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Nice gals finish last on ‘Top Chef’

Ashley takes the fall for some poorly undercooked prawns, but Michael V. has a real scare with his first visit to the bottom four.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

After last week’s “Top Chef”-less week, I feel refreshed and ready for more foodie television. But the cheftestants probably didn’t get the same mini-vacation we did. In fact, if last night’s episode was any indication, it seems like they’re more stressed than ever.

It’s halfway through the season, which is perfect timing for the skeletons to come out of the closet and the doubt to start settling in. For starters, Michael V. dropped the news that he’s actually a father to two daughters — a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old, who we know are adorable from a portrait that the Bravo producers flashed on screen. He may be somewhat of a punk, but I’m feeling a bit softer toward him now, knowing that he wants to do well to justify all the time he’s spending away from his girls. Aww.

Just as Michael V. started to contemplate his place on the show, Ash, too, revealed his doubts as a chef, having not been to culinary school. Either I forgot or I didn’t hear it the first time around, but this was news to me. But it’s not surprising that he’d be so worried. I’m not saying you have to go to culinary school to cook well, but clearly the trained chefs are knocking them out of the park. Most of his dishes, on the other hand, have been major flops. Sweet potato ice cream/custard anyone?

And to finish the one-two punch, Jen was sick. It’s no surprise that she refuses to back down or rest up considering her tough attitude, but it sure didn’t help her confidence.

But she had to buck up for the quickfire because it was a complicated one this week. At the challenge, guest chef Tyler Florence explained that the contestants would be making a dish using three key words chosen by a slot machine. I loved this Vegas-themed method of choosing — such a nice change of pace from drawing knives.

But tomato, tomaato, the slots are just as random as knives and with it, we got some pretty funky keyword combinations, like Ashley’s — blue, cheesy, Middle Eastern. Impressively, Ashley actually fared well with a feta pudding and sumac-dusted halibut. Padma and Tyler admitted she had one of the hardest ones, but I don’t think she got any sympathy votes. Judging off the dish itself, it sounds like she nailed the combination. To top it off, she doesn’t ever cook Middle Eastern! Kudos, but please lose that bow-tie shirt.

Other stand-outs? Florence loved the flavor combination of Michael V.’s yuzu curd with whipped yogurt and a seaweed cracker, an interpretation of adventurous (pastry made by a non-pastry chef), tangy (the yogurt) and Asian (the seaweed). Mike I. (stressed, umami, Asian) also got a shout-out for his raw mushroom salad with yuzu emulsion. (A lot of yuzu love this season, no?) It was a shocker to Mike I., who at first stumbled over the nothingness of umami, which he explained is the fifth taste that’s neither spicy nor salty not sweet nor sour. Tough for a guy who also never cooked Asian. But it turned out that Florence found his creation light, fresh and clean.

In the end, though, it was another chef who had never cooked Asian who won. Kevin’s chargrilled pork with Vietnamese herb salad, a mixture of stressed, hot and spicy, that wowed Florence enough to give him the win and the High Stakes prize. When given the option of $15,000 or immunity, Kevin bravely and boldly chose $15,000. Like Ashley said, who wants make it to the next round because of immunity, not the merit of their dish?

Of Florence’s least favorites, there were a few surprises. Jen’s sickness was really real because for the first time she was in the bottom. Her words were adventurous, nutty and American, but putting caviar atop scallops was apparently not ballsy enough for Florence. The TV personality was also not a fan of Eli’s mushroom ceviche (more ceviche!), whose umami flavor was lost amidst too much citrus. Eli seemed to be one of the few who knew what to do with umami and he still bungled it up. Not good.

And not surprisingly, Robin (stressed, umami, Middle Eastern) rounded out the bottom three with her root vegetable hash with cumin and curry oil. OK, just as Padma schooled Robin, let me reiterate that curry is not Middle Eastern. I loved when Robin tried to defend her dish but she was so clearly not convincing. And to go one step further than my fellow Indian, Padma, curry doesn’t really mean anything. It’s pretty much just a side dish with spices. Moving on!

Even with Robin’s poor form this week — and most every other week for that matter — she didn’t let a little criticism rain on her parade. I think she’s pretty kooky, but I got to hand it to her for her optimism. As she said so nicely: “Some people may not perceive me as perhaps deserving to be here.” What she really meant was: “Everyone hates me, thinks I’m an awful chef and wanted me to go home a long time ago.” But it’s all sunshine in her world, so more power to her.

On a side note: Laurine was neither the best nor the worst in this quickfire, but I just have to point out how delicious her dish sounds: crusted goat cheese salad with orange jalapeño vinaigrette and hibiscus flowers. Scrumptious!

Post-quickfire, the chefs thought they’d be going back to a nice dinner at home. But that’d be too easy! No, they would be cooking dinner not for themselves, but for some high-profile chefs like Govind Armstrong and Tom Douglas, members of the Macy’s Culinary Council. The cheftestants had a grand total of 2.5 hours to cook a family style dinner for the Council and the judges in their kitchen at home. The chefs were paired up based on each of the Council chef’s names and had to use the ingredients that the chefs had in their bags.

But unlike the last time they worked in teams of two, there were far fewer fireworks. People seemed to work pretty well together, like Kevin and Jen and Laurine and Bryan. But there had to be one odd couple in the bunch and it was the most hilarious pairing of them all: Robin and Mike I. In one corner was Mike I. in complete and utter defeat, thinking he was for sure going home because he was working with Robin, especially since their ingredients were Asian, which he has little experience with. In the other corner was chatty Cathy, pretending like she wasn’t hated.

To make this duo work, Mike I. took charge of the majority of the work and gave Robin little tasks. I’m not sure if I heard him right and I couldn’t tell even after rewinding, but I thought at one point he said he was throwing out everything she made. Anyone hear that?

I know Robin is annoying and hasn’t proven herself with a proper dish (last episode’s quickfire is her only claim to fame), but Mike I.’s cockiness is far worse. “I know she knows I’m a better cook than her without a doubt. She’ll listen to me, what I have to say. It’s my way or the highway.” OK, I take that back; Mike I. is the chump, not Michael V.

But theirs wasn’t the only dominant-subservient working relationship. Ash and Michael’s pairing was an interesting one. Riddled with doubt about his talent, Ash, who felt completely inferior to the powerhouse that is Michael V., gave up all decisions for their dish to Michael V. On the flip side, Michael V., with his already boosted ego, probably noticed the inferiority complex and rolled with it, pretty much taking over the challenge. I don’t blame him, though. This is a competition, no need to be all after-school-special and use teamwork unless the other person has good ideas.

But just because Michael V. is a rock star chef doesn’t mean his team was immune from any problems. With only four burners in the house, Ash and Michael V. settled with the dining room for their working space, using plug-in woks to cook their halibut. All seemed well until the circuits started to short and the temperature was going up and down, which meant bad things for their fish.

The rest of the crew seemed to nab a decent spot in the kitchen. I mean, they did practically topple over each other when running into the house after they were given their challenge. Guess Michael V. and Ash weren’t quick enough.

When it came time to serve the dishes, Robin and Mike I. didn’t do as bad as expected. Tom, of course, noticed the tension between the two of them during his scan of the kitchen, but their marinated mushrooms and pickled Asian pear roll worked for the judges. (Loved when Mike I. spoke about the dish in “I” terms until Robin nudged him.)

But they were the only duo to fall in the in-between. One of the tops of the night was Bryan and Laurine’s halibut with sherry-chorizo vinaigrette, a dish with impressive texture, color and spices. Also a table fave was Kevin and Jen’s BBQ kobe beef with cardamom, tomato and ginger broth. Everyone was practically salivating over Jen’s broth (Toby wanted more), and for that reason, she took home the elimination challenge win. Way to bounce back after being sick!

Michael V. and Ash, and Ashley and Eli, on the other hand, landed in the bottom — the latter for their grilled spot prawns and gnocchi. As Tom guessed during his visit, Ashley and Eli’s gnocchi didn’t hold well after sautéing. You’d think that Ashley, who cooks gnocchi every night at her restaurant, would know better. Serving as a double whammy, their undercooked prawns were a complete disaster. Michael V. and Ash, who didn’t seem surprised to be in the bottom, bombed for many reasons: The fish was overcooked, the pancetta was undercooked and the egg yolk and halibut was a bad idea. Having one of the night’s worst dishes put Michael V.’s apron in a tizzy, as he said that this was the first time he felt like he truly messed up. As for Ash, maybe you shouldn’t have sat back and let Michael V. do all the thinking. How ridiculous was his line comparing Michael V. to Picasso? I believe his exact words were, “Do you mind washing paintbrushes for Picasso?” That matches “culinary boner” for best “Top Chef” quotes. Lucky for them, though, their worry was all for naught; both were spared.

Then, in what I thought was a strange move, Ashley got the boot. Even with the undercooked shrimp and the salty gnocchi, I don’t think it was as bad as Ash’s poor performance. Clearly he lacks the confidence, skills and balls to be a Top Chef, not to mention the fact that he basically asked to be sent home.

Do you guys think the right chef went home? Do you agree that Jen deserved the win (and hefty gift card)? And is anyone else starting to get freaked out by Michael V.’s intensity?