Sunday, July 22, 2007



Previously on Top Chef: The chefs had to update classic American food to make it healthier and more modern. Micah thought meatloaf was ready for an upgrade. CJ ran into trouble. Lia didn't do much. Ted needed some wow. Sara M. panicked about whether her chicken was cooked enough. Micah insulted the judges by associating ketchup with Americans. Howie took the win. The judges scolded Lia for underwhelming, but Micah got the boot.

Miami shots. Casey interviews that the mood is different with yet another person gone. As opposed to last week, when the mood was different with yet another person gone. Eventually the remaining chefs are going to clue in to the whole "somebody gets the boot each week" part. Chefs groom. Lia interviews that she's a baby chef compared to the others, but she's still competitive. Howie hopes the other chefs respect him now, but he also likes "being the underdog." The chefs huddle for a cheer and head out.

QuickFire challenge. The chefs arrive to find a heap o' cocktails in the kitchen. Dale is psyched because his last consulting gig was "mixology and food pairing." Is Dale's "Yay, I know how to do this" going to be the new Harold's "I'm not a <blank>, I'm a chef"? Casey points out that chefs are more accustomed to pairing food with wine. Padma introduces guest judge Jamie Walker, "global master mixologist" for the product-placed booze. He put together the heap o' cocktails, which need to be paired with appetizers. Jamie reminds the chefs that their job is to balance the flavors of the booze and the food, in case they were unclear on the whole "pairing" concept. He claims that top restaurants now have mixologists (recommending cocktails) as well as sommeliers (recommending wine). I'd love to see him work with Stephen, just to see who could out-pompously provide exposition.

The chefs draw knives to get their cocktail assignments. They have 30 minutes. And go! Dale's drink is "pure alcohol" so he needs to "cut the heat" of the booze. Camille (who?) observes that they're working with sweet drinks, which need to be paired with (presumably savory) appetizers. Casey is a rickey novice, but she's just inspired to make French toast (yum!). Hung rejects the whole premise of "hard alcohol" pairing with his "beautiful, refined food." They're flavors, dude. Make 'em work. But he has a plan, because "sweetness always goes with creaminess." Just ask his monkey.

Padma counts down the last seconds and time's up.

Some other people made some other food, but you don't actually care about that, right? Padma prompts Jamie to pick some duds. He goes for Joey (who gets an awesome crease between his eyebrows) for being too heavy and Hung for being "muddled." "So sweetness didn't go good with creaminess. Thank you," Hung responds. He interviews that Jamie must have been "confused" so he "called him out." Sadly, Jamie does not smack his forehead and say, "Oh my God, of course! Sweetness and creaminess! Whatever was I thinking?" The top places go to Casey for working with the booze's "more subtle botanicals," Tre for making something that didn't turn out to be as light as expected and Dale for skillfully handling "one of the more difficult cocktails." And the winner is: Casey. She gets immunity and does a "yay!" interview.

Elimination challenge: The chefs get to arrange themselves into four sets of three. Wait, no knife block? Woo! All the chefs will create a four-course tasting menu, with each course being a trio featuring the same ingredient. Lia interviews that the whole team dynamic is unexplored territory. They'll be cooking at Chef Barton G's new restaurant for the judges and some members of a high-falutin' dining society.

The chefs get 10 minutes to make their teams. Brian interviews that he immediately came up with the idea of drawing teams out of a hat (or bucket, in this case). No! I want to see who everyone fights to work with and who everyone fights not to work with. They might as well have drawn knives. Camille (who?), Brian and Lia get the first course. Howie, Dale and Casey are the second. Dale recaps this in an interview and reminds us that Casey has immunity. They decide to do fish, while the first course is taking scallops. Oh, there's a shock. Dale protests that they can't have two seafood courses in a row. Dale interviews that they had to come up with a tasting menu, but no one knew how to put one together. Except, I suspect, him. Lia offers to compromise on the scallop choice. Hung points out that the last course doesn't have pastry chefs, and they need to have the boldest course. Howie announces that they have to get the course progression right, since they'll be judged on it. To go from light to heavy, they need to start with something that's not a protein.

Dale interviews that Howie was a "bulldog" getting everyone stirred up, and he decided to switch teams (sorry, ladies, not like that) to escape him. He volunteers to take the fourth course if it's dessert and fingers Sara M. as a pastry person. She admits she's made some, but doesn't have recipes memorized. And it turns out the chefs are not required to do dessert, but at this point, every chef on this show should have at least one pastry recipe ready to go. (And contestants on Survivor should figure out how to start a fire. Or at least take some swimming lessons. Honestly, it's embarrassing.) Joey leaps at the chance to take Dale's spot on the fish course, to Casey's dismay. She's not looking forward to dealing with his history with Howie. It does say something that Joey was willing to work with Howie rather than do dessert. Camille (who?) tells Dale, "I have some pastry." Hung decides she's taking his spot and he's switching to first course. So, we have:

  1. Brian, Hung, Lia
  2. Casey, Howie, Joey
  3. JC, Sara N., Tre
  4. Camille (who?), Dale, Sara M.

Sara N. recaps her team and calmly reports that they work well together. Yep, that's Team Non-Drama, so we won't be seeing much of them from now on. Dale tells the team he can do something with pineapple and Sara M. says Camille (who?) can do something with "nuts and cake." Camille (who?) interviews that she's out of her "comfort zone" but she thinks she has enough experience to make it work. Casey suggests a cheese ravioli but Joey dismisses the cheese angle. Joey reminds us that Casey has immunity again, because with all the excitement, we might have forgotten. Casey urges the guys to be daring, but they're all, "Hey, we just have two hours." Joey interviews that the tension was making him "cranky" and he started to worry about getting booted. Howie finds it weird to be cooperating with people who are, after all, still competitors who all want to get rid of each other. You know, some people are competitors who want to win, rather than make other people lose. Just something to consider.

The chefs head back to their palatial digs. Joey and Lia recap the challenge, because commercials kill your brain cells. The teams get together to talk. Well, except for team 2. Casey is eating a sandwich while Joey and Howie are out on the balcony. Joey has a cigarette, which is reason enough for me to be inside. Joey goes to fetch Casey, and she says she'll be out when she's done. Howie figures she's just taking it easy, since she has immunity. Casey joins them on the balcony and argues they don't have time for pasta. Howie figures someone with immunity should "take a back seat" and let the others decide. Eh. If it's just a matter of preferences, then okay. But if it's a question of whether something is a good idea or not, Casey needs to speak up. She's still a part of the team, and a team works best when everyone contributes. Casey interviews that they're not listening to each other because they're too busy being annoyed with being stuck with each other. She agrees to do a cold dish and goes away "to think," which is a polite way of saying, "I have to leave now before I strangle someone." Howie and Joey bond over their shared aggravation.

Shopping. The budget is $150, which Lia points out is not a lot for high-end food. Sara N. backs her up. The first team runs over to the seafood counter and discovers that the scallops are, as Lia puts it, "solid, rock-hard frozen." Yay! I'm so tired of friggin' scallops. They go for shrimp instead. Joey explains that the second team also switched, going with tuna instead of duck because they "weren't sure" how much duck would go for. You'd think a grocery store would be able to tell you what things cost. Howie does math: 4-5 pounds of tuna at $20 a pound and a total budget of $150. He expect they'll have to "agonize" over some purchases. The beef tenderloin clocks in at just under $27 a pound, but the third team sucks it up. CJ interviews that they didn't have money for a lot of things. The fourth team is doing pineapple, which Dale thinks he came up with. I don't think they'll be having the same budget issues. So sure enough, Team Trouble is over budget at the checkout and has to nickel-and-dime their way back down, sacrificing one of these and two of those.

Prep time. Lia's eager to get going because she has the first course. Casey finds she has insufficient soy sauce by the time the bottle makes its way around to her. Team Dessert is also having issues. And here comes Chef Tom on his inspection round. He finds Team Shrimp first, and ascertains that they all coordinated instead of doing their own things. Yay, team! Team Non-Drama is sure they'll win because they have a nice flow between their dishes. Chef Tom discovers Team Dessert is doing dessert, despite having only "a little" pastry experience. But Dale explains that a tasting menu really needs dessert. Which is true, but what if the challenge was to build to a specified dessert that would be supplied by an outside chef? Over at Team Tuna, Chef Tom checks for menu cohesion. Howie claims that Joey is Eastern, Casey is Western and he's splitting the difference. "Soy sauce," Chef Tom announces. The chefs are all "huh?" until he verifies that Joey is using soy sauce. Joey interviews that Chef Tom likes to "ruffle my feathers" because he knows it works. As he demonstrates by swearing and pouting how Chef Tom is out to get him. Naturally, his persecution complex does not endear him to Casey. Or me.

Sara M. and Dale introduce us to the Great Powdered Gelatin Conspiracy, Part II -- she used powdered gelatin, the ratios were off, her dessert wasn't setting fast enough. So they decide to freeze it and make a semi-freddo. We'll see how that works out. Guests arrive. CJ, Brian and Hung talk about the high-falutin' dining club. Padma introduces chef Barton G. Weiss, who'll be the guest judge (rather than any of the high-falutin' dining club members). Plating for the first course starts. Lia explains that they all have very complicated dishes, so plating was a big job. Fortunately, they finish just in time.

Hung declares himself happy. So do the diners. Chef Tom pronounces Brian's a bit salty, and votes for Lia over Hung. Chef Barton G. comments on how hard it is to "present" foam correctly. No indication of whether this bodes well or ill for Hung.

Howie and Joey start plating the tuna course. (According to Lee Ann's blog, they started right when the first course went out and there was a 20-minute gap between servings.) Howie interviews that he'll keep on working on a dish to make it perfect at his restaurant -- left unspoken is that this is impossible in a competition. He thinks the team lacked execution. When he calls for Casey to help serve, Dale fetches out of another part of the kitchen and she sounds like she's being hustled around. (Perhaps for one of their interview segments?)

Various people find the blood orange marmalade too strong. Padma asks Chef Tom about Casey's dish; he thinks it's a good idea that needed more tasting along the way. He tells the crowd that Casey has immunity, so if the tuna team is on the bottom, it's either Joey or Howie going.

Tre interviews that he was happy with his team; he thinks they could win, but he's positive they won't lose.

The presentation gets much praise, and Padma mentions Tre's risotto cake. Someone thinks that Sara's effort looks like something from Denny's but another diner protests.

Dale interviews that he ran into trouble plating his dish, and was a big ol' mess. Camille (who?) interviews that she did a "fair" job with her dessert under the circumstances. That's not the kind of defense that goes over big with the judges. Joey interviews that the dessert course was a "circus" but he respects the chefs for attempting it.

Ted gives the team "points for difficulty" since they took on desserts. Everyone finds the semifreddo bland. Chef Tom is displeased with the pineapple upside-down cake. Someone compares it to "English dessert." But didn't the English invent trifle? I don't think he's comparing it to trifle. Dale wants his team to get credit for not making something they make all the time. Howie reminds us once again that Casey has immunity. Think that will be important at some point?

Judges' Table. Chef Tom is pleased that the teams coordinated their trios. That being one of the points of the challenge. I guess after last season, their diminished teamwork expectations aren't too surprising. Padma lays out the decision-making process: they'll pick the best course, and choose the winner from that team. So it would kinda suck to be a strong chef on a middling team. Padma reminds the guest judge that he liked the shrimp course, but what about Hung's dish? Chef Barton liked the flavors but didn't care for the looks of the foam. Ted sticks up for the foam this time, praising the flavor and texture. Chef Tom campaigns for Lia's shrimp and Ted feels that it wasn't your everyday shrimp dish. Still, he goes for Brian's dish for being very clean and fresh. Chef Barton would have liked more visusal contrast. Ted sums up the whole first course as "poetic." So it's no surprise that the shrimp course gets called up to the table.

Chef Tom wants to get into their thinking on the dish. Brian explains that they were going to do scallops, but then they discovered that the store had some good shrimp. (No mention of the frozen scallops.) Chef Tom thinks they made a smart choice. Chef Barton and Ted praise Brian's dish. Chef Tom asks Lia about her dish, and compliments the concept as well as her knifework. Ted liked the "lushness" of Hung's dish and Chef Barton calls it "excellent." Chef Tom explains that the winner wasn't a unanimous decision because everyone did so well. Chef Barton gives the win to Lia. "Yay!" she smiles. Her prize: a guest chef gig at a charity event in the Hamptons. She interviews that the prize is great, but praise from Chef Tom is even better.

Lia summons the tuna and dessert courses. Chef Tom says all the desserts were pretty bad. Dale explains that a tasting menu needs a dessert course, and sort of takes the blame for the pineapple idea. He thinks doing pastry could have really put them over the top if they had done a good job. "A very big if," Chef Tom observes. Sara M. volunteers that she thought she could "pull it off" but then found herself dealing with the dreaded powdered gelatin instead of her usual sheet gelatin. Chef Barton wonders why she took the risk. Sara says a chef has to take chances. Padma thinks taking chances in a competition is not the best idea. Chef Tom prods Camille (who?), who thinks all chefs should have some familiarity with "certain desserts." She thinks her cake was "fine" but Chef Tom calls it "rubbery." Camille (who?" reports that her "initial product" had more of a muffin texture. So what happened to the original? Chef Tom doesn't want an upside-down pineapple muffin for dessert.

Now for Team Tuna. Chef Tom asks about the lack of cohesion and Howie reports that they switched to tuna from duck because they thought the duck might be too heavy. Well, then, how about a lighter poultry? Howie says he thought his dish was a little flat. Joey is pleased with his dish, considering the confusion. Chef Tom says Team Tuna is on the block because Casey was the weak link and asks if she coasted. Not being stupid, she disclaims. She confesses that her dish was "underseasoned;" they ran out of soy sauce and in the final rush, she forgot to add salt. Padma wonders if Howie or Joey had sampled the tartare, but neither did until after service. Padma and Chef Tom are flabbergasted. If the point is to coordinate the three dishes, then tasting would seem to be a good idea. Casey volunteers that the judges have laid a "guilt blanket" on her and she can't stand thinking that someone else might get the boot for her poor performance.

Back in the pantry, Casey apologizes to Howie and Joey for putting them in that spot; they pat her on the back and Lia comes over to hug her. Padma wants to know who's getting the boot. Chef Barton brings up Howie's overpowering marmalade. Chef Tom is okay with Joey's flavor, but still can't believe he didn't sample the other parts of the plate. He's also ready to boot Dale for his "lack of leadership," although I think an excess of leadership is more the problem. But Camille (who?) seemed entirely on board, and Sara M. sounded like she was willing, so I don't think they can put it all on Dale. If his teammates proposed something else and he steamrolled them, then yeah -- but they didn't. Chef Barton is disappointed in Camille's (whose?) inability to explain what she was going for; he and Ted pooh-pooh the cornmeal in her cake. Chef Barton repeats his "frozen cream" assessment of Sara M.'s dessert. Chef Tom has no patience with the powdered gelatin excuse -- "Please, read the box." Okay, harshly put, but essentially true.

Casey gets to stay back in the pantry this time. Chef Tom pulls out a metaphor about "creating harmonies" and "playing the wrong instruments" that doesn't really stand up to examination. Howie's dish wasn't so great, and he and Joey should have looked out for the team more by tasting. Dale gets the blame Team Dessert's bad call. Camille (who?) just didn't have enough experience to be able to handle improvising. Sara's semifreddo didn't disguise that her original attempt was a failure. Camille (who?) gets the boot.

She interviews that she's sad, of course, but also "anxious" to get back to her restaurant. The entire pantry seems devastated by her announcement of her departure, or perhaps her parting admonition to "rock hard," and there's lots of crying and some energetic hugs. Dale feels guilty, but Camille (who?) is happy that she "took that risk" -- although it sounds like she's talking about competing on the show rather than doing dessert.

Right winner? No idea. I think Lia is charming and a good worker, so I'm happy for her. I'm not sure she has the flair to make it all the way, but she's a solid contender.

Right loser? It sounded like the dessert course was worse overall than the tuna course. Of the three, Dale's dish didn't seem particularly bad. Sara M. at least tried to fix her dish when it fell flat. Camille (who?) put out a bad dish and compounded her sin with a lackluster defense at judges' table. Without being able to taste the food, it seems like the right choice.


Cookin' It Old School

Previously on Top Chef: Even previouslier (episode 1), Howie failed to plate his frog legs and got chewed out by the judges. Joey brought this up in the second elimination judging, along with rumors of dry pork. Back in the pantry, Joey and Howie ordered each other to "be a man." CJ complained that Sandee's braising of her lobster the day before was a technical violation. Sandee got the boot for being insufficiently barbecue.

Annoying wakey-wakey shots, accompanied by a close-up of Sandee's goodbye note on a bed. Lia interviews that Sandee's dismissal was a surprise to everyone; the mood is becoming less congenial now that the competition is on. Howie reports that he's not fretting over his fight with Joey; "I'm not here to be liked," he assures us for the umpteenth time. Joey's like, "Yeah, you shout, you forget about it." I get the feeling he does that a lot. I suspect alcohol is often involved. Micah gets this week's pushups shot; I like Tre's form better. She reports on her rollercoaster ride from top to bottom to top. But she's a fighter, having "brought over" her business from Italy with just $400, a suitcase and her daughter. "That's unbelievable," she sums up. Well, if she doesn't believe it, I won't either. Camille (who?) rallies everyone out the door.

QuickFire. Padma introduces Alfred Portale of the Gotham Bar & Grill, latest recipient of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef (beating out Hubert Keller and Tom Colicchio). Since he's from New York, we go to Joey for the eulogy; he compares Chef Alfred's plating to the Sistine Chapel. In a dramatic reveal suitable for The Price Is Right, Padma pulls the cover off a giant tank of shellfish. Hung and Brian are both confident in their mad seafood skillz. The chefs have 30 seconds to fish out their ingredients and 30 minutes to turn them into something yummy.

I don't know how they determine the order, but Hung gets to go first. He charges across the kitchen, drags the step in front of the tank, yanks the net out of Padma's hand and digs into the seafood. Dale interviews that his fishing technique was "extremely aggressive." Sara N. speaks for everyone, I think, with her stunned protest of "Jesus, Hung, save some for the rest of us." No, wait, Lia interviews that she wasn't worried about running out of shellfish. Hung dumps his net into the bowl so vigorously that, as CJ reports, "One of the poor crawfish falls awry, down below." Onto the floor, specifically. Everyone "aw"s at its plight. Hung figures he has enough seafood without the poor, unwanted crawfish and there's another "aw." Lia protests that he shouldn't leave it on the floor and Hung asks what he's supposed to do. I suspect he doesn't want to get charged with going over his 30 second limit, but the "whatever" attitude doesn't go over well as Lia tells him to clean up. She thinks that chefs should behave a certain way in the kitchen regardless of whether they're competing, and leaving messes behind is a violation of the Chef Code of Behavior.

The rests of the chefs get to go. Micah's world tour continues as she mentions living in the Bahamas, where she became familiar with conch. Sara N. thinks this challenge will be hard, what with the flimsy nets and the getting stuck with whatever you pull up. Tre's net gives out at a critical moment and his haul is particularly small.

Time to cook. Chefs run around. Lia reports that this QuickFire is particularly rough, since they're having to spend 8-10 minutes (1/4-1/3 of the allotted time) just cleaning the shellfish. Dale reports that conch was prevalent in the catches. It takes special tools and some wrangling to spring the conch from its shell, and he figures, "I don't have time to dick around with a conch." Someone asks Sara N. if she's using conch and she says, "Absolutely not." Sara M. reports that she's been working in Florida for a while, so conch don't scare her. We see her deftly extract conch from shells. Cut to Micah, who apparently doesn't have the right tool and is stuck improvising. She pounds on the conch shell with a big pan, and then she pounds scissors into the conch shell with a big pan, and this all works about as well as you'd expect. Sara N. reports that Micah is inconsistent because she has been at the top and bottom, conveniently forgetting she was just bottom and top with Micah last time. A crawfish makes a break for freedom.

Howie figures ceviche will work with the time and ingredients available. Since ceviche involves cooking food in acid, I think it would take a while longer than 20 minutes, but since I've never made it, what do I know? Brian figures to keep it simple; less is more with seafood because "it's already phenomenal." Hung is unimpressed with this approach: "Yeah, it's simple, but my monkey can do that." Ah, but can your monkey do it well? That's the thing with simple -- there's nothing you can use to hide mistakes, so you have to be right on.

Padma calls time. Howie is worried because he didn't taste as much as usual.

Decision time. Chef Alfred dings Micah's conch salad for insufficient conch and seasoning, Camille's heavy tea flavor and Tre's skimpy shellfish. Receiving praise are Howie's "intelligent and well-presented" ceviche, Brian's "smart" simplicity and CJ's "well-integrated" flavors that won over his initial skepticism. And the win goes to: Brian. Perhaps Hung should have brought his monkey. Brian does the usual "I won't rest on my laurels" QuickFire winner speech. Howie is just happy to be in the top for a change.

Elimination challenge: Padma promises a move from the fresh to the stale. She and Chef Alfred roll out some displays of old-fashioned entrees. The chefs are unimpressed. Dale describes dishes as "very bad-for-you, nasty foods that, you know, we all eat every day." Padma calls them "traditional family favorites." The task: update a classic dish to make it more "modern" and lower in cholesterol. Lia interviews that she has no experience with healthy cooking. Hung sneers that his "classic" food is steamed rice, fish and vegetables, not this gloppy stuff. Padma lets the chefs choose in the reverse of their fishing order, so Hung will be going last.

We don't see Joey choose, but he picks lasagna. Yeah, there's a surprise. I think the common thread among the dishes is "economical meals" -- they're ways to stretch meat with the addition of starch or to dress up cheaper cuts of meat (like hamburger).

Shopping allotments of 30 minutes and $75. They'll have 2 hours to cook at the Miami Elks Club lodge, where they'll be serving "two generations." The chefs are all, "Holy cow, real people!" Padma warns them to make sure their healthy versions are still appealing. Micah thinks meatloaf and mashed potatoes "can't be too hard to improve upon." Depends on the original meatloaf recipe. Some are pretty darn tasty. Dale reveals, "My style is based in reinventing the classics. So our elimination challenge is absolutely perfect!" Hey, where's my grump-about-the-challenge interview?

Shopping. Casey recaps the challenge. Sara N. interviews that she's still stumped. CJ hopes the judges will dock the people who are throwing cheese all over their dishes. Brian decides to stuff his cabbage with lobster. Micah responds with a "huh?" interview. Sara N. points out that he has immunity, so he can "take chances." That would be one way to put it. Sara M. needs one of those little crane-thingies to pick out her chicken breasts, because she's having trouble directing the counterperson's hand to the right one. Lia's sausages have beer in them, so she buys more beer to enhance that flavor. I'm guessing the Elks will like how she thinks. Dale reveals that dumplings are an old family dish on the Russian/Lithuanian side of the family. He goes for convenience, picking up a rotisserie chicken and instant mashed potatoes; without them, he'd be insanely pressed for time. CJ is all, "No, Dale, come back from the dark side!" Eh. I use instant mashed potatoes for my shepherd's pie because I want predictable consistency and quantity; I just add lots of pepper and onion for flavor. If Dale had more time, I'd ding him for being lazy, but I think he's being smart.

Back at the kitchens, the chefs get an hour of prep time. Micah interviews that traditional food is harder because people come to the table with expectations. Yep, that would be part of the challenge. Take out the "family favorites" angle and it's just "come up with a heart-healthy family dinner." Which is laudable, but not quite so twisty. Lia laments being in the middle all the time and never getting any feedback from the judges. But she's hopeful with her franks 'n' beans; it's both appealing and easy to make.

Back at the hotel, chefs indulge in the hot tub. Except for Howie, who's still not here to make friends.

Elks Lodge. The chefs roll their coolers up the sidewalk. CJ sums up the puzzle for the chefs: make the dish healthy, but keep the appeal of the traditional version. With 40 minutes left on the clock, Chef Tom swings through. CJ describes a tuile he's making out of flax seeds to substitute for the crust on top of the traditional casserole. Dale confesses to using instant mashed potatoes for his dumpling dough. I think it's a good choice as an ingredient. (As a side dish, maybe not so much.) Chef Tom sums up that the chefs are being very "literal" with their dishes, instead of reimagining them.

Elks file into the dining room. Chefs continue to cook. Sara M. explains that she didn't want to cook chicken in cream (presumably too fatty), so she grilled it on skewers. But when she checks, the oven has been turned to "cool down." Hung interviews that he turned off the oven after cooking his chicken and it's Sara's fault for not checking the temperature. Which sounds entirely reasonable, unless you know that ovens don't get turned off during restaurant service because they're constantly being used. Sara M. asks Hung about the oven and he disclaims, "I didn't turn anything." Maybe his monkey did it. Sara reveals the problem to Tre, who's helping her plate. He immediately scopes out the chicken in front of him for doneness.

CJ, who's up first, is having problems of his own: his sauce broke. The usual fix is to add fat to help it all blend together, but the dish needs to be low-fat. Also, when he stacks the tuna on top of the rest of his ingredients, the juices leak out and destabilize his stack. It ain't pretty. And everyone else's food is looking pretty, so he's sure he's in trouble. Hung doesn't know what to do. Maybe they should ask his monkey. And there's a lingering close-up of CJ's sad-looking tuna casserole. Which has never appealed to me anyway. It's not like he ruined macaroni 'n' cheese. That would suck.

Padma thanks the Elks and asks them to fill out their opinion cards. One Elk gives something a 4 (out of 5); another Elk isn't sure how to spell "mediocre." CJ thinks Lia, Tre and Howie will be the top three. Dale is pleased with his entry and thinks the judges will like it better than anything he has cooked so far. Padma thanks the chefs and threatens them with judging.

Judges' Table. Padma recaps the challenge again. The judges were disappointed. Ted thought CJ's tuna casserole was "a big green blob." Chef Tom bemoans the lack of "finesse" from someone who's usually quite "sophisticated." Padma gives Howie some props and Chef Alfred agrees. Chef Tom reports that the Elks hated Micah's meatloaf. Chef Alfred detected an "odd aftertaste." Padma brings up Brian, and Ted can't understand his choice of lobster. Chef Alfred agrees, "He blew it." Padma mentions that Dale's dumplings scored well, and all the judges comment favorably.

Padma fetches Dale and Howie. When they appear, she informs them that they're the favorites. Dale offers a hand and Howie shakes without turning towards him, so his right arm is stretched across his body. He still looks very intent and Padma teases that he's allowed to smile. So he beams. Ted brings up the change from applesauce. Howie thinks applesauce is baby food, so he created the apple slaw to "lift the palate." Padma prods Dale and he cheerfully confesses to using the instant mashed potatoes; he knew it would work, so he's not ashamed. Chef Tom says no one noticed and the dish was really enjoyable. The win goes to Howie. Chef Alfred presents him three books and an invitation to spend a week at his restaurant. Dale claps for Howie, who does the interview of redemption.

Back in the pantry, the chefs clap for Howie. Micah, CJ, Lia, Sara M. and Brian get summoned. Brian is perplexed, what with his immunity and all. Chef Tom spanks Brian for going with lobster in a low-cholesterol challenge. He warns him to stop sticking with seafood all the time and then sends him away to rejoice in his immunity. Micah had the lowest score. Ted asks how she felt she elevated meat loaf. She pooh-poohs the original version, but Chef Tom wants to know what she thinks of her version. She says she "wasn't happy with the texture when it came out." Chef Alfred complains about the aftertaste. Padma asks Sara M. if she's familiar with chicken a la king; Sara confesses that it's not big in Jamaica. Ted asks how her dish related to the original, and Sara thinks the ingredients were the connection; she likes her dish. Chef Alfred doesn't see chicken a la king in her dish. CJ was trying to be creative and original. Chef Alfred found it overwhelmingly green and pea-flavored. Chef Tom thought the flavors were "muddy" but was impressed with the tuile. Lia explains that she was going for something that anyone could make for dinner. Chef Tom points out that she didn't really do much. "I guess I didn't really understand how complex franks 'n' beans are," she confesses, and the judges laugh. Chef Tom wants to make sure she isn't coasting, but she thought she had a winner.

Padma sends the chefs out. Back in the pantry, Sara complains, "They said that my flavors didn't go very well, the mushrooms, couscous, which that makes no sense to me." Me neither, because that's not what they said. The judges confer. Lia's dish wasn't bad, just underwhelming. Ted is impressed with CJ's tuile, but Padma regrets the lack of flavor. Micah's turn, and Chef Alfred sighs. Chef Tom says it got the only "yuck" reaction -- I'd have thought CJ's green mess could rate a yuck -- and Chef Alfred sums up that it was just bad. But Sara's was worse, completely missing the point. Also, missing the peas. Ted thinks it's a tough call between Sara and Micah.

The chefs return. Chef Tom delivers the spankings: Micah was unimaginative and the flavor was off; Sara wasn't cohesive and lost the appeal of the original; CJ was unfocused; Lia was unambitious. I'm pretty sure Lia's safe; this was more of a warning shot across the bow, much like with Brian. CJ showed some creativity, so he's probably also safe. So it comes down to Micah and Sara. With Micah's dish scoring the lowest marks, she's the most likely choice. And Micah gets the boot. Back in the pantry, it's hugs all around. Micah's says she's relieved to go -- and we cut to her face, all red from crying. This would be the part where she convinces herself that it all turned out for the best. She wishes she had "focused better" and done a better dish. But now she can be reunited with her daughter, so it's all good. Well, except for the meatloaf. She predicts that the competition will turn "cutthroat," and so she's better off getting now. Yes, it would be so much worse to be sabotaged than to screw yourself over.

Right winner? I don't know. I think Dale was more creative and Howie had an easier dish. But flavor and execution are always going to rank highest with the judges, and you can't assess them through a TV screen.

Right loser? Micah had the lowest score, which means she had the worst food. That pretty much takes care of that.

I think CJ assessed the challenge correctly when he said that they had to keep the original appeal of their dishes, but make them better. The chefs had to think about what it was that people loved and/or expected, and then find a healthy way to keep that quality. Some of them did better at one part of the challenge than the other:

So I can see how the judges were mostly unimpressed. Most of the chefs did a good job tackling the healthy angle, but few of them really devoted much thought to the original appeal and how to make the dish satisfying on that level. This batch of chefs all seem quite technically competent, but mostly lacking in razzle-dazzle. I'm not seeing passion in their food yet.


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