Top Chef 6, Episode 4: One Atlantan down


WARNING: Mucho spoilers ahead (and if you really don’t want to know, avoid the Twitter feed at the bottom of the page).

The Opening Stretch of Episode Foreshadowing hones in on how all the chefs sent packing thus far have been women. So we know from seasons of Bravo and their calculating ways in the editing room that a fellow will most likely be headed home this round …

But not yet. Daniel Boulud, Gallic God to a modest but stellar restaurant empire, is the week’s guest judge. (Interesting: He’s based in New York, but Google Boulud’s name and Vegas is the first city that comes up mentioned. Is that a measure of Vegas’ newfound power as a restaurant draw, or merely the reaction to last night’s Top Chef episode?)

The Quickfire Challenge
: Cook something with escargot-a.k.a. snails. Mr. Kessler wisely noted in his recap (posted at 3:24 a.m.; that’s dedication) that snails must be cleaned of their snail goo before cooking, so the chefs were kindly spared from that task in order to whip up an original dish in forty-five minutes. “I’m really expecting something I’ve never experienced before,” says Boulud.

Wait: The high-stakes Vegas catch? The loser of the Quickfire Challenge goes home. Pan to Jesse biting her pierced lip. I’d be nervous, too, if I were her.

The kitchen looks especially frantic as the chefs wrestle with an ingredient few have worked with. Hector gives the snails a Caribbean makeover and a side of pickled mushrooms. French-born Mattin of the Red Scarf notes that “escargot is my whole youth.” But the three winning dishes go to Jen, Mike I. and Kevin—the three who, along with the brothers Voltaggio, have emerged as the early frontrunners.

The losers are Robin, Ashley, and—what???—Jesse. They have twenty minutes to redeem themselves with an amuse-bouche of whatever they want to whip up. Jesse says that she feels confident because she makes amuse-bouches in her restaurant, but her tuna tartare with quail egg and fried bread is the weakest of the three. Colicchio, the sly rebel, changes up the standard verbiage: “Jesse, please pack your knives and leave.” Jesse is pissed, disappointed, and embarrassed, and wants America to know that “I don’t suck this bad.” I’d be curious to go eat at her place to find out.

Yeehaw: Our boy Kevin scores for his snails with bacon jam. (Was his bacon jam something in the stash of tricks that the chefs are allowed to bring with them, or did he whip that up in 45 minutes?)

The Kevster not only scores immunity but is also relieved of cooking duties for The Elimination Challenge: The chefs draw knives inscribed with the names of either popular French proteins (young chicken, lobster, rabbit, etc.) or popular French sauces. They pair up in teams of two according to which protein matches which sauce. It’s a testament to the season’s relatively tame personalities that everyone pretty much makes the sensible matches. In other years, more cutthroat contestants would have refused to work with other chefs who were clearly under-performing. And note how they’ve toned down the editing on Mike I. He isn’t exactly likable, but he’s being portrayed as less of a schmuck. Which tells me that he’s around for the long haul.

The chefs are cooking for some mighty luminous French chefs, the grand poobah being Joël Robuchon, named “Chef of the Century” in France. Y’all, before the economy went splat, I ate at Robuchon in the MGM Grand where the chefs cooked this challenge, and it was one of the top three most memorabl—and certainly THE most expensive—restaurant meals that I’ve eaten in this country.

The chefs present in appropriate courses. Kevin, in a fetching lilac tie, is invited to join in the meal. He looks sweetly intimidated.

Ron and Robin, the tensest personality pairing, muddle through with overbreaded frog legs and decent meuniere sauce. Eli later mocks the dish in interview mode, yet Mr. E. makes only a marginally better impression with his lobster bisque-esque sauce americaine. Robuchon notes, en Français, that the sauce doesn’t have a “genuine flavor.”

The two obvious all-star teams do the judges proud. Stone-faced Bryan V. and Jersey Mike thrill the table with skillfully cooked trout and a deconstructed béarnaise sauce. Robuchon opines about the joys of taking something simple and making it exquisite. Equally stone-faced Michael V. (seriously, I’d read a joint memoir on their childhood, these boys seem fascinatingly detached) and my girl Jen rock hard-to-make rabbit with white wine-based chasseur sauce over mustard noodles and shiso. Colicchio notes that, for young chefs, this is mature cooking. But Bryan V. wins for his lovely trout.

And on the chopping block? Mattin—who turned twenty-nine during the course of the show (was it the night before this challenge?), got smashed, and ran around in red skivvies nearly the same shade as his ubiquitous scarf—and Ashley serve dry poussin and over-bacony velouté. But the clear failure-sniff-belongs to Ash and Hector. Hector flubbed the timing on his chateaubriand. He sawed pieces of meat that looked as if they’d been hacked by an axe, according to Gail Simmons, and it gave Ash barely any time to finish the dish with sauce au poivre.

There isn’t much suspense, then, when Padma requests that Hector pack his knives and go.

Hector glowers as he departs. “I am sad,” he says. “I expected to be here longer, to represent my people longer, to represent myself longer.” But you’ve got to admire his PR skills even in seeming defeat: “Now they can come to my restaurant,” he says. Yes, we can.

Up next: Fort Worth chef Tim Love says he eats something that tasted like he sucked on a piece of chlorine, and Tom spits out a bite of food. Somebody really blows it.