The setting: Palace Ballroom
The setting: Palace Ballroom
The elimination challenge: Each cheftestant receives an Amazon Kindle loaded up with a memorable scene from one of Top Chef's previous seasons; The task is to recreate a version of the featured dish so lean it's suitable to become a Healthy Choice frozen dinner.
The guest stars: Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi are joined by Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman, Wylie Dufresne and Chris Cosentino at the tasting table. Tacoma bladesmith Bob Kramer hosts the uncommonly compelling Quickfire, in which cheftestants are required to sharpen knives, tourne potatoes and French two rabbits. Micah wins the challenge, a victory which comes with immunity and a Kramer knife valued at $500 per square inch.
The drama: Since the show functions as a virtual reunion, the contestants are largely on their best behavior, joking about bygone foibles instead of making their own embarrassing mistakes. But the official plotline makes up for any lack of personal drama. After the judges deem John's unevenly cooked risotto and Lizzie's grayish scallops the day's worst dishes, the two chefs are presented with a "memorable moment" from the current season to reinterpret: CJ's burger, created in homage to artisan pickles.
The triumphs: Josh, who's struggled with pork throughout the season, finally proves his mastery of swine with a soy-glazed pork tenderloin with heirloom peaches and smoked cashew that's supposed to recall a bacon dish which earned Michael Voltaggio a standing ovation from returning service members.
Fellow top finisher Brooke, who confides to the camera that she "went through a heavier period," hangs on to her pea puree to produce a very healthy smoked salmon and forbidden black rice dish. "Brooke gave us a beautiful plate," Padma beams.
But the big win goes to Kristen, who bravely made Carla Hall's chicken potpie without puff pastry or added fat. Her poached chicken with pureed carrots prompts Colicchio to say, "You hit on homey flavors without homey presentation."
The debacles: Lizzie knows from the start that her scallops are doomed. "I can smell that they do not smell fresh," she says. "What do I do? It's agonizing." What she can't do is baste the scallops with a resuscitating coat of butter, since healthy is the episode's watchword. When she's called out by Colicchio, she doesn't let him get beyond voicing his surprise at her poor performance: "No, it was horrible, it was horrible," she says, burying her face in her hands.
John is considerably less apologetic, pinning his problems on equipment. Although he's aware that risottos have tripped up multiple Top Cheffers from seasons past, he presses ahead with his risotto plan despite not being able to find the flat-bottomed pot he claims he needs to make the dish. "I had grains that were mushy, I had grains that were dead raw," Cosentino complains.
The losers: Back in the kitchen for the burger cook-off, Lizzie - who sounds even more like a British nanny when she threatens to "beat John's bum" -- plans a chicken burger with goat cheese ricotta cream. She chops up dill for her recipe, but John snags all of it. When she points out that sharing isn't the same as stealing, he becomes wildly indignant, since he didn't withhold a jar of pickles which he believes is critical to winning the challenge.
"I could have just taken the entire jar of pickles and said, 'you know what? Welcome to Top Chef, Lizzie' Because if you don't have a pickle on your dish, you're going home," he says. "I shared the pickles. That's who I am."
But the judges didn't see a pickle sharer. After sampling his harissa lamb burger with a fried egg, spicy pomegranate salad and dill aioli, the judges see the newest contestant on Last Chance Kitchen.
"I'm not bitter, but yeah, I think it's bullshit," says John, who's almost guaranteed to find pounds and pounds of pickles on his doorstep tomorrow morning. Still fantasizing about how he might have played the challenge, he closes the show by imagining what would have happened if he'd prevented Lizzie from getting at his pickle jar: "I would have held the pickles under my arm," he says. "I have all the pickles."
The future: Restaurant Wars! But it's a new spin on the traditional format which somehow involves Bite of Seattle and a matzoh ball offensive to Gail Simmons' people.