A team challenge involving the elements leads to heated arguments between a few of the contestants
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S4 E5
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The title of this Top Chef episode was ”The Elements,” as in Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, but it should have just been called ”Fire.” Woo!

The ep started with a few emotional embers and ended in an inferno. Zoi and Antonia were still pissed off that they got ”jacked” in last week’s ”Film Food” challenge (although Zoi thought it might light a ”fire under [her] ass”). Meanwhile, Jennifer was trying to be supportive of her girlfriend: ”I know Zoi has talent and skill. To see her called out… I guess I’m more like a fan in a way. I’m like, What’s going on? What are they talking about? It’s ridiculous.” Mixing business with your private life can be the ultimate oil-and-water experience, and I worried throughout this entire episode that things would go badly between the two of them. Anything that comes out of your mouth when you’re the successful one just sounds condescending. But more on those two later.

The count at the top of the episode: Two girls were out, two guys were out, and nine cheftestants remained. The guest chef this time around was Ming Tsai (shout-out to all of those who used to watch East Meets West!). The Quickfire challenge was about having good taste, a good palate. In other words, a challenge we’ve seen before: the blindfold test, which happens to be Antonia’s ”jump-on-the-couch, favorite Quickfire, hands down.” I agree. It’s a must-have — so much so that I’ve flirted with the idea of throwing an hors d’oeuvres party based on a premise I would call ”It’s a jalapeño popper, stupid!” But the challenge also horrifies me a bit, because the ingredients are usually raw. Anyway, in this instance, it was a game of calling out the high-end stuff from the poor man’s versions — everything from bacon and syrup to crab and sake. Have you ever tasted something not knowing exactly what it was? Yeah, I did that with soda once as a kid. My dad used to flick his cigarette ashes in the cans. Needless to say, it didn’t go down well, which ended up being a really good metaphor for…oh, never mind, I’ll save that for my therapist.

The easiest ingredient to identify: the cheap chocolate. It looked like a Hershey’s bar, which means two things: (a) You could easily feel out those letters, and (b) the texture of the candy bar is almost plastic-y. The hardest, by far: sake and caviar. The cheftestant guiltiest of gross negligence: Stephanie, who picked the obvious imitation crab over the actual stuff and ended up on the bottom of the challenge. Antonia, meanwhile, called out 12 of the 15 items and won immunity.

Rolling along to the Meals on Wheels Chicago Celebrity Chef Ball and elimination competition: Padma said they would be setting the tone of the meal by making the starters, and also noted that the other courses would be ”catered by Chicago’s best-known chefs” (as in, ”not you guys”). The cheftestants drew knives to work in teams of three, preparing dishes in which ”the elements” — Earth, Water, Fire, and Air — would be used as a theme.

Ming Tsai had a few words of wisdom before they got started: ”Keep it simple and execute it perfectly. Taste, taste, taste.” Funny, because simplicity was the subject of Team Earth’s first argument, and ”taste, taste, taste” ended up being their downfall. Spike wanted to make butternut squash soup. Antonia thought it was too low-brow, but offered that ”if you two are totally into soup, I will make a good soup with you.” In the end, Antonia’s hesitation freaked Spike out, so he and Zoi yielded on the soup and decided on carpaccio instead.

Over on Team Fire, Stephanie attempted diplomacy while Lisa and Dale disagreed on their plan of attack: ”I’m more nervous of how him and Lisa are going to butt heads, because Lisa has a really strong personality and Dale is that self-proclaimed a–hole.” Lisa, it must be pointed out, was a bit of a pill during the decision-making process, as she was presented with a number of ideas without making any recommendations of her own (unless they were edited out). Dale called it ”observational negativity,” while Lisa insisted she was just being a serious player.

Before I dive into Team Water, I just have to reiterate my love for Mark, who was so awestruck by the kitchen he noted that ”you could probably fit Yankee Stadium” in it. He’s the king of the endearing non sequitur. As for Water’s concept, Mark, Andrew, and team leader Richard decided they would poach salmon in a controlled water bath. It was around this point in the episode when Richard’s destiny became fishy. As executive chef of Water, he was in charge of prepping the salmon, and the commercial-break preview showed Tsai finding scales in his portion. Wah, wah, wah. I had also assumed that Richard’s preview comment that ”the Richard Blais charm has just worn off on Tom Colicchio” had to do with this fish-scale negligence. Actually, it was worse: When Colicchio came to check in on the team, Richard tried to butter him up in a really embarrassing, nudge-nudge, let’s-be-beer-buddies! kind of way — and Colicchio reacted with stony silence and a hilariously withering look. After his update with the crew, Colicchio stepped out of the kitchen for a confessional: ”They’re clearly having a good time. They seem a little overconfident, really cocky, joking around. And often, I see when people don’t take this seriously, they start making mistakes.”

NEXT: Richard gets cagey, and Dale blows up

Team Air was Nikki, Ryan, and Jennifer. Other than Ryan’s minor snafu with the pomegranate juice, there’s not much to report there. They did decently at the judge’s table — or at least well enough. Tom made it known that he was not a fan of ”this trend of little drinks with your dishes,” though Tsai said he didn’t mind it with dessert. Which I’d agree with. Also, for me, nothing coats the tum quite like a glass of wine leading up to and during the main course.

Before Team Water sent out the salmon, they realized a lot of the fish had scales — but they sent it out anyway. Later, at the judges’ table, Gail asked Richard point-blank, ”Were you the one who cleaned the fish?” to which Richard replied, ”In what regard?” In what regard? What the eff is up with that cageyness? Own your mistake, man! Meanwhile, Andrew got called out for repeating something he just made last week, and Mark got snipped at for his parsnip idea.

Team Fire won the judges over with their scrumptious-looking grilled shrimp and pickled chili salad dish, and Lisa in particular caught the eye of Tsai; he chose her as the challenge winner for her miso-smothered bacon. Right away the look on Dale’s face was like, Beeeeyotch! ”She made bacon and she gets a trip to Italy — are you f—ing kidding me?” Dale groused in the confessional. ”I’m bitter.”

But their shrimp seemed to be almost too spicy for Tom, who had warned earlier that spice could be a bad choice for a starter. Now, I’m just going to go out on a limb here…but could it have been that Tom’s palate was ruined by the spiciness, and by the time he got to Team Earth’s beef carpaccio and mushroom salad he couldn’t taste much? He, the other judges, and even the diners thought that the dish was generally bland, and that the mushrooms in particular were bad. Thus, Zoi was sent packing.

After Zoi said her goodbyes, someone asked Spike what happened with their dish. ”We should have made butternut squash soup is what happened,” he said. ”I should listen to myself, I should be an a–hole, I should do whatever it takes to do what I want to do. But no, I’m too nice, I take the backseat, I listen to people, I get convinced. La, la, la.” There’s a fine line between being a pushover and being supportive, and I had commended Spike earlier in the ep for the latter. But then he showed himself to be a complete jerk when he told Jen she could cry over Zoi leaving all night long. Meanwhile, I thought this comment by Zoi really proved me wrong about a potentially volatile situation stirring between her and Jen: ”The fact that Jen and I got to do this together is pretty amazing, and I think it’s cool that we got to show people that you could be a couple and be professional and still compete in this kind of arena.” Aw.

But when Zoi left the back room, the you-know-what really hit the fan. Spike called out Antonia: ”You know what, you should have taken the backseat on this one…” Antonia said she wasn’t there to take the backseat on anything, insisted that she said she would have done soup if that’s what he and Zoi really wanted, and accused him of wussing out: ”Stand behind your dish… it’s on film, sweetheart.” Then Dale blew up at Lisa — their tension from early on in the challenge was obviously was going to brew over the edge at some point. I just thought it’d take more than this episode, considering they won. ”You get to bitch and whine about everything you feel about,” Dale yelled at her as he grabbed his crotch. ”I don’t say s—. The one minute I say s— about something, you go and talk s—, that’s bulls—.” (Think that blows Dale’s chance that Lisa will take him to Italy?) The ep ended perfectly, with Jen kicking a chair, followed by Padma’s mellow voice: ”Next week on Top Chef…”

So what were your favorite moments? Who do you think is next to go? And who was disappointed that yet another woman went home?

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