Top Chef Las Vegas Recap
By Jason Lee
October 29, 2009

He hopes Robin has a nice day!

It's hard to believe that three weeks from now, we will know which four chefs will advance to the final round of Top Chef. In a perfect world, the four chefs advancing to the finals would be Kevin, Bryan, Michael and Jennifer. Over the course of this season, those four have proven themselves to be the cream amongst a remarkably well-skilled crop. Of course, as we've seen far too many times on Top Chef, the final four is rarely composed of the best chefs.

Most of the chefs are still reeling from last week's stunning episode. Jennifer on the brink of elimination, Kevin undercooking lamb so badly that the guest judge could barely swallow it, Robin turning in her best dish of the all seemed like some crazy episode of The Twilight Zone.

And Jennifer is still hungover. Not physically, but spiritually. She admits that she has been beating herself up over her recent performances, noting that she's going to have to pull herself together so that she can start turning in some better dishes. She says it, but we don't believe her. We still see the haunted look in her eyes. She looks defeated even before the Quickfire has started, and I am starting to get nervous.

The cheftestants head into the kitchen and we see what looks like an Ikea living room furniture set. I'm a little confused. Padma explains: today's Quickfire is sponsored by TV Guide and the cheftestants will have to create gourmet versions of TV dinners, each inspired by a class TV show. How will they know which TV show they get? They'll draw knives, of course.

*One quick aside. I'm not a huge fan of how the Quickfire Challenges have turned into platforms for Bravo to integrate sponsors into the show. Sure, the Elimination Challenges have all the creativity and complexity that we've come to expect, but the challenge and the TV Guide challenge are such blatant integrations of corporate sponsors that it sucks all the fun out. It's a far cry from such classic Quickfires as the Vending Machine challenge in Season 1 or even the tag team cook-off from last week.

Okay, I'll step off my soapbox now.

In any case, the cheftestants draw knives and get shows like Seinfeld, Cheers, Giligan's Island, and M*A*S*H. They get to work and it becomes readily apparent that most dishes don't have anything to do with their shows. You'd expect Pompous Mike's Seinfeld dish to be minimalistic (reflecting the show's editing style and plot development) but it doesn't reflect anything from Jerry's bunch. No mangos, no soup nazi...nothing. Likewise with Kevin's dish from The Sopranos. No Italian flavoring or ingredients - just "family" style food.

In retrospect, I think the chefs were given too much to handle, having to reinvent foods you'd typically find in a TV dinner while trying to incorporate elements from a TV show. In the end, the show lost and the food got the focus.

On the bottom, we have the two remaining women: Robin and Jennifer. Their dishes just never came together. Jennifer is clearly frustrated and I'm worried that she's digging herself into an emotional rut that she may not be able to recover from.
On the top we have Kevin and Bryan. Kevin wins but does not get immunity. Not that he needs it. In ten episodes, he's landed on the bottom exactly once.

The cheftestants are told that their Elimination Challenge will take place at chef Tom Colicchio's Las Vegas restaurant, Craftsteak in the MGM Grand. It's one of the finest steakhouses in the country and everyone is excited to cook meat. Kevin, in particular, thinks that meat is his forte. In fact, the only one who isn't excited is Robin. The chefs talk into the night about what they might prepare for the Elimination Challenge.

The next day, the chefs awaken and head to Craftsteak. The kitchen is absolutely beautiful and the chefs all run into the freezer to see what type of proteins are available. They see a bounty of steak, pork, lamb, name it, it's there. Any good carnivore probably had to mop up a pool of his own drool after seeing the spread of protein.

Tom quietly arrives and calls for the chefs to come out. We will have a guest judge at Judges Table and it's none other than Harvard-alum, Queen Amidala herself, Natalie Portman. Eli makes a snide comment about how the only significant thing she's done was Star Wars. I hate Eli. I throw my shoe at the TV. "You OBVIOUSLY didn't see her in Closer!!!" I scream.

Natalie has a bombshell to drop (though it's not really a bombshell if you have any knowledge of Hollywood starlets.) Yep, she's a vegetarian. Though this isn't exactly a revelation of epic proportions, the chefs are shell-shocked. Every dish, every meat, every idea that they had coming into this challenge will have to be junked. They're cooking veggies today.

Most of the chefs have problems with their dishes – frankly, I think most of them are just burned out after so many challenges in such a short amount of time. Michael and Bryan are plating down to the wire, Kevin's presentation looks like a slop of mush on a plate, Robin is spazzing out over the idea of using fresh garbanzo beans in her dish, and Pompous Mike wasn't able to get his water to boil quickly enough to cook his leeks, which he's trying to plate so that they look like scallops.

But none can compare to Jennifer. First, she has to change her dish TWICE because first Kevin and Robin want to use the type of mushroom she wants, and then she loses her eggplants to Eli. Her final dish looks do I put this? The portion size is so small that you'd expect it to come from Jenny Craig.

I am really not happy. First off, Jennifer doesn't have any of the fire that we saw early on in the season (anyone remember the swagger she carried when she served as Executive Chef in the Air Force Base challenge?). Secondly, in her interviews, she looks like she's been crying. There have been more than a handful of episodes in past seasons of Top Chef where you can tell who went home by the fact that in their pre-Judges Table interviews, you could tell that they had been crying. And this week, it's Jennifer. And I'm scared.

Robin goes first and most diners agree that her dish lacks cohesiveness. Eli's dish looks like a big eggplant sushi roll but most people like it and comment on the fact that it's well plated. Michael has an utterly strange dish that mixes bananas and polenta, but it's hit, with Natalie giggling like a schoolgirl over how much she likes it.

Jennifer, of course, does not fare well. First, she takes a stab at saucing her plate tableside with au jus, but she's so nervous that her hand shakes violently during the process, splashing large amounts of the sauce on the plate and table in front of each diner. While the diners seem to like her dish, it's not substantial at all. Tom comments on the fact that it feels like a garnish. Another person said that it'd be a great side to a big steak.

Thankfully, Pompous Mike seems to have more issues. His leeks are not well cooked, with the outside mushy and the inside tough. His accompanying ingredients are mediocre at best. I have my fingers crossed that he goes home instead of Jennifer.

On the flip side, Kevin has a spectacular dish and Bryan's is good but not filling.

Yes, I'm still really nervous about Jennifer.

So we go to judges table and as expected, we have Kevin, Michael and Eli on top. Eli is ecstatic. It's the first time he's been in the top three in a non-team challenge. Eli gets compliments on his plating, Michael gets complimented on his inventive, creative approach to the challenge, but the greatest praise is reserved for Kevin. "Every mouthful of the dish was bursting with flavor," says Tom. Well, I guess we know who won.

And yes, Kevin wins the challenge. He's the first person this season to win both a Quickfire and an Elimination Challenge in one episode. We've known this for weeks now, but now there can be absolutely no doubt: he's the favorite to win this competition.

On the bottom, we have Robin (who's expecting it), Jennifer (who hates herself) and Pompous Mike (who's disappointed but still confident that he won't be going home). Robin goes first and starts rambling incoherently about her dish and all the ingredients she was going to use and she loved this challenge, waka waka waka. Tom calls her out on the fact that she's so excited about all these different ingredients that her dish lacked coherency. She really has no response to this.

Jennifer goes next and the judges absolutely hammer her for her portion size. It was a garnish, it was a side dish...Padma even says that she couldn't see on the plate where Jennifer's two hours had gone. She further criticizes Jennifer's tableside service, saying that most diners ended up "wearing your au jus." Jennifer says that she was nervous. Gail asks what it was about this challenge that made her nervous and Jenn responds by saying that the judges ALWAYS make her nervous. She promises to show why she deserves to be in this competition if she's allowed to stay, "and if I'm not," she continues, "then thank you for the opportunity."

Pompous Mike goes next and Natalie slams him for having no protein on his plate.

"My idea was to cook the leek and make it look like a scallop," he says.

"But you understand that a leek still has no protein in it?" Gail asks. Wow, go Gail.

Pompous Mike cedes the point that his dish had no protein but says that he felt like his other ingredients were cooked well, like his turnips and his carrots.

"The carrots...were okay," says Tom, pausing to imply that the carrots were anything but okay.

The chefs head back into the Stew Room and I'm quickly trying to rationalize every reason why Jennifer should not go home. Sure, her dish looked like a "garnish," but at least it tasted good. Pompous Mike's dish had many flavoring and cooking errors. Would you rather have something small cooked well or something big cooked badly? HRMMMM????

I just hope that the judges agree with me.

The cheftestants are called back out and Tom delivers the final remarks. Robin couldn't bring her dish together in a way that everything made sense. Pompous Mike suffered from errors of execution. Jennifer's performance over the past episodes have really fallen and her dish looked like she had taken a garnish and served it as a main course.

And Pompous Mike goes home. He displays great equanimity despite being sent home, shaking hands with the judges. He then gives Jennifer a big hug and she seems to cling to him in total terror or relief or grief or a combination of all those things. Gail notices and gives a pointed look to the other judges as if to say, "Wow, Jennifer is really at the end of her rope."

So here we are, two episodes away from the final. We have three rock-solid chefs (Kevin, Michael and Bryan), we have one on the rise (Eli), we have one falling apart (Jennifer), and one who is still inexplicably in the competition (Robin). I would like nothing more than to see Eli and Robin go home in the next two episodes – they are the chefs that deserve the least to be in the final. But with the way Jennifer is cooking, who knows. I just hope that she takes yesterday's Elimination Challenge as a wake-up call.

Kevin: Six times in the top of the Elimination Challenge, four Elimination Challenge wins, three Quickfire Wins
Bryan: Six times in the top of the Elimination Challenge, three Elimination Challenge wins
Michael: Eight times in the top of the Elimination Challenge, two Elimination Challenge wins, one Quickfire Win
Jennifer: Five times in the top of the Elimination Challenge, one Elimination Challenge win, two Quickfire Wins