It saddens me to report that Scott is down for the count tonight, laid up by chills and fever. (And not Top Chef Fever, sadly–a condition characterized by spontaneous utterance of the phrase "sous vide" and vehement disagreement with trained chefs about the quality of appetizers you've never actually tasted.) So the honor falls to me, a Chefhead since Season One, to introduce you to your Season Four Final Four, three of whom should be no surprise: Richard Blais, Stephanie Izard and Antonia Lafaso. As for the fourth? Well
First let me say that I thought this week's Elimination Challenge was the perfect test for these five chefs, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. But I was a little disappointed in the Quickfire Challenge, which to me was too specialized a test given how close we are to the finals. Asked to butcher aged beef into a batch of tomahawk steaks, and then cook one medium rare, some chefs (like Spike) were right in their element, showing superior knife skills and a good grasp of simple meat preparation. Others (like Richard) floundered a bit when forced to leave their creativity on the shelf. The guest judge–award-winning Chicago steakhouse proprietor Rick Tramanto–didn't taste a single steak. He just examined the cut and the doneness. And based on that, Spike got the advantage of picking his exclusive main ingredients for the Elimination Challenge.
Leave it to Spike though to turn an advantage into a handicap. Given the chance to peruse Tramanto's walk-in first–and tasked to come up with an appetizer and an entrée to feed the dinner crowd at Tramanto's new restaurant–Spike grabbed a bag of frozen scallops. And that was pretty much it. Game over for Spike. Lisa lucks out again.
Nevertheless, even though it was obvious early on that Spike and his hipster hat were going to be gone daddy gone, I still found the Elimination Challenge enormously entertaining, because it was like Hell's Kitchen without the bullshit. (Actually, come to think of it, the Quickfire was kind of Hell's Kitchen-y too, missing only Gordon Ramsay to paw through the cheftestants' self-butchered chops and then growl at them to "Throw it in the bin!") All five of the almost-finalists had to work in a busy kitchen, sending out their own appetizers and their own entrees, while veteran chef Tom Colicchio worked the expo line. Because they were cooking for a steakhouse crowd, most of the chefs kept their recipes simple, following Richard's mantra of "under-promise and over-perform." But they still had to pump out dishes made to order, for a full service.
Some mistakes were made. Although Lisa's "peanut butter mashed potatoes" and her steak with "spicy apple and caramel sauce" sounded like a recipe for indigestion, the judges actually liked that dish, and instead pissed all over her "grilled and chilled shrimp" appetizer, which tasted "congealed." (Eye-rasing Lisa quote of the night: "My nerves are a little bit higher than usual." How is that possible?) And though Richard rocked his hamachi and sweetbread appetizer–everyone's favorite dish of the night–his steak dish was undercooked and too deconstructed. (Great quote from guest judge and former Top Chef Ilan Hall: "It's not a relaxed dining experience, it's a project.")
But since neither Lisa nor Richard significantly stumbled, they seemed relatively safe, no matter how much the episode's editors tried to play up Lisa's usual attitude problems (and the judges' awareness of same). Antonia was clearly moving on too, thanks in large part to the entrée that I myself most wanted to eat: a well-cooked steak with a side of bubbling potato gratin. And since the judges had nothing but praise for Stephanie's appetizer, her entrée and her demeanor in the kitchen, she was the obvious winner of the night. (Though I gave the TV a cockeyed look when Stephanie said that if she cooked her sweetbreads right they would be "like a Chicken McNugget.")
So adios, Spike. Though I haven't been the biggest Spike fan in the world, I would rather have seen him in the final than the pissy, lordly Lisa. (Of course the person I really wanted to see was Dale. If Lisa had gone home last week, I'm sure Dale would've skated past Spike with no problem, likely grabbing his crotch as he breezed by.) But Spike made two dull dishes, one of which featured those watery, tasteless scallops. And then he compounded that error by half-blaming Tramanto at Judges' Table for having frozen seafood in his cooler in the first place. "I'll take the shot, bro," a red-faced Tramanto barked back, before telling Spike that he'd have to own up to his own bad choices. (Which, to Spike's credit, he did.)
I'll confess to being mildly disappointed that we didn't get to spend more time with this week's special guests, the former Top Chefs Ilan, Harold and Hung. They seemed so enthusiastic–yet duly critical–about the food they were tasting, and it would've been interesting to get more of an insider's perspective on the challenge. So a minor ding there on a generally entertaining hour.
But now we have our foursome, and it's off to Puerto Rico! I trust that Scott will have recovered enough by the next episode to drive the TC bus home for us.
-Let me talk a moment this season as a whole. Personally, I've been very satisfied with the level of competition and level of drama in Season Four, because there's been a high level of competence combined with just the right amount of irascibility. (I know some TV critics find competence in reality competitions dull, but as entertaining as disasters can be, I'd rather root for people to excel.) My major complaint with this season is something that Scott has touched on before on this blog: namely that the judges don't seem as enthusiastic about the show as the contestants are. Colicchio in particular has been acting kind of distracted throughout this run, and the lack of attention the main Top Chef talent has paid to the bravo.com blogs has been embarrassing at times. Week after week without commentary by Colicchio and the others doesn't do much to allay fan fears that they're all weary of this whole endeavor. (Over on Anthony Bourdain's non-Top Chef blog, he confesses that he didn't take part in Bravo-blogging this year because he didn't want to be sponsored by Michelob so maybe there are other behind-the-scenes reasons why people aren't talking as much.) That said, I'm gung-ho to see what happens in Puerto Rico. I have a feeling that, given the freedom to cook whatever he chooses however he chooses, Richard is going to win this in a walk. But the game is decided on the field, so I guess we'll see.