The cheftestants have to contend with a viewers' choice ingredient (cactus-yum!) and desert cooking in a "rustic" kitchen

BRYAN VOLTAGGIO Thanks to his success on the show, his Frederick, Md.,restaurant Volt has seen a tremendous increase in business, including a two-year waiting list…
Credit: Trae Patton/Bravo
S6 E5
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Let’s face it, I think most of us know who’s going to be in the final round this season: Michael V., Bryan, and Jen — or possibly Kevin. Clearly they want the sibling rivalry and as for Jen and Kevin, both are just really talented. But are we really going to keep watching these four win quickfires and elimination challenges week after week? Yawn.

But oh, Bravo, what a tangled web of twists and turns you weave. Last night’s episode proved to be a bump in my road of predictions when Ashley and Laurine, both of whom couldn’t seem to win a challenge to save their lives, wowed the judges with their elimination dishes, making them the season’s — or at least last night’s — dark horses. In fact, Laurine also had one of the night’s best quickfire dishes and Michael V. had one of the worst! Is this the same season we’ve been watching?

But let’s be real. I think Ashley and Laurine got lucky with a challenge they had experience with, though I do think Laurine has finally proven her cooking chops. She’s just too shy and insecure to get very far in this competition. But perhaps I’m too cynical and presumptuous. Maybe these ladies do have what it takes, especially considering this week’s difficult elimination challenge. Ashley, especially, was able to set aside her homesickness and pull through. (Side note: Did you see all her tattoos??)

Let’s back up. The night began with a Top Cheffirst: Fans got to pick the ingredient for the quickfire, and from snake, kangaroo and cactus, they chose cactus. What the hell were they going to make with that? Well, apparently some really cool-sounding dishes, like Ashley’s cactus jelly donut and Ash’s cactus grilled cheese sandwich. They sounded so exotically delicious, but actual taste was a different story.

Chef Tim Love, owner of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth, Texas, served as guest judge this week and his shtick is reinventing southwestern food as fine cuisine. He and Mike I. seemed to be the only ones who knew what to do with the prickly, oozy desert plant. It’s all about curing, Mike I. said. At that point I knew he would have a winning, or at least favored, dish and then I died a little inside because, apart from his inventive potato risotto, I don’t like this macho man.

Thankfully, Laurine’s cactus salsa and achiote-glazed pork chop was also a hit, so Mike I. wasn’t the only one to bask in the glory for the time being. But that was really it. Everything else received pretty tepid responses. The best (and by best I mean best for me, worst for Ron) reaction had to be to Ron’s crab, which tasted “rancid,” according to chef Love. (The name “chef Love,” by the way, sounds like a fake name used for a date-night challenge involving food and sex on I Love New York or Rock of Love. Anyone else?) The biggest shocker, though, was Michael V.’s drop to the bottom in this quickfire. We’ve seen him consistently on top of his game, but you can’t win them all, my friend. Maybe that’s why he was so self-righteous at the beginning of the episode, bragging about his Michelin star (even though he said wasn’t bragging).

NEXT: At home on the range: Laurine and Ashley

As expected, Mike I. took home the win, and with it, $15,000, but no immunity. No one was safe for their elimination challenge, in which the chefs had to prepare a high-end lunch for chef Love and 24 cowboys on a ranch outdoors with a “rustic” kitchen. Well, that’s a nice way of putting it. What they really had were three-digit temperatures, fire pits, and crappy plates. It looked like a run-down version of the Yosemite Sam nook of my nearby Six Flags, minus the kitsch.

Besides the heat beaming down from above, the chefs had to worry about their grill heat, which is virtually impossible to control when you’re outdoors. And this was where Laurine and Ashley got lucky. Laurine grew up on a Colorado ranch and Ashley, in the middle of the woods (which might explain her hair), so both are well versed in campfire cooking. So were Basque-raised Mattin and Idaho-raised Robin, but Robin is hopeless. She doesn’t seem talented and to top it off, she’s that chatty Cathy who makes unnecessary (and unfunny) comments when everyone else is busy working. As for Mattin, as we saw last week, having lifelong experience with something doesn’t automatically give him the upper hand.

On the other end of the spectrum was high-maintenance Eli who doesn’t believe in camping (unless it involves sleeping in a tent with Padma) and Michael V. who felt completely out of his element, as Bryan reiterated for us. You can always count on a Voltaggio to step in when there’s an opportunity to knock the other.

Speaking of the well-tattooed Voltaggio, there was some talk in this episode about changing your cooking to match your diners and Michael V. staunchly stood against that method. His logic was that when you work at a restaurant, you don’t tailor your meals for every diner. You cook the way you want and people will follow if they want to. It does make sense, but it also sounds kind of arrogant, and it seems like Michael V. is just that. I mean, he was friends with Mike I. before the show began. They’ve got something in common.

His thinking ended up working in his favor, though. His risky choice of dashi with miso and mirin-cured black cod scored high with the judges (and the cowboys!) for its flavors and proved a refreshing and unexpected choice, chef Love said. Not to be outdone, Bryan also had one of the top four dishes of the day thanks to a nicely roasted pork loin. He mentioned that he’s camped before, but Bryan had something the others didn’t — a game plan, which was crucial in such a “rustic” kitchen.

Then we got three shockers: Laurine had a top four dish! So did Ashley! But not Jen! The cowboys thought Jen’s snapper with duck confit was “reallllllly good” (add Southern drawl) but Love considered it uninspired. That had to be a blow to her ego. Laurine’s arctic char and grilled potato, on the other hand, were packed with flavor and Ashley’s seared halibut (an haute update to a club sandwich) was the best dish she had made so far, according to Tom. Best so far, but still not the best of the challenge. That honor went to Bryan, giving him a third elimination challenge win. Cue: Michael V. fuming.

NEXT: Chlorinated greens?

What didn’t the judges love? How about Mattin’s too-raw cod, which Tom spit out? Or Ron’s mojito, which Padma, dressed in appropriate Western duds, called “disgusting”? Or Robin’s grilled romaine salad, which chef Love said tasted like chlorine. Pretty strong reactions. Strong enough to get those three, and those three alone, in the bottom.

In the end, Mattin’s raw fish had the judges reeling, especially chef Love, who said he was actually sick from it. I think unintentionally poisoning the judge warrants the boot, and the boot Mattin got. I was a bit surprised because I never thought Mattin would go home so early in the game — Ron and Robin seem like much weaker chefs. But the judges had a point with their decision. Even though Ron’s cocktail was heinous, his main dish, the ceviche, was decent (perhaps Ron’s voodoo indirectly saved him). And as for Robin, besides admitting that she knew the prawns were all wrong, she explained her intention for the dish and the judges decided that there was a good dish in there somewhere; it just didn’t come out. I personally would’ve kicked Robin off, but I see the Bravo producers are waiting to flesh out her cancer survivor story, as you may remember from the preview of this season.

Next week, we get innuendo about Padma’s fair share of bull’s testicles and the unwanted return of judge Toby Young. But wait, there’s more! Guests Penn and Teller. Could the episode be any less enticing? Let’s hope the magic-themed quickfire keeps us from changing the channel.

Did you guys think Mattin deserved to go home? Do you think Laurine and Ashley have a chance to make it to the end now? And is anyone else as annoyed by Robin as I am?

Episode Recaps


Top Chef

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