'Top Chef': It's a Lunchbox, for Goshsakes!

The show starts out on a high note when Season-2 hottie Sam is back as the guest judge. Talk about injecting some lusciousness into the program before we even get presented the food. As Antonia puts it: "Sign me up!"

Alas, the challenges result in food that is less-droolworthy than Sam. The Quickfire is to make a salad that qualifies as both "sexy" and as this millennium's Caesar, Cobb or Waldorf (not sure those two criteria go together, but that's what Padma said). Everybody gets 45 minutes, which is a lot of time to assemble some lettuce. Lisa is back in full-bore annoying-witchy-Lisa mode, whining about how there are still some cheftestants "who obviously don't deserve to be here" (hey, couldn't she just be happy that they finally sent pasta-only Nikki home last episode?) and kicking off the night with yet another curse word. Sure, Top Chef is on at 10 p.m., but does anyone else wish it was possible to watch it on DVR with children in the room? Really, cooking is a good thing for kids to see, right? Only the language here is generally abominable. Between that and crotch-grabbing Michael Jackson night on "Dancing With the Stars" this week, I'm at a loss.

So Stephanie and Richard -- who have to be the favorites at this point -- are both off their games in the early challenge, with Stephanie inexplicably incapable of plating her entire dish within the mammoth cavern of time she's given. So she puts out a pear thing with no artichoke chip. And Richard concocts a ceviche that's supposed to be all light and fresh, just fruit and veggies. And both end up on the downside. Lisa uses squid and lobster for hers, but with so much banana that it tastes like those smoothies where the menu says it's made from five fruits, but put in the straw and it's all bananarama in the end. Andrew is another fruit freak, with a Thai fruit salad with mango, strawberries and raspberries, which sounds (and looks) pretty good, but can hardly be the next Caesar. It's more like something that could dress up whatever else is already on the plate.

Dale poaches some chicken, to make something that could at least approximate lunch and Antonia puts a poached egg and mushrooms on hers (what's with all the poaching?) and they get thumbs-up, but the big win goes to Spike, who whacks a side of beef on the grill and serves it up with some pineapple, radish and cucumber.

On to the Elimination Challenge, which, sadly, is to create a "healthy" box lunch for Chicago police officers -- a meal that must include at least one whole grain, protein, fruit, and veggie. Wah! Really, as Spike will later whine, nobody want's to go home over a lunchbox!

But lunchboxes it is, and the creativity is absent. Spike's reward for winning the Quickfire now that the competition is in the no-immunity zone is that he gets to pick his protein, grain, fruit and veggie first, and no one else can use the ones he's chosen. So he decides not to plan his menu around the ingredients he wants, but rther he decides to counterprogram and design his menu around sucking up the ingredients that will handicap his competition. In other words, he sets the tone for a challenge that minimizes cooking fabulousness over strategic evilness. So let's just blame him from the get-go for the dreck that follows.

Spike's key ingredients are chicken, bread, lettuce and tomato. So, no lettuce-based salads and no sandwiches (!) for the others in a lunch challenge. Boo-hoo! And then he makes a medicore chicken salad with grapes and olives that only utilizes the bread, tomato and lettuce as a garnish because he has to. Seriously, the man trainwrecks the night for serious food junkies then produces something that looks as if it could be found in the deli case at Giant, next to the congealed potato salad and sad carrot-raisin combo.

What Spike does NOT do -- at least not on camera -- is actually sabotage Lisa, so all that preview teasing is for naught. Yes, yes, Lisa's brown rice is a disaster after being over too-high heat that singes the outside and leaves the middle crunchy, but it's just as likely it happens because she's so busy witching and complaining that she loses track of her food. Not that she isn't in to pointing fingers.

Antonia, who is clearly on the rise lately, makes curry beef with Jasmine rice, and Dale goes for wraps that are made with cabbage (since Andrew bogarted the lettuce) and showcase bison -- that healthy, healthy alternative to beef.

But Andrew is the one who wants to really win the healthy, healthy award, so he makes a sushi roll with salmon but fails to add any whole grain to the process (and fails to realize that cops will pretty much consider said roll a snack item on the way to the vending machines).

Richard whips up a "burrito" wrapped in rice paper (again, can't use the tortilla because Andrew has laid claim to the whole wheat thing) that seems forgettable and Stephanie makes mushroom and leek soup with meatballs. She also shows some spark this week, annoying with Lisa for wanting to play the blame game when she finds her rice burning in the kitchen.

The judges single out Stephanie's soup and Dale's bison as the top of the heap, and Sam picks Dale as the winner. Dale promptly points out that he's won 5 of 20 competitions, which seems impressive and all, but perhaps he should go back to the house and start doing the math on dear Richard.

At Judges' Table, we get Spike, Lisa and Andrew in the hot seats, which is easily the best mix for sniping and nastiness. Lisa is all about trying to save herself, so she does the nah-nah tattle-tale thing and hypes the fact that Andrew didn't follow the rules and use a grain (Hello?! Pot meet kettle! Does Lisa even remember her non-polish-sausage moment a few weeks back?). Andrew gets on the high-and-mighty horse about all his healthiness blah, blah. And Spike decides he wants to pick up a stick and poke it at Tom, which is clearly idiotic. Seriously, Spike wants to call Tom out and say that the cops are better judges of food quality (in his estimation, that is) than the head judge on the show he's competing to win? Duh. Lisa, meanwhile, also resuscitates her accusation that someone screwed with her rice (only she used a nastier word that had to be bleeped out, of course) as if that will redeem her for the shrimp in her stir-fry that Ted Allen out-and-out calls "nasty."

Alas, Lisa seems to get rewarded for her efforts to throw Andrew "under the bus," as he puts it, because Ted calls him "arrogant" in judges' consultation -- and his failure to follow the rules, or even care about them (it can never be good to flippantly tell the judges you lost the instructions) annoys everyone. So it's unanimous--Andrew goes home and Spike gets to go back to the Chicago house and bemoan how he has no fun boys left to bunk with him. Although I'm sure the women -- now half the field! -- would be happy to send over Lisa and watch the fur fly.

-- JENNIFER FREY

Jennifer Frey  |  May 15, 2008; 8:40 AM ET Dancing With the Stars
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Comments

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Sorry, but you need to lighten up - people that work in restaurants swear (and drink) A LOT! You cannot expect them not to simply because they are on TV.

Posted by: Betty | May 15, 2008 8:57 AM

I was happy to see Andrew go - I am just amazed by the attitudes that he (and Spike) give the judges when they are on the bottom - I mean, when Stephanie or Richard have been on the bottom, they are much more gracious and know that their dishes were not good (or at least the editing is done to make it appear that way).

Posted by: Betty | May 15, 2008 10:43 AM

Thank you so much for pointing out Lisa's hypocrisy. Her self-righteous little "you have to follow the rules" jab only left me wondering "then why is her crappy butt still here?"

And, is it just me, or is Dale getting the dreaded "a-hole" edit, so that they can set him up as the villian going into the end-game? The inclusion of his "look at me, 5-for-20" comment sure makes it seem like TPTB are seeting him up to be the bad guy to root against in the finals.

Posted by: VoR | May 15, 2008 11:48 AM

I didn't think Lisa's pointing out Andrew's failure to follow the strict letter of the rules totally hypocritical. She and Antonia were seriously dinged for that - and thus in the bottom group. They were only saved because their non-conforming dish was much tastier than others in the "least favorite" group.

The impression that I had was that Andrew's faux sushi wasn't even that tasty - wasn't filling - AND didn't follow the rules - so it was a bit of three strikes you're out.

Posted by: Jean | May 15, 2008 4:45 PM

Am I the only person who can't tell Spike and Andrew apart?

Posted by: Liz | May 16, 2008 1:34 PM

Hey Liz -- Spike is the one who looks like a poor man's Justin Timberlake with all the goofy hats.

Andrew is the skinny guy with chest hair up to his chin. Or I should say, was. Buh-bye.

Hey VoR - I don't think they were setting Dale up for much of anything. If you recall he was on the block last week in that whole team challenge and I thought he did the smart thing by shutting his face, and cooking what he knows. Lo and behold, he wins the challenge when he does that. I'm sure he'll be back talking it up this week with his renewed and publically reinforced confidence.

Posted by: Ryan | May 19, 2008 3:26 PM

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