'Top Chef: New York': Shocking returns, sad departures

Carla_topchefnewyork_240 Top Chef: New York becomes Top Chef: New Orleans, and the Big Easy is a lot more difficult than some chefs anticipated.

The Top Four chefs prepare for a quickfire... but they won't be cooking. Instead, Jeff, Jamie and Leah have the chance to come back into the competition if they wow judge Emeril Lagasse with their take on crawfish. Leah does her standard "I don't know what I'm doing" act, and decides to make gumbo(which she later calls a stew, to hedge her bets). Jeff does crawfish and grits, while Jamie tries griddled corn cakes with a crawfish cream sauce. Lagasse picks Jeff as the clear winner -- which means he can compete in the elimination challenge. But he needs to win the challenge to advance to the finale. He can't just be good -- he has to be perfect.

In the elimination challenge (prepare two dishes and one cocktail for a party for the Mardi Gras Krewe of Orpheus), Hosea and Stefan square off on gumbo. Hosea concentrates on working his roux, cooking and stirring until it's a deep chocolate color. He's also making pecan-crusted catfish, and he's serving a pomegranate/blood orange hurricane. Stefan kicks back, takes smoke breaks, and acts like he's already won the whole thing. In addition to his gumbo, Stefan makes apple beignets and a black cherry and rum cocktail.

Jeff made a conscious decision to concentrate on one simple, perfect dish in the quickfire -- he's learning! So what does he do for the elimination? He decides to make his own sausage and to fry oysters to order. Sigh. He's also doing a crawfish pot de creme and a cucumber mojito. Cucumber? Really? OK....

Fabio says he wants to bring a Creole flavor profile to Italian food. He's making  sausage and rabbit maque choux with grits, crawfish and crab with homemade pasta,  mufuletta bread and a bell pepper martini. Again, I worry about the drink.

But that's nothing compared to the worry I feel about Carla. First, she's making an oyster stew, despite the fact that she needs to shuck 100 oysters and she's never really done that before. The shrimp and andouille beignet sounds good, but then she says she's serving a non-alcoholic cranberry-lime spritzer. Non-alcoholic? In New Orleans? For a Mardi Gras Krewe? Is she INSANE?

Apparently not, because her table is mobbed. She pulls off the oyster stew (despite only being only a third of the way shucked when she moved to the venue), and the beignets are a hit. People even like the boozeless drink. Plus, she's exchanging "Hootie hoo!" with countless partygoers. It's adorable.

Jeffrey_topchefnewyork_240Jeff gets similar raves -- people love the bright green cucumber mojito, and they devour his dishes. Folks also seem to love Fabio's pasta -- "It's like a parade in my mouth!" one party-goer says -- but the judges say it's missing heat.

Then it's gumbo vs. gumbo. Stefan's is good, but yes, people call him out for using  a roux that was too light. The flavor is good, though. Hosea's gumbo looks perfect and tastes better. Folk also love the Tabasco buerre blanc on his fish -- it gives just the right amount of kick.

The judges are almost completely complimentary, but some barbs fly Stefan's way. When the judges compliment Jeff on making his own sausage, he says "I wouldn't win if I went and stole someone's sausage..." Like, say, Stefan did? Emeril cites Hosea's roux as making his dish fantastic -- it was dark and developed. Unlike SOME people.... Finally, the judges love how Carla's beignets were made to order and piping hot. Stefan's? They sat around a bit, and had cooled down too much before the judges got to them.

Stefan doesn't help himself when the judges question him about his choices. Why were you so relaxed, almost cocky? Hey, I'm old, he says -- if I make it through, great, if not, who cares? That attitude, plus the cloyingly sweet cocktail and the rather soulless food, means Stefan is in trouble.

Fabio_topchefnewyork_240 The judges are mostly complimentary about Fabio's food, but they were disappointed by two things: First, the cocktail was too sweet, and smelled much better than it tasted. Second, the food had no heat. It's New Orleans, Fabio -- something better have some kick to it. Plus, the judges thought that the flavors were good, but not layered properly.  Does this mean both members of Team Euro could be hitting the road?

Nope -- the judges choose Carla as the winner. I'm thrilled for her -- and I think she deserved it -- but that means Jeff doesn't make it through. Damn. Hosea is also through. So which Euro will go? It's Fabio, alas. Stefan's attitude was worse, but his food was stronger and more in keeping with New Orleans. Dammit! I was really hoping he'd get his butt handed to him for attitude alone. Sigh.

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends
  • I'm on the Carla Love Train again this week. She's hyperanimated as she marches through the airport to the strains of a brass band, and she gets tremendously excited when she wins the challenge -- and a new car.
  • Stefan talks big throughout the show. Representative quotes: "There's no way I'm walking away the loser!" "I am not going home on freaking gumbo," and "I tried Hosea's gumbo. I sucked. It was nasty." Stefan, you're good, but evidently you're not as good as you think. Put a sock in it.
  • Leah grimaces and waves at Hosea when she reappears, and Hosea looks distinctly uncomfortable. "It was a little awkward, a little weird," he says. Leah also kvetches about her ouster -- "I was a  little upset and a little bitter" to go home. Leah, you weren't half as upset and bitter as I would have been if you had won the challenge.
  • Fabio has a sort of modified mohawk now, which the other chefs tease him about:"This would have been the first Top Chef without a mohawk...good job, Fabio!"
  • Of course, it could have been even more over the top. Stefan talks about going to Fabio's restaurant on Halloween and finding Fabio in leggings, a thong, a blond wig and a leopard-print top. Apparently Fabio always dresses in drag for Halloween -- Catwoman one year, Wonder Woman the next. "You gotta have balls to dress like a woman.," Fabio says. "Well they can't be too big or they won't fit in the thong," Hosea replies. Hee!
  • Gail's back! No more Toby! I never thought I'd say this, but Gail, I missed you. Also, nice dress!
  • The revelers at the elimination challenge are dressed in formal wear and feathered masks. Carla says it's just like Mardi Gras -- "but you don't have to flash yourself." And Fabio? All the masks remind him of an old porno flick.
  • When Fabio gets booted, he embraces Stefan and says "If you don't win, I'll kick your ass." Much as I hate to see the adorable Italian disappointed, I'm really hoping that Carla takes this whole thing. Come on, Carla -- You can do it! Hootie Hoo!
OK, folks -- the winner of Top Chef constitutes news, and the name WILL be in the title of the recap next week. So no complaining -- you've been warned!