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A Quickfire Elimination Challenge takes one chef out early; the chefs re-create classic New Orleans dishes

By Stephan Lee
Updated October 17, 2013 at 06:01 AM EDT
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Credit: David Moir/Bravo
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S11 E3
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Please, Bravo, please… stop putting any more than 16 chefs on the show per season. We’re just wasting time here before we get to the meat. There’s too much fat to trim. Granted, whenever I’m eating a lardy prime rib, I sneak big globs of fat in my mouth while no one’s looking, but I know it’s not good for me. Don’t let chefs we know will never win (I’m looking at you, Patty, Louis, and Bret) clog our arteries.

Luckily, we cut the roster down to 16 earlier than expected with a special Elimination Quickfire Challenge! Thank God. Food & Wine magazine editrix Dana Cowin flew down to the Big Easy to guest-judge, and I must say, she was much feistier here than she was when I sat next to her at Anya von Bremzen’s book lunch, where she was an absolute delight. She didn’t even judge me for not being able to hold my horseradish vodka shots at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. I nominate Dana for permanent judge — she really took the safety off her shade-thrower!

I loved the theme of this Quickfire. Dana chose “trends” happening in food that she wishes would go away — the chefs had to turn the tired trends into something fresh. At first, I expected Dana to name some of the trendier trends, like ramen burgers or fake banh mi or things-in-tacos-that-shouldn’t-be-in-tacos or cake pops or cronuts (okay, cronuts don’t play. Please stick around forever and forever). But instead she went with some of the more persistent, insidious trends, like eggs on top of everything, or bacon around everything, kale, and smoked foods. Dana specifically said no kale salad or kale chips. At that moment, I knew one of the contestants would make kale salad exactly, just like when a Project Runway designer has the extremely creative idea to use a linen curtain for an Unconventional Challenge after Tim Gunn specifically says not to use anything resembling fabric. “But I took it off a window… I’m crazy!”

As everyone got to cooking, I took issue with a lot of the bacon people. Aren’t scallops wrapped in bacon the least original thing in the world? There were at least three different chefs who did just that.

NEXT: But kale is a superfood!

Time’s up! Among Dana’s favorites was Nina, who made the world’s smallest scotched egg with a leek and potato puree. Dana said Nina managed to squeeze tons of flavor out of just a few ingredients. This Nina is one to watch. And she didn’t even mention Saint Lucia once! Also landing in the top was Stephanie with fresha pasta wrapped around lightly candied bacon and flash-fried sweet potatoes. Stephanie is a total spaz but there’s something I like about her — I think it’s called passion. Then there was Shirley, who ended up winning immunity with her rice congee served with shirred egg and soy sauce (egg, rice, and soy sauce is the best combo ever). While the judges were tasting her dish, Shirley used her amazing powers of observation to note that when Padma likes something, she picks it up and eats more. That may sound like normal human behavior, but Padbot is no normal human… or even human at all.

Now for the least favorites. It was Bret who defied Dana’s wishes and made a straight-up kale salad: kale and tomato gazpacho with a kale salad on top. Bret strikes me as subtly crazy, like one of those dads who out of the blue snaps one day and spends his kids’ college fund on a Maserati. Louis once again underwhelmed (after doing nothing in the last Elimination Challenge) with his smoked trout. Dana said, “Part of the challenge is to still find the smoke. I’m still looking.” Shade, girl. Shade! But if it’s any consolation, Louis really is the actual best-looking guy this season, not generic Jason, even if he did look like a surfer. And lastly, instantly eliminated was Aaron, whose fried kale dredged in soy, Mirin, and rice vinegar was too salty for Emeril to even finish. Finally, we’re down to an almost-manageable 16.

The Elimination Challenge took the contestants to Commander’s Palace, a New Orleans institution that brought sparkles to the chefs’ eyes. They all sat down for a delicious meal at Commander’s Palace, where chef Tory McPhail — whose last name sounds like the loser brother of McDreamy and McSteamy — served them all four dishes. Their task would be to replicate the dishes as best they could. They were separated into four groups of four, and each group had to re-create one of four dishes made by a great New Orleans chef: Shrimp and tasso henican, a blackened skillet-seared trout, veal chop Tchoupitoulas, and a strawberry trio by McPhail himself. On hand to guest-judge, in addition to Dana and chef Paul Prudhomme, were the proprietors of Commander’s Palace, Ti Martin and Lally Brennan. Oh my word, these ladies were southern. I expected them to start ending every sentence with “I do declayuh!” Tally told a delightful story about Commander’s Palace’s history… I didn’t understand all of it, but I believe the restaurant used to be a brothel of some sort, I DO DECLAYUH!

NEXT: Whos’ the biggest schlub of them all?

BLACK SKILLET TROUT

For some reason, this team — it wasn’t exactly a team, just four people making the same dish — decided to do prep work together. Louis made the seasoning for the whole group, which seemed to destroy each of the four dishes. Hugh thought each and every dish was under-seasoned, and Tom noted that everyone was so paranoid about getting it right that they got it wrong. Tory said this whole challenge was just about making the simple stuff very well. To draw a comparison that only rabid fans of women’s gymnastics would understand, this challenge was like compulsories (bring them back!) — to make sure you had the basic techniques mastered.

SHRIMP AND TASSO

Dana thought that putting components from each chef’s work together, you had the dish: Nina’s shrimp, Bene’s sauce, and Michael’s presentation. I about wanted to pelt Michael with an authentic Louisiana crawdad when he dumped Nina’s okra on the counter. I foresee Michael becoming a bigger monster as the season progresses.

VEAL CHOP

This group’s politically incorrect chop was all over the place. Some of the meat was perfect, some of it was far from. Surprisingly, Patty was the closest to nailing the presentation of the dish.

STRAWBERRY TRIO

Clearly, the dessert group was the winner. In past seasons, dessert caused so many problems, but this time, the chefs really figured out how to make it work. Even though Stephanie didn’t know how to make a biscuit at first, Lally claimed that she made the cocktail and biscuit better than Commander could. There were some soggy beignets here and there, but as I always say, a soggy beignet is better than no beignet. Whoa, Dana just called herself a “whipped cream whore”!

The Judges Table for the winners came down to Stephanie, Justin, and Nina, but it was all about the desserts. Justin edged Stephanie out for the win with his great overall trio. The losers turned out to be Louis, Carlos, and Bret. Carlos blackened his fish way too much, Louis botched the seasoning for everyone in his group, and Bret didn’t give himself enough time to actually cook his meat. In the end, Bret had to pack his knives and go. Even though Bret could come across as… well, dumb, I really thought Louis made a bigger mistake that impacted more dishes and just generally shows very little potential. Maybe I just feel sorry for Bret because he seems this close to a mid-life crisis.

Does this season belong to the ladies? Did the right guy go home?

Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter.

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Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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