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Top Chef Chicago Recap: Episode 12

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on May 29, 2008 3:46PM

top%20chef-thumb.jpgWe start with an edited sequence that nearly makes us forget who was eliminated last week, although we know it isn't Lisa. There's a lot of chatter about how each chef wants to be in the top four and how they didn't come this far to be kicked out of the competition now. Richard rounds up the remaining troops and they move out.

Quickfire: This one is in two stages. First, the chefs are heading to Allen Brothers, where they're gonna test their butchering skills. I'm so glad I read Heat before this season started. After donning the Allen Brothers butcher gear, they're each given a huge slab of dry-aged beef and are tasked with cutting out seven frenched, bone-in tomahawk chops. Spike, naturally, has no qualms about this, noting that both of his grandfathers were butchers and that a "strain of butchery" runs in his blood. There might be some medicine for that.

The cameras show each contestant in various states of struggle with their beef. Richard and Stephanie lag a bit. Lisa and Antonia hold their own. The strain of butchery in Spike's blood serves him well. He's got a fever and the only prescription is to work through that beef. After making their cuts, they head back to the Top Chef kitchen for part two of the challenge. Padma's with Rick Tramonto, whom Richard describes as "pretty much a legendary chef."

They each have thirty minutes to cook one of those steaks to temperature, by touch, to Tramonto's specifications (medium rare). Spike states the obvious on how to cook a steak medium rare, while Richard laments on having to cook the chop "traditional." Steph opts on the safe side of caution and undercooks hers, hoping the rest will cook it through. Antonia slightly chars hers to seal in the juices. Lisa "just did it in a pan." That turned out to be a good idea, as Tramonto liked hers and Spike's the best, while noting to Richard and Steph that each of their were undercooked and a bit sloppy. Tramonto also adds the mantra "tomahawk chop, lollipop shape" to the Top Chef quote canon, saying it in a very slow, sing-song manner as if he's almost mocking Padma.

Spike wins the Quickfire. Let's see how he'll use that to his advantage.

Padma then announces to the chefs that they'll be working the line at Tramonto's Steak and Seafood (ROCK!) the following evening. Additionally, each of them will be responsible for preparing one appetizer and one entrée using what they find in Tramonto's cooler. Tramonto, in his understated way, tells the contestants to not make his restaurant look bad. This is something that will be hard to do with Spike and Lisa in the number.

Speaking of Spike, he has the advantage of getting to choose one seafood and one protein the others cannot use, same as in the healthy boxed lunch challenge. However, when they get to Tramonto's Spike is instantly attracted to a bag of frozen scallops like pining for a woman who's all wrong for him.

An aside: those frozen scallops have to be either a plant by the producers, or Tramonto - a major advocate of fresh and sustainable food - has a serious PR problem on his hands. Hungry Mag spoke with Tramonto and his PR rep last night, who said the frozen scallops were Bravo's idea. Still, it was shocking to see it in his fridge.

The others look at Spike with those frozen scallops and collectively VO, "WTF is he thinking?" Immediately, Spike regrets the decision, noting that his plan to sear the scallops is shot down in flames (nice pun, eh?) once he sees all the moisture on them as they thaw.

Enter Tom Colicchio, who puts the chefs through their paces on what they're preparing. He spies Spike using everything short of sawdust to remove the moisture from his scallops and opines, "WTF, Spike?" Spike allows that he thought in hindsight he should have opted for fresh scallops, but that this is the bed he made. A bed without hospital corners on the sheets, by the way.

Tom also tells the chefs that he'll be expediting dinner service this evening, actually putting his chef's smock to use. Finally, Tom introduces the crew to the VIP diners for the evening: Harold Dieterle, Ilan Hall and Hung Huynh, the three previous Top Chef winners. They each give out orts of advice. Hung's is characteristically smug and bitter. "You aren't here to win fan favorite. You're here to win." Now I hope Steph wins both.

The chefs prepare for dinner service in various ways. Lisa yells at Richard to move; Antonia makes a passive aggressive comment about Lisa dying and not making it to Puerto Rico; Stephanie stays in her moment. Spike keeps patting down his scallops with paper towels.

Dinner service hits and the restaurant is packed. Richard stumbles a bit as Tom calls out orders, while Steph is Zen as Tom throws curveballs to the chefs like on-the-fly tasting menus. The dishes come out fast and furious. Here they are, in no particular order

Steph: Appetizer - She makes Tramonto's hear flutter with sweetbreads in a sweet and sour sauce of golden raisins and pine nuts. She then takes a chance with her entrée: beef tenderloin with Salsify Puree, Wild Mushrooms, and Apple Sauce. Heeding the lessons learned from the quickfire, the dish looks amazing.

Antonia: Appetizer - warm mushroom and artichoke salad, poached egg, bacon vinaigrette. entrée - Bone-In Rib Eye, roasted fennel and cipollini onions, shallot and potato gratin. She's playing to the locals with the bacon vinaigrette. And her ribeye looks spectacular. But then, to paraphrase her criticism of Dale, Antonia only does rustic Italian.

Spike: Appetizer - anyone want to guess as to how the pan-seared scallops turned out? Served atop a bed of hearts of palm and oyster mushrooms, this was simply a disaster and he knows it. All that time Spike wasted on the scallops could have been put to use on his main course of tomahawk steak, sweet potato puree, brussels sprouts and cipollini. Cipollini being this week's ras al hanout, apparently

Lisa: Appetizer - Grilled & chilled shrimp with confit lemon zest salad, baby tomatoes and crustini had a certain airline food quality to it, if airlines still served food. Conversely, her New York Strip served with Spicy Apple Caramel Sauce and Peanut Butter Mashed Potatoes was a well-received left-field hit.

Richard: “Vitello Tramonto” (hamachi, crispy sweetbreads, radish and yuzu) shows that he can actually prepare seafood. But his main course of prime beef filet with potato puree, turnips and red wine with pickled brussels sprouts was a little bit undercooked.

Judges Table: A red-clad Padma calls all of them to the table to take their lumps. Here's where it gets interesting. Spike knows he made the wrong call with the frozen scallops. But, when Tramonto lays into him about choosing them, Spike looks at Tramonto and says, "With all due respect, they were in your cooler."

After some overlapping, Tramonto cooly says to Spike, "I'll take the hit, bro. But you have to take the hit for using them." That shuts Spike up briefly.

After deliberation, The chefs are called back in. Richard gets the nod for favorite appetizer, while Antonia receives the honors for her entrée. However, the consistent level of quality between her appetizer and main course makes Stephanie the winner of the challenge. Her bounty this week? A load of appliances and Tramonto's cookbook, which is a holy grail of classic recipes.

Much as folks want to see Lisa go, the judges rightly and correctly eliminate Spike. Although, in a just world, he'd be leaving with Tramonto's shoe in his pooper instead of with head held high.

Spike's elimination also guarantees another first for Top Chef. We're gonna have three girls, and Lisa, vying for the title in Puerto Rico. Should be fun.