'Top Chef: Chicago' finally cuts some fat

Evangelos_topchefchicago Oh frabjous day! The Top Chef: Chicago judges have FINALLY slain one of my own personal Jaberwocks this season, and it's about damn time! But before we get to that happy news, we've got meat manipulation, a taste-free challenge, dubious choices, brazen backtalk, and peanut-butter mashed potatoes. No, really.

These spoilers must be Frenched.

Our final five cheftestants are given ginormous rib racks and are told to whittle them down to individual tomahawk steaks. Stephanie struggles -- the rib segment looks like it's almost as big as she is -- while Spike blazes through.

Back in the kitchen, superchef Rick Tramonto tells the chefs to cook him a perfect medium-rare steak. When the chefs are done, Tramonto inspects the results -- but he doesn't taste them. See, this challenge isn't about how good the food tastes, it's about how good it looks. Stephanie fails -- she's a lousy butcher -- and Richard is spanked for undercooking his steak (and seriously, isn't charring a steak with a torch cheating?). Lisa and Antonia are both praised, but it's Spike who takes the challenge.

Spike gets an advantage at the elimination challenge -- and what a challenge it is. Tramonto is turning over his steakhouse to the chefs for the night. "It's very very popular," Tramonto says. "Don't screw it up."

The chefs have to create an appetizer and an entrée for the restaurant based on what they find in the kitchen, and Spike gets first crack at ingredients. He chooses the tomahawk steak for his entrée, and scallops for his appetizer -- despite the fact that scallops are frozen. The rest of the cheftestants are just as confused by that as I am.

We finally get to  see the chefs working on their own again -- each has his or her own station, and each is responsible for his or her own dishes. No more passing the buck! Plus, Tom Colicchio is in the kitchen as the expediter, so he can take a good look at everything the chefs do. Richard gives Tom a near coronary by being slow to produce his dishes. Richard claims he'd rather be slow and great than quick and half-assed, but you can see Tom thinking he expects quick and great, thank you very much.

Nothing is inedible this week, so the judges get to focus on nuances. Lisa's chilled shrimp is praised for its nice acidity, but otherwise it's meh. Spikes scallops underwhelm -- because dude, frozen! Antonia's mushroom salad features a perfect poached egg, but the rest of the dish is just sort of there.

The two appetizers with sweetbreads get raves. Tramonto says he'd put Richard's hamachi with sweetbreads on his menu in a heartbeat, and Stephanie's sweetbreads prompt drooling and plate-cleaning.

As for the entrees: Stephanie again gets raves for her tenderloin, and Antonia's side -- a warm shallot gratin -- is completely addictive. Her steak measures up to the side. Lisa made something that should have been awful -- peanut-butter mashed potatoes -- but ended up winning over Rick. Too bad her New York Strip Steak wasn't as good.

Spike's and Richard's entrees are pronounced most disappointing: Richard did a deconstruction of a classic Italian dish, but this is not a table that goes for deconstructed anything. Everything taste good together, so put it all together! Spike's tomahawk steak could have been deconstructed, however -- everything else on the plate was tasteless and/or icky.

At judging, Stephanie wins again. Yay! The judges tell Richard he had the best appetizer, and Antonia she had the best entrée. The three of them are going to Puerto Rico. That leaves Spike and Lisa. The judges tell Lisa that her technique is shabby, but the food was ok. Spike gets spanked for choosing frozen ingredients -- and what do you know, Spike finds a way to attempt to blame someone else! Hey, Tramonto, they were in your freezer... Oy. In the end, Spike goes home. FINALLY!

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends:

  • Spike says that his father and grandfather were butchers. "There seems to be a little strain of butchery in me." I'd swap out the "u" for an "i".
  • Stephanie, talking about her appetizer: "Sweetbreads are the thymus gland of veal, which sounds really unappetizing. But when you eat them, it's like a Chicken McNugget if it's done right." I don't know what amuses me more -- the fact that Stephanie compared an ingredient from hoity-toity French cooking to a fast-food staple, or the fact that I'm now even more leery about Chicken McNuggets.
  • I love the look on Tom's face when Lisa tells him about her peanut-butter mashed potatoes. "Interesting..." he says. "It's never a good sign when you say that..." says Lisa.
  • Previous Top Chef winners Harold, Ilan and Hung eat with the judges this week. They also have advice for the current cheftestants. Hung: Cook to your strengths. Harold: Cook to win, not to be fan favorite. Ilan: "Don't shave anyone's head tonight..." That last bit may be the most important.
  • Harold, on Richard's deconstructed dish: "It's not a relaxed dining experience -- it's a project."
  • Lisa, before the judging, raises a glass to everyone and comments that "We've all rocked these challenges." Who's this "we" you're talking about, Lisa? Because you haven't rocked much at all.
  • Tom praises Stephanie for keeping her cool during cooking: "At no time do you ever show that you're under pressure." Gail: "Except right now."  Stephanie, who looking like she's contemplating her own mortality: "You guys are freaking me out!"
  • Spike... Spike, you idiot. Tramonto chastises him for going with inferior scallops. "Well, with all due respect," Spike says,  "they were in your walk-in, and they shouldn't have made it in the walk-in if it's not high quality." Tom looks like he's going to swallow his tongue. Is Spike physically incapable of keeping his mouth shut? But Tramonto responds well: "I'll take the shot, bro. I had frozen scallops in my cooler. But you better take the shot that you used them."
  • I love that Stephanie did a double take after Tramonto announced she won. She's still my favorite.
  • When Stephanie won, Tramonto announces that her prize is... his new book! I was incensed -- that's IT? -- until Padma followed up with a complete suite of kitchen equipment. That's more like it.
  • Tom announced that Lisa and Spike shouldn't be surprised that they were in the bottom two -- after all, Lisa had been in the bottom five times, while Spike had been there seven times. Why didn't they remember that last week, when they sent home Dale?