Basic knowledge of classic food dishes are essential for this week's elimination challenge...and some chefs are sorely lacking

By Archana Ram
September 24, 2009 at 01:18 PM EDT
Trae Patton/Bravo
S6 E6
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It’s that point in Top Chef‘s season when the claws finally come out and last night, those claws were squarely pointed toward Robin. If you’re a Robin-hater like me and you saw all of her shenanigans last night, you had to hold yourself back from throwing your remote at the TV. Am I right?

The episode began when everyone, in an effort to remember recently ousted Mattin, tied red scarves around their necks and collectively expressed their confusion about why Robin was still there. (Hello: cancer story line!) But Robin isn’t as clueless as she seems; she knew everyone was bashing her but defended herself by saying that she likes her simple cooking style because it’s what sets her apart. She’s so right. Her style does set her apart, but not in a good way.

At Quickfire, Padma called upon James Beard award winner Michelle Bernstein, who told them that they would be making a dual dish — one that represented each of the chefs’ angels and devils. It’s important to note, as Kevin told us, that Bernstein is all about simple foods. Like the kind Robin is so good at? I see where this is going, and I don’t like it one bit.

Going with the simple theme, Bryan decided to forgo his usually ornate ways and opted for a more pared down dish that contrasted frozen coconut, lychee, and vanilla with dark chocolate mousse. Nice attempt at simplicity, but it ended up being one of Bernstein’s least favorite dishes; he called it poorly executed.

The other two least faves were from the pot of this season’s usual suspects — Ron and Ash. Though Bernstein didn’t get any herself, Padma found bones in Ron’s Chilean sea bass, and as for Ash, his ambitious custard idea proved too time-consuming, leaving him with no time to make his angel component. Bernstein even threw him a bone by basing her critique solely on what was on the plate, instead of what was missing. Still, what was on the plate wasn’t much to rave about, as his spicy asparagus custard was too runny and overwhelming on the heat. I’m pretty surprised that this New York chef is faring so poorly this season. Usually, the New York contenders are strong. But Ash had time to make only part of his dish and couldn’t even get that part right? That’s pretty bad.

To create conflict the way Bravo producers hope to, Michael V.’s salmon rillettes and salmon confit, an example of modern versus traditional, was one of Bernstein’s favorites. She even said his dish transported her. How does that feel, Bry? Apparently the producers think I still care.

And for all his talk about being the best chef of the bunch, Eli actually had the chops to back it up this time with a scallop with pesto-scallop with brown butter duo that was also one of Bernstein’s favorites. Yeah, yeah, he had a great dish, but Eli is often just as arrogant as Mike I. and I think he may have a Napoleon complex. And while I’m on the subject, this season’s chefs are, on the whole, pretty hard to like. Kevin seems to be the only one worth rooting for.

NEXT: Robin plays her most powerful card

Rounding out the top three of the Quickfire was Robin’s arugula salad-cardamom apple ginger crisp combo, which, she explained, was inspired from her bout with cancer and the struggle to eat healthy without giving everything up. Okay. I know a lot of people were probably up in arms about her using the cancer card. Robin has fared so poorly in all of the challenges that maybe the cancer play was her way to finally pull herself back up. Or maybe she wasn’t as calculating as some of us think, and she was actually inspired to make this dish. Frankly, we don’t really know. But to be fair, can she never talk about cancer without people thinking she wants pity or a free pass? I really can’t hate on her for that. I can hate on her for other things in this episode, which we’ll get to later. Plus, I hate to admit it, but her cardamom apple ginger crisp sounds really good.

Bernstein, of course, loved the salad-apple crisp simplicity and crowned Robin the winner, much to everyone else’s chagrin. The looks on everyone’s faces — a combination of shock, horror and disgust — were priceless. Lucky for Robin, she now had immunity from a tricky elimination challenge, which was introduced by Las Vegas’ eccentric magicians, Penn & Teller. The duo performed the classic cup and ball magic trick before breaking it down into its components. They were talking so fast and those cups were moving so quickly that I stopped paying attention, but the takeaway was the deconstruction of the trick, how they broke down the whole into the sum of its parts. Like Penn & Teller had done to a classic magic trick, the chefs were to deconstruct a classic dish.

To pick their dish du jour, the chefs drew knives on which the classic meal was written. There were some pretty interesting chef-meal pairings. Kevin drew chicken mole and felt like he got a second chance to prove his stuff after his poorly received duck mole from last week. Ron got paella, a dish which he had cooked time and time again, and Mike I. drew eggs Florentine, or as he calls it, ”Eggs Foreign To Me.” Ha. You’re too funny, Mike. But seriously, how does he not know what eggs Florentine is? He’s such a show-off with his fancy cooking, that it was some kind of wonderful to see him floundering with such a basic meal.

Overall, though, the deconstruction proved difficult for many of the chefs, like Ron — shocker! Just when he thought he had paella all figured out, Eli explained to him that part of the dish should be crispy, and that’s when Ron looked shell-shocked. (I can’t decide who’s more clueless, Ron or Robin. Care to weigh in?) Ron always makes dishes he thinks he knows how to make (i.e. clam chowder) only to realize he actually doesn’t know the dish at all. He clearly has no idea what he’s doing…ever. I can’t believe he’s made it this far.

And if Robin hadn’t won immunity, she would be another one struggling with the concept. But, no, since she had immunity, Robin was taking the night off. And this is where I started drinking the Robin Haterade. I don’t hate on her for using the cancer card, but I hate on her for being lazy and saying that since she has immunity, she can enjoy her moment of glory, as she put it. That is why she needs to get kicked off — because a good chef knows that just because you have immunity doesn’t mean you can kick back and relax. Every opportunity to cook is an opportunity to wow the judges. Sure, the judges’ decisions are made on a dish-to-dish basis, but I’m sure they subconsciously keep track of everyone’s history. She just doesn’t get it. (Also, Laurine deserves a special shout out for pointing out how annoying it is when Robin makes a comment about every single thing. Thank you, Laurine!)

NEXT: The V. boys big talk

Someone who actually seemed to like this challenge was Michael V., who deconstructed a Caesar salad. I loved all of the elements of his plate — from the encapsulated dressing to the brioche bread he baked himself. But you better believe Bryan didn’t like this, and in his typical childish way, called his brother a ”show off.” I’m so over the Voltaggio bickering. Unless we see some fighting words between the two on camera, not just in their confessional asides, they’re going to need to end this rivalry story line. It’s the same thing every week. Do they not talk to each other when the cameras are rolling?

Back to the episode: When it came time to pick the favorites, Michael V. of course had one of the best dishes, along with Kevin, Ashley, and much to her own surprise, Jen. The Philadelphia chef, who is classically trained, admitted that deconstruction was not her thing. But even with little planning and, in her opinion, a poorly plated dish, her meat lasagna still wowed the judges.

I thought all of them deserved to be at the top, even Ashley who has had such a spotty record on the show. Her pot roast, which Bernstein fell in love with, was one of the best cooked pieces of meat of the bunch.

But in the end, Kevin took home the win for his balanced chicken mole. It was a truly well thought-out dish (classic Kevin style) that proved to the judges how hard he had worked. With his well-deserved win he received a set of Calphalon nonstick cookware. Now I know that seems like the lesser of the prizes — kind of like on The Price is Right when you get the China dish set as opposed to the brand new car. But, hey, Calphalon is nice stuff. I’d take it.

As for the worst of the bunch, Ash, Laurine, and Ron were in the bottom three. Ash, who chose shepherd’s pie, admitted that he didn’t know how to make the dish and just his luck, British judge Toby Young was back to point out just how bad Ash had prepared his native dish. For a meal that is two-thirds potato, there was no potato. Sure, Ash swapped out the potato in the last minute because it was too gummy, but he had to see that one coming.

Laurine also had a potato problem. Her fish and chips were more (overcooked) fish and no chips due to a re-crisping problem that left her with only 14 plate-worthy chips — two for each judge. But the chip situation wasn’t even Bernstein’s main gripe; it was that Laurine deconstructed her fish and chips so much that it was too hard to put back together I didn’t really know what this meant, but apparently that meant Laurine didn’t follow the parameters of the challenge.

But Ron, in typical Ron style, did everything wrong. He not only failed to deconstruct his paella, but also didn’t even cook the rice properly. As Toby pointed out, it was dry and soggy at the same time. Huh? I’m not sure how that’s possible, but it sounds really unappetizing regardless.

At least Ash and Laurine admitted their mistakes and had some sort of effort in their dishes — as slight as that effort might have been, but Ron was way off base and for that, he and his paella were sent home. About time if you ask me!

But really, if I could change the rules of the game, I would’ve sent Robin home. Her clam chowder was ”repulsive” (Toby) and ”congealed” (Padma) and seemed to be even more off base than Ron’s dish. Having immunity made Robin think she could make whatever she wanted and I’m sure the judges so wanted to kick her off if they could. Here’s to next week when Robin and Mike I. are paired together and the results are, of course, disastrous.

Did you guys think Ron deserved the boot? How much longer do you think Robin will last? And did anyone else notice — no ceviches last night!

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