Top Chef Las Vegas Recap
By Jason Lee
November 17, 2009

Good riddance!

We return to the Top Chef kitchen after a one-week hiatus and there's only one question on my mind: Will this be the challenge that Jennifer gets her head back together? Her performances over the past three episodes have been decidedly lackluster, and there have been more one occasion when I've thought to myself, "She's going home. There's no doubt, she's going home."

There's a faint glimmer of hope that she's kicked back into gear. She confides in us that the elimination of Pompous Mike really shocked her. "I definitely thought he'd be in the top," she says. Seeing as how no one is safe, Jennifer concludes that she needs to stop worrying about others.


The six remaining chefs head to the kitchen in the Venetian Hotel. They stand around awkwardly until a phone rings. It's Padma. She informs them that room service is a multi-million dollar industry in Vegas – not surprising seeing as how there are over 67,000 hotel rooms. Thus, today they will be having a Room Service Quickfire Challenge. They will need to create a scrumptious breakfast-in-bed for herself as well as French culinary master, Nigella Lawson, who I know as the "Food Network chef who would easily win the title of Sexiest Female Voice on the Planet." Seriously. Her voice totally turns me on, and I'm not even straight.

Robin and Eli cook as the first pair. Robin creates a blintz with goat cheese and caramelized pineapple. Nigella gives her no response. Eli makes a fried egg Reuben with thousand island hollandaise sauce. Nigella says that it would be a great hangover breakfast.

Kevin and Michael go next, with Michael having to spend five of his 25 minutes cleaning up after Robin. She enters the kitchen not soon after that to clean up her station, having just finished serving her meal to Nigella, and Michael angrily snaps at her to get out of the kitchen. She scurries out.

Up in the bedroom, Kevin serves Nigella steak and eggs with crème fraiche, green onion, and a light dusting of coffee. I idly wonder how Padma will like it, seeing as how she wasn't a fan of steak and eggs until Season 3 winner, Hung, cooked it for her (and won the breakfast Quickfire with it in his episode). Michael does a Cuban-inspired Huevos Cabana with crispy rice, bananas. No response from either Padma or Nigella to the two dishes.

Lastly, we have Jennifer and Bryan. I have my fingers crossed for Jennifer – she says that she works in a hotel restaurant and does room service. She also says her breakfasts are darn good. I hope she's right.

Jennifer presents Nigella with creamed, chipped beef with toast and oven roasted tomatoes. Nigella looks at the dish as if it were from another planet. I cringe. Bryan makes a four-minute egg with a vanilla beurre fondue. After Bryan leaves, Nigella confesses to Padma that she really doesn't like the vanilla.

After breakfast, Padma and Nigella return to the kitchen to deliver the news. Bryan, who's won three Elimination Challenges but no Quickfires, ends up on the bottom because of his use of vanilla. Nigella says that she was breathing in dessert but eating breakfast. Also on the bottom is Robin, who didn't provide enough contrast in her blintz.

On the top, we have Kevin, who demonstrated a strong understanding the challenge (though I'm not sure how - it was just room service breakfast in bed, right? Didn't everyone do that?). Nigella also liked Eli, whose dish had a wit and a tang that slapped the jetlag out of her. I have a feeling that Eli had the most dynamic, flavor-bursting dish and will win...and I'm right. Eli wins. He doesn't get immunity, but his dish will be the only Quickfire recipe included in Top Chef's new Quickfire recipe book (In all major bookstores now!).

The Elimination Challenge seems curiously open-ended. Each chef will draw knives with the name of one famous Vegas casino. They will have all day to explore the casino and plan a dish inspired by what they see. Then, they will have to bring that dish to an event with 175 guests at the top of the World Market Center.

Each chef goes on their merry way, taking a look at their respective casino. Michael goes to New York, New York and decides quickly to do a tribute to NY firemen. Jennifer goes to Excalibur and can't come up with a single good idea (DAMMIT!). Bryan goes to Mandalay Bay and decides to do a dish around sustainable sea wildlife after visiting one of their aquariums. Robin is captivated by a glass Dale Chihuly sculpture in the lobby, with its vibrate rainbow-hues. Kevin goes to Mirage and finds a tropical oasis. Eli, our fat little midget, goes to Circus Circus and comes away with an idea to do something around clichéd circus foods.

The chefs sit around their beds, going over some of their ideas that night, but hours later they find themselves back in the kitchen. They have three and a half hours to prepare food for 175 people. There isn't a lot of drama. In fact, the only person who's having trouble is Robin. She wants to do a panna cotta with shards of colored sugar to evoke the Chihuly sculpture but her sugar doesn't set and she has to junk it.

Guests enter and the judges head over to Jennifer's table first. She says that her dish is inspired by the Sword and the Stone myth, delivering a piece of grilled NY strip with a red wine reduction, beets, truffles and fresh herbs. She has a little hors d'oeuvre sword stuck in the meat. Nigella criticizes the size of the meat, saying that puts her in "wench mode," since she can't cut it. After biting into it, she declares, "This is the stone," meaning the meat was too tough. Ughhh. Chalk up another disappointing dish from Jennifer.

Kevin serves a wild Alaskan sockeye salmon with Napa cabbage and cucumber. There's also a tomato broth at the bottom that's supposed to act as a palate cleanser. Toby loves the spices plus the mint. Tom finds the tomato water stunning.

Michael makes a boneless chicken wing with confit curry and a bleu cheese disc – this is a play on buffalo wings, a favorite of NY firemen. Nigella loves the crisp skin, Padma loves the cold dressing, but Toby isn't a fan of the cold disc of bleu cheese.

Robin has her panna cotta, and as she describes the dish, she fearlessly shows them the shards of sugar that failed to come out right and will not be served on their desserts. Nigella likes the smell of the panna cotta but says that Robin overused gelatin, causing it to be too firm. Toby says the syrup tastes like what you'd get from a slushy. Padma likes the inspiration of the dish.

Eli serves the most disgusting-sounding dish I've heard to date on from this season. It is a caramel apple, peanut soup with popcorn and raspberry froth. The pink froth, you see, is supposed to represent the red bigtop tent for any circus...except that it doesn't cover the dish, it's underneath most of the food. Padma doesn't like the dish at all, and Toby says that Eli gambled and lost.

Bryan, lastly, has an escabeche (Spain-poached fish) with a bouillabaisse sauce, pine nuts, and garlic chips. Nigella says that it has fantastic balance, Tom likes the sauce, and Toby says that it tastes like a really professional dish.

So the dinner is over and it's obvious who's on top (Kevin, Bryan and Michael) and who's on the bottom (Eli, Robin and Jenn). There's very little suspense here.

Indeed, Padma calls out Kevin, Bryan, and Michael. Kevin is complimented by Tom on the texture of his salmon and use of compressed vegetables, which kept them bright and flavorful. For Michael, Toby thought that his dish was perfectly expressive of the type of cooking that he does – delicate and sometimes effeminate (is that a compliment in England, Toby?). Nigella loved Bryan's dish, saying that it was beautiful, elegant and quiet. I'm thinking that Michael wins, simply because he embodied his casino and the spirit of New York in the best way. Bryan evoked Mandalay Bay in the most boring way by doing a seafood dish, while Kevin just did a tropical dish for the Mirage.

And yes, Michael wins. He deserves it.

The three bottom chefs come out. Padma asks Jennifer if she's surprised to be here and Jennifer responds by saying, "No. I didn't have a clear vision for dish and I think that translated. It was a little boring." Oh, Jennifer. Tom says that she lacked knowledge of medieval cooking and should have more heavily spiced the meat. Nigella said it wasn't tender enough and Toby says that it needed more sauce.

Robin goes next and she exults the inspiration she drew from Chihuly's sculpture. She admits that she had never tried coloring sugar before and maybe that hurt her. "But you had never done a panna cotta before either, had you?" asks Tom sharply. Nigella says that panna cotta lacked a "quiver." Tom further asks if Robin is being influenced by her fellow chefs, trying to match their level of creativity and prowess. Robin admits to being envious and inspired by her competitors. Finally, Toby says that he applauds her ambition but says that she failed.

Finally, we have Eli's train wreck of a dish. Nigella says that there was too much going on and that the textures didn't work. Tom liked the idea of the dome but said he didn't see it, also agreeing with Nigella on the texture issue. Padma says she would personally never want to eat that again, ever. Ouch.

The three chefs head back into the Stew Room, their heads down in shame. I think to myself, "It's gotta be Eli going home, right? Right?"

The four judges go over the cases against each chef. For Jennifer, Toby was disappointed in the sauce, calling it "more of a smear." Nigella felt that she was hostile to the meat. Tom says that she started strong but has failed on the last three challenges. "She's hit a wall," he concludes. I agree.

Back in the Stew Room, Jennifer says, "I'm ready to go home."

For Robin, Toby says that she was trying to do things beyond her ability, but Tom counters that a panna cotta is a simple dish. "It's child's play," Nigella agrees. Padma says that the flavor was nonexistent. Tom further says that he never saw Chihuly's sculpture in the dish.

Back in the Stew Room, Robin laments the fact that she's trying to use the types of tricks and tools that her fellow chefs are using. "I want to wow the judges, too," she says sadly.

As for Eli, Nigella calls his dish a total fiasco. "I would rather eat sawdust," she proclaims. Tom says that Eli had a bad texture in the soup and then added more bad texture with the popcorn, calling it terrible. Toby said it looked unappetizing. Nigella finishes by saying that she had to utilize every bit of her upbringing not to spit her mouthful of food back into the cup.

I think to myself, "It's gotta be Eli going home, right? Right?"

The three chefs come back out to hear the final judgment. They were supposed to visit a casino and find inspiration either in theme or design. This challenge separated the talented from the top chefs. Eli had a mess of a dish, Jennifer had a boring dish and Robin didn't deliver the sculpture.

"It's gotta be Eli going home, right?"

Padma: "Robin, please pack your knives and go."

I am floored. Absolutely floored. Robin tears up, manages a smile, and then goes up to each judge to thank them for allowing her to be on the show. In her final confessional, she admits that she was trying to impress people with skills that she hadn't yet mastered, and that she had forgotten to stay true to the food that she likes to cook.

I spent a few minutes after the show trying to rationalize why the judges sent Robin home for an unimpressive dish instead of sending Eli home for a disgusting dish. The only idea I could come up with was that Robin's dish was so elementary, so easy, that to fail in its execution displayed a total lack of abilities worthy of a Top Chef.

I also checked Tom Colicchio's blog and he had this to say: "Panna cotta is basic, simple fare, but Robin's wasn't well done; the texture was wrong. And the sauce was terrible. What can I say? At the end of the day, every element of her dish failed. Eli's dish was less bad. And so it was Robin's turn to go."

Well, it sure didn't seem like that based on the way the show was edited, but oh well. Robin probably should have gone home a long time ago, and she definitely didn't deserve to be in the finale.

And speaking of which, the next episode will be one helluva doozy. Kevin, Michael and Bryan are so far ahead of Jennifer and Eli at this point that it's not even funny. Those three might as well book their airfare and hotel room at the finale cause there's no way one of them won't be going. The question is whether Jennifer steps up or Eli wins by default.

I think you know which one I'm rooting for.


Kevin: Seven times in the top of the Elimination Challenge, four Elimination wins, three Quickfire Wins
Michael: Nine times in the top of the Elimination Challenge, three Elimination wins, one Quickfire Win
Bryan: Seven times in the top of the Elimination Challenge, three Elimination wins
Jennifer: Five times in the top of the Elimination Challenge, one Elimination win, two Quickfire Wins
Eli: Four times in the top of the Elimination Challenge, two Quickfire Wins