After the contestants' butchering skills are tested, they create dishes for a local steak-and-seafood restaurant
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Top Chef
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S4 E12
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Hello, Top Chef watchers. I’m on vacation, writing from my hometown in El Paso, Tex. Last night’s episode, dubbed ”High Steaks,” prompted flashbacks of my 2,100-mile road trip from New York. First, my mom and I dug into New York strips at Bynum’s Steak House (voted one of Indianapolis’ top 10). They were delish: nice crisp grill marks on the outside, a warm red on the inside. But large portions of meat wig me out. So when I saw the guy in the next booth with what amounted to the ”Old ’96er” John Candy scarfed down in The Great Outdoors, I just about lost my French onion soup. Figure in the amount of road kill we encountered on the 33-hour drive — some of the rankest stuff I’ve ever seen — and well, I felt I had reached my flesh quota by the time the cheftestants began to butcher American-raised, long-bone, dry-aged rib racks for the quickfire challenge.

Once the quintet had seven tomahawks spruced up, they had 30 minutes at the Top Chef kitchen to make the perfect steak. For guest judge Rick Tramonto, who ended up being a tough guy to read, that meant medium rare. Spike, Lisa and Antonia executed their cuts of meat the best, and Spike won.

Five chefs, Spike, Richard, Stephanie, Antonia, and Lisa (to the dismay of many a fan), were still with us at the beginning of the episode. It’s the first time in Top Chef history that three women have made it this far. Spike and Lisa were obviously the weakest links: Spike’s been at the judge’s table seven times, Lisa five times. Spike said he’d like to see Antonia go home, without much explanation, even though he thinks Stephanie seems like the better chef. Unless you’re a super overachiever who finds challenging yourself more important than winning competitions, wouldn’t you want the better chef to go home?

They all have their eyes set on Puerto Rico, so the pressure is on. Richard said, ”I don’t want to walk out of here tomorrow and say, ‘Oh, that was a good game. I was the fifth person.’ No difference between going home now or being the first one to go home. I want to get to the final four.”

This elimination challenge would be the test of tests. We needed to see some chops. As a group, they were to take over Tramonto’s new steakhouse, but individually, they were responsible for producing their own appetizer and entree in three hours. Spike’s prize for winning the quickfire was a five-minute head start to pick his ingredients for the elimination challenge. First thing that came to mind was that he was going to skeezily take advantage of the situation and grab ingredients that the other chefs wanted. It turned out his choice affected the outcome differently.

In the kitchen cooler, Spike made a beeline for tomahawk steaks and scallops. Frozen scallops. Which everybody balked at. Later, when Tom Colicchio stopped by to check in, Spike started second-guessing himself. ”It’s kind of ironic that I get an advantage,” he said, ”and it ends up just biting me in the ass.” But doesn’t Tom have that effect on everyone? ”Interesting” seems to be code for ”scary.” Richard said his own policy in talking about his food is to manage expectations: ”underpromise, overdeliver.” To turn up the heat in the kitchen, Colicchio announced that he was going to expedite dinner service.

NEXT: Alumni weakened

The show brought in Top Chef‘s previous winners, Harold, Ilan, and Hung, to be guest judges for the elimination challenge. ”You’re here to win, not be fan favorites,” Hung told the five contestants. But these guys wouldn’t really know if the public liked them until the season started airing. I’m sure Hung found out post-taping that everybody thought he was obnoxious. And I’m sure that’s what Lisa is going through now, because she didn’t seem to be aware of the fact that the judges and the other contestants thought she was overbearing and thin-skinned. At the end of the ep, while the judges were deliberating, she told her competitors that they were ”f—ing awesome, and I hope we all stay in touch.”

Antonia, meanwhile, was concerned that the former cheftestants would be overly critical. ”I don’t know if these former Top Chef winners are going to be more gentle or harsh,” she said. ”You know, once you’re on the other side and you’re sitting at the judge’s table, it’s easy to become very critical.” She was right. The trio layed it on thick — Hung and Ilan were very chatty, almost mugging for the cameras at times. Hung criticized Lisa’s grilled and chilled prawns for needing ”more sugar”; Harold said Spike’s scallops lacked ”anything texturally interesting”; and Ilan, whose least favorite cut of meat happens to be tenderloin, just seemed to want more out of everybody, saying, ”This is the episode before the finale — you know, blow my mind.” The latter really sort of annoyed me, giving off that been-there, done-that arrogance.

Despite Lisa’s bizarre peanut-butter mashed potatoes, nothing looked like a disaster. Stephanie’s sweetbreads with golden raisins seemed a nice flavor combination, while Antonia’s bone-in rib eye and gratin sounded like the perfect winter comfort food. Tramonto said he would put Richard’s hamachi appetizer on his menu in ”a heartbeat,” and even gave the PB&P a chance, saying he was really ”digging the mash.”

While the judges conferred, the cheftestants popped open wine, beers, and perhaps some Xanax to relieve the tension. (I’ll be sure to place myself on a similar cocktail the day I’m subjected to the sounds of Mise en Place, the band formerly known as a bunch of season 4 Top Chef losers.)

But back to the judges’ table, which I think was one of the best in the show’s history. First, Padma asked Richard how he felt he did, but Richard was afraid of digging himself in a hole and responded, ”Generally I felt I did…Why don’t you tell me how I did?” They all loved Richard’s hamachi but criticized him for his inconsistent steak. Stephanie was just as nervous about a bomb dropping on her, but Tom praised her, saying, ”At no time do you ever show you’re under pressure at all.” Pause. Then he added, ”Except now.” To which Stephanie replied, ”Because you guys are freaking me out.” The panel generally favored Antonia’s dish, so she was quickly in the clear.

NEXT: The deadly scallops

It was obvious early on that the choice of eliminee would come down to Lisa and Spike. Although I had sort of been rooting for Lisa to get the boot (she’s a little too defensive for my taste), when I realized that she’d been to the judges’ table fewer times than Spike, I began to have a change of heart. And Spike sealed the deal after being a complete jerk on the firing line. Tom told him, ”Scallops come in frozen, send them back, choose something else. I was really surprised that you stuck with those scallops. They’re really terrible.” Then Tramanto gave him a bit of a lecture, saying, ”Being a chef is all about choices….I mean, a vendor brings in something like that in your restaurant, in the back door, you gotta be able to say, ‘You know what? Change in plan, change in direction.’ ” Spike fired back: ”Well, with all due respect, they were in your walk-in, and it should never make it in the walk-in if it’s not high quality.” At this point Tom seemed slightly embarrassed, looking down and scratching his head. Tramanto replied, ”I’ll take the shot, bro. I had frozen scallops in my cooler, but you gotta take the shot that you used them.” Spike tried to defend himself one last time: ”I did use them. I mean, I understand that I did use the frozen scallops, and…” Tramanto shut him down: ”Wrong move.” On the way out, Spike the operator had the audacity to go up to Tramanto, shake his hand, and say, ”It was an honor.”

At least Spike regretted the exchange afterward. ”I can’t believe I said that about the walk-in thing. I don’t know where that came from.” Despite the slip-up, Spike still thought he should be in the top four. The judges disagreed and gave him the boot — albeit with a professional summation by Tramonto: ”I love his spunk, I love his fire, but coming off of yesterday, I was expecting more.” Spike was naturally disappointed and had to make some sort of self-aggrandizing statement to make himself feel better. ”I felt like I’ve showed so much of myself here in so many different ways more than any other individual in this competition,” he said. ”It’s just that it sucks that it had to end like this for me.”

In the winner’s circle was Stephanie, who, no matter what happens next, will be going home with a sweet set of kitchen appliances. Rounding out second and third place were Richard and Antonia, while Lisa just barely hung on for that fourth Puerto Rico spot. Padma and Tom seemed to disagree on where Lisa is coming from. Tom thinks she’s apathetic, while Padma noted ”she has an amazing palate. I think she focuses more on flavor and less on the technique.” To which Tom said, ”Technique is how you make flavor.” Did anyone else notice that Padma seemed perturbed by Tom’s shortness? Are things sour in the land of gastronomy?

I can’t wait for the finale. Go Antonia! Go Stephanie!

What did you think? If you could bring back a contestant, who would it be? If they brought a contestant back from a previous season, would that would spice things up even more? Who are you rooting for? And did you agree with the commercial-break consensus that Dale was booted too soon?

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