Top Chef Las Vegas Recap
By Jason Lee
September 13, 2009

We went with the more talented of the two chefs here.

The girls are on the defensive. As any reader of my recaps knows, the girls are weak this season. And you know what? The girls are feeling the heat. Robin would like to see the women step it up and Jennifer seems, frankly, embarrassed for her sex. I don't blame her.

We head to the Top Chef kitchen for the Quickfire and the chefs are blown away to find the legendary Daniel Boulud standing with Tom. Today, they will be working with a French ingredient that has yet to catch on in America: snails - or as the French call them, escargot. They have 45 minutes to create something that Daniel has never tasted before. As this is a High Stakes Quickfire, the winner will get immunity and a nice bonus. The loser goes home.

WOW. Was not expecting that. This will only mark the second time that Top Chef has gone this route with their Quickfire Challenges - the last being the season premiere of Top Chef New York.

As the chefs get working, I'm wondering how many chefs have worked with escargot before. Ashley has not and Jennifer only has a passing familiarity with the ingredient. I'm thinking that the women might be in for another bad episode. In fact, the only person who seems confident is our resident Frenchie, Mattin.

The chefs serve their dishes to Tom and Daniel in groups of three. I must say, I'm impressed with the creativity and variety of dishes at work here. We have somewhat of a fried escargot BLT from Jesse, who's been a perpetual contestant in the bottom three. We have a play on soup and salad from Ashley and a play on bagel with cream cheese from Robin. We even have two dishes with brussel sprouts, courtesy of Jenn (who uses grilled ramps and yuzu) and Kevin (who does a fricassee with mushrooms).

All in all, Daniel and Tom find a lot to like. On top, we have Jennifer, Kevin and Pompous Mike, who'd gone back to his Greek roots with a potato garlic puree. Kevin ends up winning and as you can imagine, he's thrilled to have won his first High Stakes Quickfire.

On the bottom, and up for elimination are Robin, Ashley and Jesse (big surprise there). Yep, three women, three bottom spots. The writing is on the wall.

The loser won't be decided by their Quickfire dish. Instead, the cheftestants will have 20 minutes to rummage through the kitchen, which has drastically been re-organized, and create an amuse-bouche - a single mouthful of food. The women are frantic. They know that in 20 minutes, one of them will be going home for a stupid amuse-bouche.

Robin ends up making an avocado soup with a green apple, which incites me to yell at my television, "THAT IS NOT AN AMUSE-BOUCHE." Jesse makes a tuna tartare with a quail egg, a dish that she makes in her restaurant. Ashley has foie gras with taragon and rams. I'm thinking that Robin is vulnerable due to her inability to make a real amuse-bouche and that Jesse would be safe because she's made that dish before, but it's the opposite. Robin sounds like she had the best bite and Jesse is going home. I'm not particularly sad because Jesse has been on the bottom of almost EVERY challenge, but she's clearly very sad. She just wants people to know that she doesn't usually suck so bad. I hope she doesn't.

For the Quickfire, the cheftestants draw knives and find that each knife has the name of either a classic French protein or sauce. They will have to pair up into six teams of two, each team cooking a dish composed of their own protein and sauce for table filled with some of the best French chefs in the world. Literally. Tom Colicchio reads off the name of the diners and every cheftestant is blown away. To top things off, they will be cooking for Joel Rochubon, who was named the chef of the century in France. We're not kidding around here.

As the winner, Kevin will not be cooking. Instead, he will be dining with the other French legends. HOLY CRAP. That's some amazing prize.

The cheftestants quickly pair up, putting together the combinations of proteins and sauces that make the most sense. I'm really intregued to see Pompous Mike pair up with Bryan and Michael pair up with Jennifer. All four of them are pretty incredible chefs and I think that they should easily be on the top.

We head to Whole Foods and see that our Frenchie, Mattin, has been paired with Ashley. She's making suggestions as she goes along, "let's get some asparagus, let's pair it with the velote sauce that we've been given, etc." but Mattin shoots her down, pulling rank because of his Frenchiness.

The only other notable thing that happens in the Whole Foods is that Pompous Mike keeps pushing Jennifer around. I am livid. You DON'T PUSH GIRLS. Especially girls as pretty and smart as Jenn.

We head back to the kitchen and we see Eli and Laurine (a weak pair IMO) working on a lobster dish plus sauce Americaine. We have Hector and Ash making basically a pepper sauce and chateaubriand, a big slab of beef. Michael and Jennifer are doing rabbit with sauce chausseur and Bryan and Pompous Mike have trout with a bearnaise sauce. Lastly, we have Robin and Ron, the outcasts, who are doing frog legs with a meuniere sauce.

The two teams that seem to be having the trouble are Robin and Ron (Ron HATES the hyperness of Robin, feeling like she's ignoring her sauce while putting together an herb salad) and Bryan and Pompous Mike (because Mike has no idea how to execute his idea of a deconstructed bernaise sauce. Bryan has to practically instruct him on what to do).

Kevin, on the other hand, is sitting pretty with some of the best chefs in the world. Lucky him.

Back in the kitchen, even more pairs are struggling. Laurine is worried that her lobster will get too tough, Mattin is taking a risk by putting a lot of bacon in his velote sauce and Hector's beef is not cooking at all. In fact, Hector isn't sure he's going to have enough time to rest the meat.

Anyone sensing that we might finally see a guy go home?

Robin and Ron have the first dish and they present it to a who's-who of French cooking: Hubert Keller (third place from Top Chef Masters), Jean Joho (owner of the great Eiffel Tower restaurant in Vegas), Laurent Tourondel (of the BLT restaurant), Tom, Gail, Kevin and man of the hour, Joel Robuchon, the best French chef on the planet.

And he's wearing this ugly kimono-looking thing. Blech. Someone call Tim Gunn.

Anyhow, Robin and Ron present an ugly looking dish, which Eli describes as "a wilted salad of dead greens and overly-floured frog legs." You forgot to mention that it looks like puke, Eli. Apparently, though, it doesn't taste horrible. The consensus is that it was seasoned well, somewhat over-cooked but has some originality. The diners also note that frog legs are hard to cook.

Pompous Mike and Bryan go next with warm cured trout with a deconstructed bernaise sauce. Everyone loves it, finding it very sophisticated and with a perfectly cooked trout.

Next is Laurine and Eli, who seems more like a smart ass every episode. They have a lobster and sauce Americaine with a cauliflower puree. The lobster is indeed tough and Joel doesn't find that it has the authentic flavor of an Americaine sauce. I must say, though, that after the first three dishes, we don't really have any bombs. I'm surprised.

Next we have Mattin and Ashley with a ravioli poussin with a velote sauce and asparagus. Oops, guess I spoke too soon because no one likes this dish. There's too much bacon in the sauce, the poussin is bland and no one seems very sure as to what the chefs were trying to do with this dish. Looks like they're in trouble.

Michael and Jennifer go next with a rabbit chasseur and mustard noodles dressed with shiso. The rabbit is cooked perfectly and Tom finds it to be a very mature dish from some young chefs.

Finally, we have Hector and Ash. Hector has waited SO long to slice his meat that he ends up having to carve it like a madman, totally rushed for time. There is blood spilling out of the meat and Ash is trying to sauce the dish before time runs out.

Apparently he didn't succeed because the first question out of the mouths of the diners is "where's the sauce?" Tom thinks that the cooking was horrible on this dish, Joel says that there is no refinement and Gail says that her meat is overcooked and looks like it was hacked with an ax. Oh boy, we have a losing dish tonight.

Not to say that the night wasn't good. I think that given the caliber of chefs that these contestants were cooking for, the food was at an extremely high level. I mean, we're only four freakin' episodes into this season. This was a hard challenge and Gail agrees. "We couldn't have had this dinner at this point in any other season," she says. Wow, that's some high praise for this group.

The cheftestants head back to the stew room and Kevin, fresh from dinner, comes to join them. They press him for details on what the judges thought but he declines to say anything definitive.

Padma enters the room and asks for Bryan, Mike, Jennifer and Michael. No surprises here. They were clearly the two best dishes. Standing in front of the judges, the four of them don't even smile - they're not surprised, they knew they were on top.

The judges begin to question the trout team as to their inspiration and Pompous Mike basically takes half of the credit for the sauce and the concept of the dish, which is totally unfair since it was entirely Bryan's idea and Bryan's recipe for the sauce. I hate Mike.

Jennifer and Michael had a great time cooking together, you can tell. They compliment each other and it feels genuine. Tom, in particular, compliments Jennifer's sauce.

As much as I'd like to see the win go to Jennifer, I know that the judges will see through Mike's lies and reward Bryan for the win, giving credit to him for his innovative dish and sauce. And they do. Bryan wins his second elimination challenge so far and cements his place as one of the true contenders for this title.

As for the four losers, they certainly don't look like Top Chef material at this point. We have Mattin, Ashley, Hector and Ash. Surprising to see three men in the bottom four but hey, it's about time.

Ashley and Mattin go first and Gail nails them for their dried out poussin. Daniel follows it up with by calling their velote sauce more like gravy than velote and Tom chimes in by criticizing the heavy use of bacon. Mattin admits that he was heavy-handed with the bacon but shifts the blame entirely when the judges point out that the asparagus didn't add anything to the dish because they weren't integrated into the sauce. Ashley mumbles something about the fact that she had broached the idea of making the velote more asparagus-y but Mattin promptly denies it. Lord.

As for the Chateaubriand and sauce de pauvre dish, the first thing the judges want to know is where the sauce was. Ash explains that Hector's timing issue with the meat left him with no time to sauce the dish, so then the judges go after Hector for completely overcooking the meat and hacking it to bits when slicing it. Hector blames the overcooked meat on the fact that he'd used a thermometer to cook the dish and said that it left him with only two minutes to cut it up.

"What did you use to cut it with?" asks Gail.

"A knife," answers Hector.

"Was it sharp?" she responds. Clearly, Gail cannot believe the horrible butchery job on her meat.

The four chefs stomp back to the stew room and Ash immediately proclaims that being in the bottom four is the "most unpleasant thing in the world. It's painful because they're right. They're dead on, balls-to-the-walls right." At least he respects their opinion.

Padma says that a case can be made for sending them ALL home. Tom immediately attacks the way Hector cooked his meat, adding that any buffet line cook in Vegas could have cut it better. He also exonerates Ash by saying, "a great sauce could not hide the fact that the beef was incorrectly cooked." I'm thinking that Hector is DEFINITELY going home.

As for the other team, the judge seem most surprised that Ashley didn't take any type of responsibility for the flavorless poussin. Daniel suggests that it's because she had let Mattin lead the dish and Tom agrees that she probably wanted to throw him under the bus, but also criticizes Mattin for not delivering a true velote sauce, saying that it should have been his moment to shine.
I agree with Tom but I know that Hector will go home because he made the most elementary mistakes tonight . . . and in the early parts of any Top Chef season, the chef that makes the dumbest mistake (i.e. the one who doesn't seem like they should even be on the show) will usually go home.

The four chefs come back out and Tom delivers the final verdict. The poussin dish of Mattin and Ashley could have been great but it fell short. The chateaubriand dish of Ash and Hector was marred by both the cooking of the protein and the lack of sauce. There was no harmony.

With that, Padma stares Hector down and asks him to leave. He turns around without a word and strides out of the kitchen. He's pretty upset that he's going home, chiding himself for having changed his cooking style to fit judges, to fit time constraints, etc. He ends by inviting us viewers to come eat at his restaurant to taste "his food." If "his food" includes deep fried steaks, I think I'll pass.