Gail agrees that something awful could have happened. Padma wants to bring them out and scold them, and Chef Tom tells her she's in for a surprise.

The chefs file in; Padma and Gail are visibly flummoxed by the bald heads on Ilan (who's grinning) and Elia (who looks nervous). Finally, Padma busts out, "I don't know what you guys were thinking!" Ilan explains that they were "a little" overexcited and were drinking "a little" and things got "a little out of hand." Marcel is carefully not saying anything. If I were Marcel, I would be carefully not beating Ilan about the head and shoulders with a rolling pin. If I were Ilan, I'd have to kill myself, but first, I'd shut up. Chef Tom asks if this is how Sam runs his kitchen; Sam disclaims. Chef Tom wonders why no one said to knock if off. Marcel volunteers that he did, and Padma agrees he must have. Padma is astonished that they would risk everything after lasting so long. Gail says that it's really counter to what the competition is looking for. Marcel agrees with her, and this is where he should go back to carefully not saying anything. Gail continues that a top chef should be a leader and set an example. Padma inquires into Marcel's well-being; he says he's fine. She's sorry that it happened to him, but Marcel says she doesn't need to apologize.

Padma would like to change the subject, and Marcel is eager to talk about the food. Padma starts off with, "Actually, you idiots, the food yesterday was really, really good!" Chef Ripert says overall the level of execution was high. Gail compliments all the wine pairings. Chef Tom starts with Marcel's dish. Chef Ripert really liked the wine pairing, but he thought the salmon needed some acidity. Marcel confesses that he decided against using lemon juice as he cooked. Chef Tom asks if the dish should put him in the finals; Marcel says he's proud of it. Padma turns to Elia, who confesses the problems she had with her chocolate hearts. She realizes she shouldn't have tempered the chocolate as she did. Chef Tom liked the dessert, but would like to see more from five hours' worth of work. Chef Ripert is pleased with the lightness of the dessert. Ilan's turn. Chef Ripert thinks his execution was "perfection" and that's all we need to see about Ilan's dish. Finally, Sam. He confesses that the sauce might have been a bit strong. Gail agrees that it was strong, but the scallop was well-cooked. Chef Ripert liked the modern presentation but thought the lobster was lost in the mix. Chef Tom says they're going to decide who goes to Hawaii. Really? I thought they said there would be four chefs in the finale. The chefs file out.

Gail sums up the situation: Cliff probably would have lost if he had stayed. Do they need to eliminate someone else, or are all the remaining chefs deserving? Padma starts the review with Sam; she liked his choice of scallops. Chef Ripert agrees, and the dish was well-made. Chef Tom praises the wine choice. Chef Ripert says he initially thought Ilan served too much food, but they all finished it easily and Padma was looking for more. He liked the use of saffron. Chef Tom concurs that it was a good dish. Marcel's turn. Chef Ripert felt it lacked something, and was "almost boring." Gail agrees; it was edible, but it didn't add up to something interesting. Chef Tom sounds a little frustrated as he says Elia's dessert could have been so much better with just a little more effort. Chef Ripert is not enthusiastic.

Chef Tom can't decide between Marcel and Elia, and wonders if they should both get the boot. Gail found Marcel's dish disappointing, but Padma wants to see what he would do for the finals. She thinks he's an interesting chef. Chef Tom is wondering why Elia chose to do a dessert at this point, when she should be emphasizing her strengths. Gail thinks Elia is underestimating her own performance on the dessert.

The chefs return. Chef Tom praises them all for growing during the challenges. Padma tells Sam and Ilan that they're going to the finale. Unfortunately, Elia and Marcel must pack their knives -- and go to Hawaii! Ah, yes, the old fakeout. So glad we got to have one of those. I was feeling the need for some manufactured drama. So everybody hugs. Ilan interviews that he's psyched to go to Hawaii, and he needs to start doing sit ups. He's sure he'll win. Elia is happy to make it to the finals; she's proud to be representing all the other women, and she's also sure she'll win. Sam interviews that he's "stoked" to make it; he talks about a long journey and keeping "your eye on the prize," so he's not thinking he has it sewn up yet. Marcel is also "stoked" to be going. "I can't even begin to explain, like, how dope my food is going to be in Hawaii." Please, don't compose a rap on the subject. The chefs celebrate as they leave the kitchen.

And there we be.

So, about this whole "prank" incident: I was not shocked, appalled or horrified. I was also not thrilled, delighted or entertained. I'm not fond of reality shows in general because I don't enjoy watching people behave stupidly. When they start, I sigh with resignation and wait for them to finish. As much as I don't care for this sort of thing, I do think they had to show what happened so we would have a context for the reactions from the judges, producers and contestants.

Let's begin at the beginning. Why on earth would the Gang of Four decide to do something that stupid? As long as it's understood that I'm talking about the mechanics of their thought processes, I believe I can explain. (If you don't see a difference between an explanation and an excuse, just stop now, because we don't speak the same language and this will not end well.) There are three major factors. First, they were drinking. There is an ancient tradition of drunk people having really clever, exciting, hilarious and/or profound ideas which turn out to be really stupid in the cold light of day. Second, they had just been under a great deal of stress, which has also been known to do bad things to people's judgment. And third, Marcel has incredibly stupid hair. Think back to the first time you saw him on screen, and what your reaction was. The first couple of weeks of this season, a big topic of discussion was whether Marcel's hair was more like Wolverine, Heat Miser or Jimmy Neutron. And we're talking about adults with real lives spending a whole lot of time talking about this. If you're operating on the mental level of a twelve-year-old boy, Marcel's hair has to exert a powerful fascination.

Now, not only is The Hair an incredibly alluring target, it's also a seemingly easy target. It is, after all, "just hair." If you do something to someone's hair, it's easy to convince yourself that you're not doing anything "that bad." No permanent harm, right? And it's easy to overlook (especially if you don't really want to examine your actions) that something that's "only a little bit" bad is still bad. In my opinion, the allure of The Hair is what tipped them over the edge into action. This does not mean that what happened is Marcel's fault for wearing an attractive nuisance on his head; Marcel is fully entitled to have stupid hair. They might have decided to shave Marcel if he had perfectly boring hair -- but it seems far less likely.

What I find missing from the whole business, for the most part, is a kind of gleeful sense of malevolence. The forums over at are convinced that this season has turned into a Lord of the Flies redux, but I'm just not seeing it. Yes, Sam blew up at Marcel at the supply store and got pissy about helping him plate -- but Sam also shook his hand in congratulations and wound up helping him plate after all. He doesn't like Marcel, but he's able to be civilized. As for Cliff, if we didn't have his interview comments about Marcel being annoying, we wouldn't have any idea of what he thinks of Marcel. Yes, he has wanted to hit Marcel. Big deal. Feeling an impulse to punch someone is meaningless, and if it weren't, millions of Americans would need to give up driving and I would have to stop watching Top Chef. Elia kind of likes Marcel. Of the lot, only Ilan seems to be really after Marcel. His general attitude has crossed over from a sort of reactive annoyance to a proactive aggression.

So when they do actually go out there and try to shave Marcel's head, they're pretty half-assed about it. Perhaps (as happens so often), once they faced the actuality of what they were doing, it didn't seem so amusing. Sam would probably have laughed if someone else shaved Marcel, but he didn't hate Marcel enough to do it himself. Elia obviously didn't feel a need to shave Marcel, since she declined to help. Cliff could have handled Marcel far more roughly, but focused on restraining him rather than causing pain or physical harm. Once the others refused to shave Marcel, Cliff was in a position to do something else humiliating; instead, he let Marcel go. Only Ilan was eager to see someone go through with it, and Ilan was all about the watching. He didn't want to humiliate Marcel himself; he wanted to watch someone else humiliate Marcel. I'm fairly neutral about the other three, but I utterly despise Ilan.

What was interesting was how they all four fell into their characters: Sam is the guy who feels above it all. Cliff turned on his laser focus and got the job done. Elia was too overcome with emotion to do anything constructive. Ilan has a really creepy obsession with Marcel.

I'm really curious about what happened the next morning. Did anyone say anything about it, or did everyone just ignore it? Was it "Oh, well, no harm done"? Was it "Oh, crap, I can't believe I did that?" I can see Sam wanting to make a gesture of -- maybe not apology, but non-aggression -- but definitely not wanting to talk about it. Elia would probably want to pretend it never happened. If Marcel had seemed upset, I can see Cliff apologizing, but otherwise, I think he'd just leave him alone, as usual. Ilan? I can't see him passing up the chance to needle Marcel, but I would expect that to escalate into a confrontation, and I didn't get the sense that happened. I suspect Sam and Cliff (and maybe Elia) shut him down pretty quick.

I think this is where the odd sequence of Marcel reacting to the camera comes in. After he's free, he strides out of the room. At this point, he's wearing jeans and a wifebeater. We next see him in boxers, yelling at the cameraperson to go away and smashing into the camera. Then there's a shot of Marcel back in his T-shirt. Now, I'm pretty sure that after waking up to find a large, capable man smooshing him into the carpet, Marcel did not immediately strip down into his skivvies. I suspect the shot of him confronting the cameraperson came in the morning; the editors inserted it to show that Marcel was, in fact, freaked out by the whole business. Given Marcel's response, I'm assuming it was Ilan, but perhaps one of the other chefs, holding the camera, rather than one of the regular crew. Since was probably hours after the original assault, his original emotions would have had time to dissipate; apparently, he was able to sleep. So while I can understand that he would be angry and perhaps fearful at seeing one of the chefs with a camera again, I can't excuse the smashing. Fear is a much more sympathetic excuse than drunkeness, but it's still an excuse; we expect adults to control their violent impulses. Feel it, but don't act on it. And his smash at the camera showed intent to cause physical harm, while Cliff's restraint did not. (Yes, Marcel wound up with rug burns, but Cliff didn't lay hands on him in order to cause the rug burns or any other injury.)

So oddly enough, after everything, Cliff is the one I'm most okay with. He screwed up, he 'fessed up, and he paid up, all without whining or pointing fingers. I'm kind of sorry to see him get the boot, but it was a perfectly fair decision. My complaint is not that he got booted, but that he was the only one to be punished when all four acted in concert. Cliff was the only one to cross a line in terms of behavior, but I think Ilan was far more malicious. Sam at least has the sense to know that he shouldn't have been part of the plot; it remains to be seen if he'll learn from the experience. As far as I can tell, Ilan doesn't recognize any need to learn anything, or change anything, or do anything differently, so he's pretty much worthless. I'm really not sure what the deal with Elia is; she was kind of invisible through the actual event and we haven't heard her take on things. I suspect being so close to all the Marcel friction started to wear on her, too. I don't think they were ever particularly friendly, and her initial sympathy might have eroded over time. And we saw as far back as the sangria planning party that Elia isn't the mom type who can get people to behave. She was willing to shave her own head; she might not have thought that it was so bad for Marcel to get his head shaved, too. She doesn't seem like she would have been a prime mover in the original planning, but it seems that she was on board. She wasn't willing to get involved in the actual deed, though. What I need to see is how she felt about everything afterwards. Does she recognize that their actions were wrong? Did she apologize to Marcel?

As far as Marcel goes, he handled things pretty well aside from the camera smashing. It was kind of him to wish Cliff well. Even if he was faking, it was the right behavior to fake. He seems pretty emotionally resilient, so I doubt he suffered any lasting trauma. I still haven't been terribly impressed with his food, so I hope he takes all his feelings of resentment and pours them into stepping up his game. Just as long as he doesn't pour them into another rap.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Hash Houses

Previously on Top Chef: Padma assigned a seven-course meal inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins; Cliff celebrated. Sam ordered an unimpressed Marcel to buzz off. Betty served sloppy soup. Michael triumphed with envious fish. Marcel got spanked for constant foaming. Ilan got spanked for dissing Marcel's cherries. Betty and her bug eyes got the boot.

Elia interviews how it's odd to have a room to herself now. She's just hoping to make it to the finals, now tantalizingly close. She joins the guys and relates that Mike made Top Chef history with his episode sweep. Mike recaps his achievement. Elia wonders where Marcel is and Mike thinks he's "crying." Sam or Cliff says he's on the roof, "trying to jump."

Actually, he's trying to write. He interviews that he tends to prefer his own company these days. It turns out he has spent some time composing a poem called "These People" which he dedicates to "all the haters." I'm starting to wish he jumped. I contemplated just ignoring the poem. Then I contemplated not transcribing it because the full version (in Bravo's bonus video) is longer and I could "protest" the alteration of the artist's original work, but I'm actually grateful for the editing. So here it goes. Marcel starts performing his creation. I suppose he's treating it as rap, but I'm pretending it's more of a poetry slam because it's just more palatable that way.

"As soon as I came to this spot
You started trying to make me out to be something I'm not.
It's taken every ounce that I got
Not to pop you in the face.
And you have no grounds to base your accusations off of
'Cause your building's built on quicksand.
And you say my food lacks fundamentals like salt 'n' pepa
And I'm like, "Yo, man, whateva!"
I don't even get stressed
Because I know at the end of the day
My food is (bleep)in' soigné."

Okay, that was just horrid. Nonetheless, Marcel is thoroughly pleased with himself. I'm not entirely sure he should be. Poetic merit aside, he's playing the same "aren't they awful?" audience conspiracy game that Betty and Ilan have been playing (or trying to play). I liked it better when he was just keeping it about the food.

The chefs head off to the kitchens. Padma is there with Mike Yakura, the taste test/pushcart judge from last year, formerly with Le Colonial and now associated with Sutra and Aura. Sadly, he has shaved all his hair except for a skunk-like stripe down the middle, and he is not wearing a bowling shirt. Padma babbles about vision and execution. The QuickFire challenge is to use the product-placed condiments (mayonnaise, Italian dressing and barbeque sauce) and other selected ingredients to create "the humblest form of culinary life: the snack." I thought junk food was the lowest form of culinary achievement. Snacks are really not that different from canapés or appetizers, and they've done those repeatedly. Cliff interviews that everyone was a little iffy about the challenge because 'it's mayo," which doesn't get used much in gourmet cooking. But mayonnaise is French! How could it not be gourmet? Chef Mike gives them a few things to think about when it comes to snack construction. Padma gives them 30 minutes to work. And go!

Sam confesses to mayonaisse love; this is what his parents got for sending him to an expensive culinary school. Ilan also uses mayo. Marcel interviews that he found some nice lamb loins, so he's using the mayo in a kebab recipe because "everybody loves meat on a stick." And the debate about Marcel's sexuality (or lack thereof) rages on. Mike interviews that the competition is tough now that they're down to the top six. He also loves mayo, and eats it "right out of the can." Canned mayo? Ewwwwwww. He's confident about his dish. Ilan interviews that he tried foaming some Italian dressing as an "homage" to Marcel. Well, if he's trying to say that Marcel can't foam, that would work. Otherwise, I can't imagine why he'd think he could get anything as oily as Italian dressing to foam. Shoulda tried the barbeque sauce, dude.

Padma calls time. The hands up look like a robbery where everyone is humoring the bank robbers. Marcel interviews that he was confident when he saw what the others had done. This is no time to be turning into Stephen, dude, not when you're so close to the finals.

Padma asks Chef Mike for a review. Mike gets bopped for being too busy and too heavy-handed with the mayo. Ilan's dish was too dry with the tortilla and the salmon and not enough sauce. Sam is complimented for his take on a lobster po' boy and for using all three condiments. Elia gets praise for a "clean" dish with nice flavors. Marcel's technique gets a nod; the mayo improved the dish. Cliff is praised for his "ingenious" use of mayo in the tartare. Padma announces that there will be two winners, who will both get "a special prize." Chef Mike chooses Sam (who interviews that his "love of mayonnaise really came through" for him) and Marcel (who interviews that he "kicked ass"). Sam and Marcel shake hands and offer congratulations. This convinces me that, although Sam dislikes Marcel, he has not boarded Betty and Ilan's crazy train of hate, where all pretense of civility has vanished.

The Elimination challenge is a rehash of last year's Restaurant Wars. As their prize for winning, Sam and Marcel get to choose teams. For reasons unknown, Marcel gets to go first and naturally chooses Elia. He interviews that he knows they work well together, with no personal issues. Sam picks Ilan. I'm not sure why he didn't pick Cliff, with whom he worked on the Social/Stifler's mom challenge, forcing Marcel to choose between Ilan and Mike. I'm guessing Sam doesn't play chess. Marcel tells Mike that he doesn't want him to feel like the last guy picked at dodge ball (Mike: "Oh, please") but he picks Cliff. Mike celebrates his inclusion on Team Sam. Cliff interviews that he has wanted "to hit Marcel more than five times" since meeting him, but he'll tolerate him in order to win. This ought to go well. Padma sends them off to inspect their space and meet with designers. They'll shop and cook the next day, and then serve with the help of a waiter. Ilan interviews that it's a "very difficult challenge." Well, at this stage in the game, I should hope so. I actually like this challenge, even though it's a team challenge, because they have to do more than just cook. So I don't mind the repetition. I just hope we don't get Return of the Zombie Wedding Caterers next week.

Product-placed vehicles cruise down the street. In the Team Marcel car, Elia wonders what they're going to do. Marcel interviews that this is the Restaurant Wars challenge, for those of you still catching up. Elia pitches that she's a fast cook, or she could handle the front of the house. Cliff interviews that teamwork has not been his best attribute, so he's "hoping for the best but expecting the worst." In the car, Cliff volunteers to take front of the house. Elia pouts that she wanted to do it, and in an interview elaborates that she is good with smiling at people. She asks Cliff if there's a particular reason he wants it, and Cliff explains that it's what he does at his restaurant. Elia interviews that she's "not here to fight" but to compete; she tells Cliff he can do it if he really wants to. And then she'll hold a grudge forever. If she's here to compete, then she should compete for the role she wants. Perhaps she doesn't want to put Marcel in the position of having to choose between them, or leave him stuck in the kitchen with Cliff.

In the other car, Sam suggests "rustic Tuscan." He interviews that he's happy with his team because Ilan's a great cook and Mike's a great guy. Yep, there's a ringing endorsement. The discussion has turned to names, and Ilan suggests using their lady friends as inspiration. He interviews that they combined Mike's Lacy, Sam's Lauren and his Carolina to get "Lalalina." Okay, that's just way too precious. If I find out any children are being named Lalalina after this, I'm going to have to smack some parents. They start anticipating the final in Hawaii. Mike hopes he's there, and Marcel is not.

The chefs arrive at a big, empty space, unpainted except for a line down the middle. Sam interviews that he hopes the designers get cracking, because the space needs help. Marcel confirms to Elia that the teams will share the kitchen. It's a pretty big one, at least. Marcel interviews that "we definitely have our work cut out for us." Unfortunately, he pantomimes the last four words (and points to himself only for "us") and I am reminded why charades is not considered a cool game.

Elia recaps the challenge. A graphic lists the details:

Last year, the teams had $1000 to divide up between food and supplies, and those supplies included tablecloths, which seem to come out of the design budget this year. Team Sam meets with their designer, Marla. Sam interviews that whether in real life or on the show, opening a restaurant is "complete insanity." Especially considering the life span of the average restaurant. It's a tough business. Fortunately, people always gotta eat. Sam describes a family-style Italian restaurant, and Marla picks up on the Tuscan aspect. "Think like 80-year-old grandmother in the back," Sam conceptualizes.

Team Marcel confers with their designer, Christine. Elia interviews that they came up with a Mediterranean restaurant. She asks Christine about tablecloths; Marcel says their table looks "diner-ish." He interviews that the space will look great because the designer totally gets what they want to do. They're calling it "Medi." Marcel tells Christine that they'll call her later if they make any adjustments.

Team Sam confirms with Marla that she gets the picture. Sam interviews that it's a big challenge for her, too. Marla takes off. The chefs head back to the lofts to plan. In the car, Elia says that they should have done a diner, with the burger they made the other day. The idea sparks with Marcel and Elia, but Cliff is munching. Elia interviews that she made burgers for the chefs the other day, which they loved, so she proposed the diner idea. Marcel laughs that he can't believe they're changing everything. He interviews that they were just joking around with the diner idea and suddenly it was the concept. By the time they're at the lofts again, Medi has become M.E.C. I'm not sure about Cliff's role in the reconceptualizing; we haven't heard him say anything. But apparently he didn't object. Around the dinner table, Cliff calls Christine to drop the bombshell. Fortunately, she gets on board with the change. Elia interviews that Christine sounds confident, and she feels confident. Marcel confirms that Christine has the "upscale diner" picture and tells her to "run with it." Team Sam is also planning around their table. Mike interviews that they made up their menu and lists of everything, just another step closer to the finals.

Come morning, Ilan is sitting in Betty's old bed while Elia seems to be waking up. They're both wearing sunglasses. I don't know if Ilan is just visiting or if he has actually changed rooms. Anyway, he tells Elia that they both need to be at Hawaii. He interviews that it's elimination day and he has confidence in his team's idea. Back to Elia. He says, "Not to be mean, but I hope that your team loses and Marcel goes home." Elia interviews that Marcel has been having problems with everyone else. But he's her teammate, and she wants to win and go to the finals. Ilan tells her that if they're the losers, she should just blame everything on Marcel. Elia protests that she doesn't want to be on the chopping block ever again. I don't know why Ilan thinks Elia would be willing to conspire against Marcel, so this whole business is just stupid.

Mike interviews that he has the $500 for supplies and the others have the $500 for food, and they all have their lists. Mike asks for help at the store (Charlie's Fixtures again, and I'm sure they're hoping no one will start fighting this time). Sam lays out the Lalalina menu andrecaps the division of labor. Ilan phones Mike, who sends a picture of some bowl choices.

Cliff is handling the supply run for M.E.C. Over the phone, Marcel tells him they're getting beer and root beer for beverages and asks about quantities. Marcel explains that the menu is based on classic diner food.

Mike is on the phone asking about wine, and Sam says they're not doing it. Mike recaps that he called to ask about the wine glass situation and found out the wine had been cut. So he has over $100 left, since the wine glasses were also cut. In the store, Sam frets about not having wine for an Italian restaurant. As well he should. He interviews that he was worried about that, and also worried that Mike "overlooked" something because he had that extra money. Although wine glasses for 24 would have chewed up a lot of the surplus.

Everybody's back at the restaurant. Marcel and Elia are slicing the filling from the Oreos. I'm sure they have now received several strongly worded letters about messing with the pure integrity of the Oreo experience. Out front, Christine is working on the space. Cliff interviews that he was handling the front of the house, so he had to interrupt his prep work to check with her. They confer. Mike interviews that his team is prepping away without anyone being team leader. But then we see Sam ask Ilan if their designer (or "that girl," if you're Sam) has arrived. Ilan pops out and pops back to report she hasn't. Sam interviews that they haven't spoken to her since the day before, and their space still needs serious help, and they're getting worried.

Team Marcel is prepping together. Elia interviews that she has worked with Cliff before on teams, and he raised his voice during the planning. We hear Cliff react to something with "You just decided on twice." He sound stern, but not angry. Elia interviews that this shows a lack of respect. I don't know, maybe Elia is expecting a competition to work differently than a kitchen, but as far as kitchens go, Cliff's tone is hardly remarkable. I suspect Cliff is one of those laser-focus people who gets really intent on what he needs to do, and changes make him cranky.

Marla arrives and summons Team Sam to see what she's up to. Ilan interviews that she arrived late and then needed to requisition a body. Mike apparently got delegated, but he's not having any luck putting together whatever needs to be assembled. Marcel comes out front to visit Cliff, who's laboring alone while Christine fetches a carpet. Marcel worries because they're just 45 minutes away from opening and things aren't done. Mike warns Marla that he's having no luck with the easel, so she figures she'll get her helper to do it. (So why does she need a chef as well?) Back in the kitchen, Sam suggests Ilan take the bacon off the heat and Ilan reports that it's almost done. Sam interviews that they were short a cook for a long time. Sam is out front telling Mike that he'll get him in about 20 minutes when Chef Tom strolls in. Mike reports that everything is "crazy, trying to open up a restaurant" and Chef Tom jokes that he has some experience with that. Marla gives the status on the decor. Chef Tom asks if Mike has been helping or whatever, and Marla goes with the "whatever" and laughs. It looks like she's going to give Mike his props, but Sam seizes the opportunity to reclaim him. They return to the smell of burnt bacon. Sam gets Ilan's attention; he's working with plates of something. Sam tells him to throw out the bacon. Ilan interviews that he was distracted doing three things at once, and lost track. He apologizes to Sam, who interviews that it threw them off schedule.

Chef Tom arrives, with the aroma of burnt bacon still lingering in the air. Ilan has to 'fess up and Chef Tom chides him to keep track of stuff. Chef Tom checks in with Marcel, whom he had not figured for a "diner guy." Marcel agrees, but they revisited their idea based on their target market and they're hoping to pull it off. Out front, Chef Tom is perplexed that a diner is presenting an amuse bouche -- "in a diner, your amuse is a cup of coffee." But otherwise, he thinks the food fits the diner concept. As for the other team, Ilan burned the bacon and Mike's prep skills are uneven, so Sam's nervous. Chef Tom talks about execution again; diners will excuse a lot of flaws if the food is good enough.

Last-minute rushing about. Elia pipes bright yellow goo onto circles of Oreo crumbs; my appetite is not whetted. Lots of cooking and sweeping and adjusting. Finally the timer beeps and Marcel announces that they're open. He interviews that prep time was over, the front still needed some work, but the food was ready to go. Cliff rehearses their server on the table layout. Ilan interviews that the customers got to look over the menus to select a restaurant; he had one of Elia's burgers, so he's worried about the competition. Team Sam has a much nicer-looking menu than Team Marcel. One woman is intrigued by the watermelon gnocchi and a man figures you can get a burger anywhere. Mike interviews that once the customers showed up, it was just like being at work. Cliff interviews that Lalalina filled up with people, so he was worried. A man interviews that they had chosen the Italian option because it seemed "more adventurous" but the place was full, so they wound up at the diner.

M.E.C.'s waiter offers a choice of beer or root beer float. Ilan greets some customers at Lalalina, where the customers find little bowls of olives. One man has an olive seed, which he has no place to put except on the side of the table. Ilan interviews that he's never handled the front of the house, but he thinks none of the others have, either, so he decided to give it a try. The meatball is served, and someone comments that now they have a place to put the olive pit. Another table makes optimistic comments about a wine list.

The judges arrive at M.E.C. Cliff interviews that FOH is a big challenge, which he embraced. The judges wait for service. Cliff serves other people. He interviews that things were busy, so he concentrated on serving food, and he might have overextended himself. The judges wait. The server stops at the judges' table to review the menu and presumably get their drink orders. Elia announces that she has food ready. Marcel interviews that Cliff didn't do a good job expediting orders and he's not sure why Cliff took on the job. After 10 minutes of waiting, the judges have drinks poured by Cliff. Gail asks how things are going and Cliff says it's going well. Chef Mike wonders how long it takes to cook a wing.

Sam gives Mike some instructions while Ilan serves the second course. One woman complains that it's "salty, way overdone." Sam instructs Mike some more. Mike interviews that Sam is "freaking out a little bit;" he's a line cook and he'll be a team player, because that's how you survive a team challenge. Mike continues to not work up to Sam's standards. Sam interviews that Mike is a line cook (which is apparently not all that impressive) and he's been helping him out, but now he's tired of it.

At the 18 minute mark, the judges get their chicken wings. Padma is not impressed with the sauce, and it seems the chicken isn't thoroughly cooked (Chef Mike calls it "mid-rare"). Cliff serves up some tempura vegetables. A couple of customers are impressed and the judges react well. Cliff checks with Elia about some burgers and she warns him that they've been sitting for several minutes. Elia interviews that her burgers kept waiting for delivery, so they were overcooked when they finally went out. Marcel interviews that Cliff was struggling and FOH is not his thing. The judges get their burgers. Gail doesn't think that it's the best burger ever, and it's too well-done. Padma likes the chips. Chef Mike and Chef Tom find good things to say about the burger. A customer calls it "delicious." Back in the kitchen, Cliff tells Elia, "Just give it to me." Elia protests, "Don't raise your voice." I don't think he did. The volume didn't seem to change; he just got more emphatic. Elia interviews that Cliff has temper problems and she hadn't seen this "air of superiority" before. The judges get their desserts. Chef Mike thinks it tastes like a crushed Oreo, and Chef Tom confirms. The M.E.C. customers fill out comment cards. One woman didn't care for the dessert. A man compliments the "veggies" but didn't like the chicken. The judges rise from their table. Cliff interviews that he's not feeling entirely confident. The M.E.C. menu:

  1. Barbeque/coffee chicken wing
  2. Tempura vegetables & mozzarella with cornichon aioli
  3. "The Best Burger Ever" with prosciutto and mushrooms served with homemade potato chips
  4. Oreo lemon pie

Given how long the judges had to wait at M.E.C., I suspect service is almost over at Lalalina. Perhaps they should have sent two judges to each place, and then switched. Ilan explains the name. Padma spots an olive pit sitting on the table. The server distributes water and also offers Italian orange/tangerine soda. Chef Tom wants to grab some beer from the diner. Ilan reports the pit debacle to the kitchen. Chef Mike says, "I'm going to put my bread right here" and drops it on the table at his place. Sam asks the server what the judges are saying, and she reports their desire for beer or wine. Sam worries. Gail thinks the service here is better. The meatball arrives. Padma and Chef Tom prefer it to the burger. Mike flames something on the stove, probably not intentionally. Sam interviews that his work is "amateur night." The linguini arrives. Chef Mike and Chef Tom are not impressed with the dish. Ilan serves the roast pork. Chef Mike asks why the polenta is served on the side and when Ilan circumlocutes, asks if there's "too much (bleep) on the plate." Ilan interviews that it was tough serving the judges. He answers Chef Mike that they thought it would look better. In other words, too much (bleep) on the plate. Ilan interviews that Chef Mike was rude, and the FOH guy just has to roll with it. A customer finds the pork a little bland. Ilan offers advice on the dessert, which is being torched. Mike interviews that Sam doesn't think he can brûlée, so he's like, here, take the torch, let's get it done. Sam tells Mike, "It's not that I don't trust your brûlée skills, dude." Which means he totally doesn't trust Mike's brûlée skills. Sam interviews that he was experimenting some months ago with watermelon and Gorgonzola, which turned out well. The team liked the idea, and he hopes the judges do, too. The customers are a bit leery. Chef Mike likes the salt, which brings out the sweetness of the watermelon, but that's it. Sam peeks out and relates he's not seeing a great reaction from the judges. The server passes out comment cards. Ilan interviews that service went well, but not so much the food, so he's worried about the comments. One woman wanted more information about a dish, and a man wonders if he should ask if the chef was on crack. The Lalalina menu:

  1. Fried meatball on toast with parsley pesto and sugar-roasted yellow tomato
  2. Linguini with walnut parsley pesto and roasted mushrooms
  3. Roasted pork loin with sofrito sauce, bacon-roasted Brussels sprouts, creamy polenta
  4. Watermelon 'gnocchi' with Cabrales and asiago cream

In the kitchen, Marcel and Elia ponder the odds of making the finals. Marcel interviews that he feels good about the food, but he's not happy with the service. He thinks "anybody" could have done better. Even Mike? Who's rallying his teammates with good thoughts. He interviews that he's feeling confident because they had a real restaurant, while anybody can make a burger.

Judges' table. Padma turns to Chef Mike for his impressions. He saw personality in their QuickFire dishes, but not in their restaurants. Gail was excited by the diner concept but was let down by the food. Chef Tom points out that most of the customers went for the Italian concept, so the idea was strong but not the execution. Padma grumps about her olive pit, and Gail blames the lack of dishware. Padma also grumps about the absence of wine. Chef Tom calls it a lack of follow-through. Gail wonders how Cliff and Ilan got chosen for the FOH jobs; they weren't strong presences. Chef Tom does a head-to-head comparison of the menus. The meatball wins over the chicken; Chef Tom thinks it might be the top dish. The tempura vegetables win over the pasta. Chef Tom felt the pork dish was incomplete, but the burger wasn't the best he'd had. I guess we'll count that as a draw. Gail claims the watermelon dish turned her stomach, but the Oreo lemon pie didn't impress anyone. Chef Tom grumps that they finally got some interesting food in the previous challenge, and now the contestants are back to coasting. He doesn't see a winner.

Padma summons the Lalalina crew. Elia wishes them luck and then wonders how her team lost. Padma starts off by saying Team Sam didn't win. Gail reads comments about the lack of wine and the weirdness of the dessert; the comments express the judges' reactions, too. Chef Tom asks about the concept, and Sam says it was "a rustic Italian sort of -." Chef Tom interrupts, "Sort of is not a concept." Sam sticks with "rustic Italian." Padma asks who owns the olive idea, and Mike indicates it came up in team discussion. Chef Tom complains about the lack of dishes for the pits and the bread. Mike was the supply shopper; he spent about $400 and the wine glasses would have cost $75. Chef Mike jumps on the lack of wine glasses and corresponding lack of wine. Chef Tom gets back to the shopping; Mike just stuck to his list. Chef Tom asks who made the first course and the team indicates a team effort. Chef Mike asks about the meatball part and Ilan cautiously volunteers. Chef Mike says it was good, maybe the best thing they ate. Gail brings up the front of the house; what does Ilan think it involves? He figures he's there to keep everyone happy. Chef Tom was looking for more enthusiasm; Ilan thinks he sold the food and was "proper" but Chef Tom would have liked more warmth. He brings up the dessert; it made a bad impression at the end of the meal and probably dropped their scores. Sam protests that if he were a big-name chef, the dish "would be huge." Gail disagrees; it just didn't come together.

Sam sends in the other team, wishing them a heartfelt "Good luck." He reveals that someone is going home from either of the teams. Ilan fondles a cleaver. That cannot end well.

Padma announces that nobody won. She asks about concept; Marcel credits Elia. Chef Tom wants to find out who did what. Marcel claims responsibility for the idea of the amuse, and they decided on the sauce. Cliff slightly shakes his head and Chef Tom asks. Elia says the sauce was Cliff's. Cliff says it sounds like Marcel is taking credit and he should be careful about that. Marcel clarifies that he cooked the chicken. Chef Tom says it was raw. Marcel is surprised and embarrassed. He also takes credit for the tempura, which the judges liked. Elia thinks the burger went pretty well, but Chef Tom says the parsley and onions were too coarsely chopped. Padma reads a comment that the burger seemed more like a meatloaf. Gail asks why Cliff went for the FOH job; Cliff says he wanted the challenge. (At least he didn't say he couldn't stand sharing a kitchen with Marcel.) Gail asks about the pace. Cliff thought it was going smoothly until the judges arrived, but perhaps he was too optimistic. Gail asked what happened then, and Cliff is waiting to hear that from the judges. Padma mentions the wait. Chef Mike needed more friendliness. Padma asks Cliff if he thinks he should get the boot, and of course he says no. Chef Mike asks who should get the boot, and Cliff orders, "Choose one of them." Bzzt! Wrong answer. When the judges ask that, they're not taking a vote. They're looking at how well you assess performances and contributions. But Cliff has his laser focus on getting to the finals, so that's not what he's thinking about. Padma sends them out.

Cliff sums up the experience: "Just when you thought it was that bad, it gets worse."

The judges run through the candidates to assess bootability. Padma starts with Cliff, who "barely acknowledged us." Chef Tom says he's not FOH material, and Gail agrees. Chef Tom thinks Ilan did a lot of work. Gail calls Sam's dessert a complete failure. Chef Tom thinks Marcel did a lot of work, but made mistakes -- specifically the chicken. But Gail nominates his tempura as top dish of the evening. Chef Tom gives Elia props for the diner concept, and the burger was decent, and she took on the dessert. He's not sure what Mike's contribution was. Chef Mike says he hewed to the list instead of making decisions. Chef Tom reiterates his impression that the chefs are trying not to lose instead of trying to win.

All six chefs line up before the judges. Chef Tom gives Elia credit for taking a chance on the diner concept, even if she didn't execute well. She's dismissed. Ilan did a lot of cooking plus he took on the FOH job, so he's dismissed. Marcel was another workhorse, and if he messed up the chicken, he didn't mess up the tempura. He's dismissed. Chef Tom reviews the bottom three. Cliff couldn't handle the FOH job and jeopardized his team. Chef Tom lectures Sam about the flip side of risk-taking -- you have to understand why a dish works (or doesn't). Mike left a lot of money on the table, and Chef Tom suspects he didn't pull his weight. Mike gets the boot. He smiles and tells the judges that "it's been fun." Padma wishes him well as he shakes hands with the rest of the team. Back in the pantry, he hugs the others. He's had a really good time. In a curious literary flight, he compares himself to the pig in Charlotte's Web. If he has a lesson to deliver, it's to "take the laid-back approach. It's cool to stay cool, you know?" If you want to come in sixth.

Right loser? I think so. It doesn't mean that the lack of bread plates was the worst mistake of the night; it means Mike was the worst contributor. When you're opening a restaurant, you need everyone on the team to think about "What do we need to do to pull this off?" and you need them to think about it all the time. Mike was thinking, "How do I get through this?" Which is exactly what Miguel thought last year, and it's exactly why Miguel got the boot. This challenge is specifically designed to get rid of the slackers. Mike was a slacker. Mission accomplished.

Right lack of winner? Yup. Everyone screwed this up. Granted, opening a restaurant is hard, but the teams made it harder. One big problem: the challenge called for a three-course meal, but both teams made four courses. I think this was the source of Chef Tom's coasting complaint; these contestants keep trying to impress by doing more instead of doing better. It was a particularly stupid decision for the Lalalina team. When the money came up short, they chose serving an amuse bouche over serving wine. That's not the way to make an Italian restaurant successful.

The diner team made their lives more difficult with a cooked-to-order entrée. If you open a restaurant and you expect communication between front and back to go smoothly right off the top, you're a nitwit. So why go with a dish that makes coordination and serving more complicated? I don't think of burgers as classic diner anyway. A good meatloaf is more appropriate and stands up better to some waiting around.

The other big menu faux pas was Lalalina's dessert. There's risk enough in opening a restaurant without getting all experimental with the food. Go with something you know will work. And something that fits the menu. The only thing Italian about that dish was the asiago, forget about the "gnocchi" thing. The shape of the watermelon chunks doesn't justify the name, unless you boil them.

During the judges' table, I kept thinking of the scene in Bull Durham where the coach throws bats around the shower room to scare the team out of its complacency. I don't know if the remaining chefs are scared, or what it would take to shake them up and start aspiring. I wonder if the show needs to work on its reward structure. On the second season of Project Runway, they stopped awarding immunity to the challenge winner and the designers turned conservative. On Top Chef, the chefs win immunity in the QuickFire challenge. That's a contest where they have everything to win and nothing to lose, so they can afford to go all out. But what's the incentive to go all out on the Elimination challenge, other than pride? Last year, the six chefs knew ahead of time that they were competing for an opportunity to work the Cannes Film Festival with Jeffrey Chodorow, which was a primo networking opportunity. This year, nothing. As long as they don't get cut, they're still headed for the finals. So there's no incentive to come in first instead of fourth. That needs to change.

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