'Top Chef': When Tom's Away, Anthony Can Play

I love Tom Colicchio. His personality is well-suited to the show, his comments are dead-on and he handles all the volatile personalities well....

...So do you sense a "but" coming?

Tom has a charity commitment this week ,so Anthony Bourdain steps in as head judge (oh, and for all you Washingtonians who love his restaurants, Jose Andres is in the standard guest judge spot). And Bourdain brings it. No holding back, totally ready to zing. Very entertaining. It made for quite a spicy alternate judges' table.

But first, the Quickfire. Tom (not yet off on his venture) wakes the cheftestants up at 5:45 a.m. to go cook on the line at a popular local diner. Seems as though 5:45 is actually pretty late for that kind of calling, but whatever. They all take turns trying to make hard eggs and soft eggs and poached eggs and Antonia wins, again. (She's got the Quickfire thing pretty nailed). Her prize: It's Restaurant Wars, and she gets to pick her entire team! Oh my, talk about an advantage. It's no shock here that she takes Stephanie and Richard, the two top contenders at this point *and* the two people who have especially played well with others in previous competitions.

That means Spike, Dale and Lisa have to re-team (it's a repeat of Wedding Wars). How delicious is that? You have to know at this point that there is going to be some major sniping.

Dale et. al. decide to go Asian fusion (duh!) and Dale and Lisa flip a coin over who gets the exec chef duties. Dale wins. Poor Dale. This is not a team one wants to be responsible for leading. Spike takes over front-of-the-room (the teams get $5,000 for decor and $1,500 for food. Hmmm. Am I missing something here?).

Lisa is going to cook a shrimp laksa (soup), which becomes a hot-button dish when they all find out that Bourdain -- who declares he's eaten about a billion laksas -- is going to fill Tom's role this week. The other first course choice is a pork dumpling. Main courses are scallops with butterscotch (!) sauce and braised shortribs. Desserts include Dale repeating the Halo-Halo he made in a previous Quickfire and a mango sticky rice.

Meanwhile, Antonia is exec chef (since she picked the team and all). They decide to go with the theme of "gastro pub." They've got a beet (why so much love for beets this season?) and goat-cheese salad or a linguine with clams to start. Second course is trout with cauliflower or a duo of lamb dishes. And dessert is Richard repeating his Quickfire banana scallop thing or a gorgonzola cheesecake. Stephanie takes over the front of the house and puts on a va-va-voom cleavage dress, but also makes the cheesecake and is the architect of the linguine dish.

In the kitchen, each team gets a previously eliminated contestant to help. Dale chooses first and takes Jen. Antonia grabs for Nikki -- but before you get appalled, it's all because Steph is out front of the house and there is pasta to be made.

In the kitchen, lots of sniping and nastiness and cursing and dislike and whatnot between Dale and Lisa.

All zen happiness with Richard and Antonia.

Food comes out: Everybody's happy with Antonia's team. Salad is good, Jose Andres thinks the linguine is excellently done, they adore the lamb, they admire the decision to leave the skin on the trout. Dessert isn't a home run, but it's obvious they're all impressed.

On to service for the Asian fusion crew. It's already obvious from Spike and Dale's grimaces that Lisa's soup is a disaster. Dale's Halo-Halo looks icky, because the guacamole is brownish. The sticky rice turns into mush (Lisa's in charge there). Dinner is served and the judges are horrified by the butterscotch scallops. Bourdain calls it "like a Willy Wonka scallop." The desserts are universally panned (a shout-out to the guest diner who described the sticky rice as "baby food garnished with potpourri." Wowser!)

It's clear what team is going to lose. Meanwhile, Lisa is already doing everything possible to start deflecting and/or spreading blame. Has she become monumentally annoying or what?

At the judges' table, Stephanie wins the prize (a good one--a trip to Barcelona!) because she not only had a better front-of-house, but she also was responsible for two popular dishes.

Then Spike, Dale and Lisa come in and it's a Nasty-O-Rama. Dale doesn't even wait for the judges to finish a half-sentence before he is literally (!) gesturing to others in blame (or to himself for credit). Lisa does that arm-cross thing of hers (which Bourdain totally calls her out on during judges' discussion) and is pointing fingers so fast your head starts to spin. Dale tries to take responsibility for anything that worked (which would pretty much only be the shortribs, which were Spike's recipe). Oh, and Spike is smirking up a storm with the obvious knowledge that the other two are going to self-implode in some way and there's no possibility he's going home.

Bourdain, meanwhile, calls all of them out on their bull. Lisa on a total inability to take criticism, Dale on not running his own house, and Spike really gets nailed: "Through guile or luck," Bourdain tells him, "you were missing in action. It was a good day to be in the dining room." Oh, yeah, and wipe off that smirk.

The best line, though, is when Bourdain cuts off the Lisa/Dale sniping with this: "Okay, okay, you're not talking to your parole officer!" Ka-CHING!

In the end, Dale pretty much should kick himself for winning that coin toss, because as exec chef he took the fall, even though he and Lisa pretty much had equally crappy dishes and equally crappy attitudes.

So now it's down to five cheftestants, and it's hard to believe that three of the final four won't be Antonia, Richard and Stephanie. But who joins them? Smug, obnoxious Spike? Or whiny, defensive, fingernail-grating Lisa? (Meanwhile, who gave Antonia the personality makeover? Hmmm. Maybe it's just that downer Lisa was infectious...)


Jennifer Frey  |  May 22, 2008; 9:29 AM ET Top Chef
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Lisa needs to go! In my opinion-both Lisa and Dale should have left last night.
Spike knew all he had to do was keep his mouth shut and the other two would make fools of themselves-and he was right.

Posted by: NoLisaFan | May 22, 2008 10:15 AM

Right now, Lisa is my number one choice for most annoying chef. And apparently it's her karmic destiny to not be able to cook a pot of rice (heck, I can make rice and I'm tragic in the kitchen). You could tell the Asian cooking team was going off the rails from moment one last night.

Nice to see Jose Andres and Bourdain.

Posted by: NW DC | May 22, 2008 10:40 AM

I love that they didn't even edit it to look like the competition was close!

Seriously, Lisa should refrain from making rice ever again.

Posted by: Betty | May 22, 2008 10:53 AM

What is the deal with Lisa and rice? Seriously. Get some minute rice and put it in the microwave or something, since the stove thing isn't working out for ya'.

And I believe the comment was "baby vomit with wood chips." I loved it, best comment ever.

Posted by: vw | May 22, 2008 11:07 AM

I'm just a good home cook - but I was flummoxed when, if they couldn't find true glutinous "sticky" rice, they still insisted on making sticky rice with mango.

Good grief. I make a very good rice pudding with cardamom and coconut that would have worked. Or a good mango pudding with candided ginger.

For people who are supposed to be "Top Chefs" I always wonder at the lack of creativity or Plan B (which every home cook had better have!) - or how they think you can substitute one ingredient for another and not get a very different result.

For the Asian dessert alone, they totally deserved to lose, in my opinion. And for their generally bad attitudes, I'm only sorry that last night was a double elimination.

Now I want to see, if forced to actually cook, Spike can come up with the goods, or not. He should now stand or fall based on his own merit - not good gamesmanship.

Posted by: Jean | May 22, 2008 11:44 AM

I agree with Jean... if you are truly a "Top Chef", you should really know how substituting ingredients is going to affect the outcome of your intended dish and at the very least, be prepared with a backup plan if it doesn't work. I loved how Lisa immediately insisted she didn't choose the rice that went into her baby-vomit mess of a dessert. If she was making the dish, she should have been the one selecting the ingredients to make sure she got exactly what she needed and knew would work. I am so sick of Lisa... Dale is no gem but Lisa, I think, is worse. I hope she goes next week and Spike follows after that.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 22, 2008 12:30 PM

Talent-wise I had my final four as: Richard, Dale, Stephanie, Antonia.

But, after watching Dale's repeated meltdowns when dealing with Lisa in several episodes this season, it's hard to make a case for him being a "Top Chef." Presumably, part of being a top chef is your ability to lead others and be in charge. Dale failed.

Spike and Lisa are clearly inferior in both their technical cooking abilities and in their attitudes and professionalism. I'd rather see Lisa cut sooner, rather than later, but I don't know how we'll see anything other than a final three of Richard, Stephanie and Antonia.

Posted by: M Street | May 22, 2008 2:09 PM

Which is worse? Lisa's insecure, desperate attempt to survive or Spike's swarmy game playing to survive?

Too bad Dale had to go.

Posted by: Sophia | May 23, 2008 7:40 PM

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