Eleven competitors have earned their chef’s coats; 10 more cook for their coats tonight; four balance on the bubble.

By Stephan Lee
Updated November 10, 2011 at 07:00 AM EST
Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

Last week, the judges thinned the herd a bit: We said goodbye to a cocky, moonfaced 22-year-old chef who did unspeakable things to a pig carcass, a zen vegan who struggled with a sloppy plating job, and a bunch of other forgettable cheftestants who hardly had a chance. This week, we have one more group of chefs competing for jackets before we get to the most exciting event, the qualifying round for the not-quite-losers who remain on the bubble.

THIRD HEAT

The third group of 10 file into the splendidly shiny-floored Top Chef kitchen and are greeted by Tom, Padma, who’s looking more and more like a Na’vi this year, and new judge Hugh Acheson. I’m not quite sold on Hugh as a judge. I still haven’t forgiven him for snapping at that mouthy student scientist on his season of Top Chef Masters, in which he packed his knives and went not once but two times. I do, however, admire his bravery in proudly letting his uni-brow grow thick and healthy. It’d be so easy to tweeze or wax, but maybe those few hundred hairs at the crux of his t-section are the source of his culinary mojo.

For the challenge, there are 10 trays, each of which holds an ingredient and another plate covered by a cloche. (I don’t think I’d ever used the word “cloche” prior to a couple months ago when I bought a pair of them as a wedding gift — they really class up your takeout). The chefs must decide on their ingredients amongst themselves without knowing what lies under the cloches. Chefs Andrew Curren and Ashley Villaluz rock-paper-scissor over the mushrooms — Andrew wins, thus tempting fate and creating an alternate timeline in which Ashley won the mushrooms. Other than that, the choosing of ingredients progresses uneventfully. Ashley and Chaz Brown’s picks are influenced by their spouses back home — good idea? We’ll see.

I expected something truly disgusting like ox blood or sweetbreads to be under the cloches (drink every time you encounter the word “cloche” today!), but it’s something far scarier: clocks revealing how little time the chefs have to prepare their dishes. Depending on how long it takes for each of their ingredients to cook, the chefs either have 20, 40, or 60 minutes for the challenge. Although the time limits seem to be staggered fairly, I do feel for the 20-minute group; the time it takes to do certain things like gather supplies and plate dishes is somewhat fixed no matter what you’re cooking, and 20 minutes is nothing.

Further, I have a feeling the critiques will be especially harsh this heat. The judges didn’t do the best job rationing their jackets last week, so they’re going to be pretty stingy this time around.

NEXT: Andrew gets his shrooms

20-MINUTE GROUP

Paul Qui, yet another James Beard Rising Star, feels extra pressure in the competition hailing from Austin. He owns three street food stands that have been featured on Anthony Bourdain, and he seems like a pro and not at all fazed by the time constraint. He delivers a light-looking dish of grilled trout with southeast Asian tomato salad. Tom says it’s his favorite dish of the first group, and Hugh calls it “precise.”

Next up is Kimberly Calichio — no relation — and she is not a Rising Star, nor has she studied under a culinary master. She is a sous chef. Top Chef, which doesn’t always go out of its way to find a dramatic arc, doesn’t necessarily look for those underdog stories that other reality competitions love. So far in this season, it seems that credentials, for the most part, matter. Sous chef Kimberly underwhelms the judges with her greasy pan-seared lamb chop and undercooked fennel. It misses the mark, and that’s all for her.

Andrew, who so wanted to cook with mushrooms, appears most nervous about the 20-minute limit. In addition to cleaning the chanterelles, he decides to poach an egg and fry spinach, which seems like an odd choice since spinach wilts so easily when moist. As time runs out, he’s throwing stuff onto the plates for the judges. He describes his mushrooms to them as “properly” roasted, yet he preemptively admits that he’s not proud of his dish. That’s never a great strategy — usually it’s advisable to stand by your work no matter what, even when the judges pointedly ask, “Did you honestly think that was good?” Tom and Padma put him on the bubble for his dish, which they call “greasy,” “gritty,” and “messy.”

40-MINUTE GROUP

Continuing a trend that was all too common last episode, Chaz fails to plate the key component of his dish. He said a bunch of cutesy stuff about being in love with Padma and having photos of her up in his locker in junior high — won’t his risotto-loving wife be jealous? — but he proves himself to be a G.I. Joe rather than a Navy SEAL, assuming a G.I. Joe is the less good one. Without the risotto, Chaz is out.

Like Tyler Stone from last week, Jonathan Balthazar is a young private chef. Apparently, the private chef experience hasn’t prepared these two well for Top Chef. Jonathan makes his Brussels sprouts, which are one of my favorite foods, look terrible, like pieces of dropped produce that need to be swept off the floor. Tom and Hugh decide Jonathan needs to go home. Ouch.

I like Laurent Queniox, the Frenchman who loves America, even though he’s basically a menacing villain from a Bond film. Laurent should never do voice work for children’s audio books. He explains that in France, you either become a cook, a priest, or an “army guy,” and the scrub of the family is the one who ends up cooking. Tom wants to send him home based on his duck with lemon yuzu curd and arugula — but Hugh and Padma vote him onto the bubble.

Last and probably least is Berenice deAraujo, who’s worked for Michelle Bernstein. Apparently her Asian short rib with cooling slaw fell as flat with the judges as her affect. She describes getting cut as “gut-wrenching” with absolutely no expression. Yawn.

NEXT: Beverly can, she must, she will comfort you with Korean food

60-MINUTE GROUP

The first up from this trio of very tiny, adorable women is Lindsay Autry with her super-Southern accent. She wisely runs away when Tom tries to pester her while cooking — 60 minutes isn’t long for osso bucco, and Tom can be annoying when you’re trying to cook. I can tell just by watching. But when it comes to the judging, in reaction to her braised veal over creamy polenta with warm salad and charred pickled carrots, Tom says, “This is some good cooking.” Simple praise can be the strongest.

Ashley Villaluz isn’t as lucky. She chooses to make a Filipino Kare-Kare in honor of her husband’s grandmother, who taught her how to make it. She has trouble from the beginning, not knowing that running cold water over her pressure cooker will make it easier to take the lid off. The result looks rather dull and wilted, but the judges are split: Tom wants her out; Padma wants her on the bubble; but Hugh sends her home, saying she needs to mature. Very harsh, Hugh!

Beverly Kim Clark claims to be 32 but doesn’t look or sound a day over 14. She’s especially motivated because she’s bringing home the bacon for her family. She carries a torn piece of notepaper in her pocket that says “I can I must I will.” Did her children make that? Because a Tiger Mom would throw that away like the garbage it is (kidding!). Anyway, with octopus as her ingredient, she makes nakji bokkum, a delectable, very spicy Korean dish I grew up eating. My mouth is watering and my eyes are stinging just thinking about it. Tom calls the nakji bokkum Seoul-ful and comforting, which Korean food should be. Beverly cutely freaks out when she gets her jacket.

BUBBLE ROUND

So in the stew room, which is bubbling over with frazzled nerves and anticipation, the four on-the-bubble chefs from last week are joined by Andrew and Laurent. Edward Lee, who last week explained that he wanted to show his disapproving Korean parents that cooking was a respectable profession, definitely seems the most intent on winning. It’s so inappropriate yet funny how he just laughs when Molly tells him she cooks on a cruise ship; I think Ed’s just happy to find someone his parents would consider even lower-status than him.

Tom, Padma, Emeril, and Hugh arrive and inform the chefs that only two will join the others in the Top Chef manse. The challenge? Prepare whatever you want. I like these open-ended challenges every once in a while because it shows us who the chefs really are.

But it’s a problem if you’re a chef like Molly. She doesn’t like this challenge because apparently she wants to be told what to do. She strikes me as a reactive chef rather than one with a vision of her own. Last week, the judges told her to highlight her protein, so this week, she’s making sure to highlight her protein, although that critique only pertained to that particular dish. So she highlights her tiger shrimp this week by overcooking the hell out of it. Nice. Emeril says the shrimp could never be served in a restaurant, and with that, Molly is sailing back to the Allure of the Seas.

Edward, on the other hand, takes the challenge as an opportunity to set himself apart, marrying Kentucky with Korea in a fusion dish. Early on, he cuts his hand really badly — it makes Jamie Lauren’s injury last year look like a paper cut. That hand is practically spurting out blood Tarantino-style. But Koreans, if we mess up once, we beat ourselves up and wallow in self-loathing until we can get it right. Ed throws a glove over his wound and continues to cook as a medic treats him. He convinces us that they can take away his arm, torso, face, and feet, and even so he’ll keep working. I believe you! Basically, Ed is a Mr. Potatohead. You can remove all of his limbs and features from his tuber body and stick them on a tortilla, and he’ll still be able to flop around the kitchen and finish the dish. He manages to present the judges with a beautiful, colorful little dish of duck with barbecue sauce and sweet Asian custard. Hugh quibbles over the temperature of the duck, but Ed’s the first on-the-bubble contestant to earn a spot in the Top Chef mansion.

NEXT: Do figs and shrimp make sense?

So can we all agree that Laurent is an evil doctor who should be stroking a cat at all times? As he’s snarling about his scallops two ways, raw and cooked, I expect him to say he’ll serve them with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Unfortunately, Laurent’s evil plans have been foiled once again. Tom describes the scallop tartare as “almost gray, unappealing” — umm, maybe because they’re human brains?! — and Emeril can still taste the tartare on the roof of his mouth much later. Nasty! But I’ll miss Laurent the villain, because he was a lovable villain.

For his last chance dish, Andrew wants to do mussels with a Spanish flair… in bed. This time, Andrew cooks with confidence and prepares his mussels with sherry, fregula, charred corn panna cotta, and shrimp. Tom and Emeril love the mussels but are vexed by the panna cotta. Hugh says Andrew’s totally middle-ground, which is never a good thing. Sure enough, Andrew’s gone.

Now it’s down to my two favorite personalities: Grayson and Janine. Grayson reminds me of girls I hang out with who drink too much and need to be cabbed home really early. Janine has a good sense of humor, which this season needs, because so far, the contests have been on the boring side. Plus, she has nothing to go home to after her girlfriend of nine years broke up with her over the phone. She says that’s worse than a Post-It, but Carrie Bradshaw would disagree.

Grayson makes a heavy but tasty-looking dish: polenta with bacon-wrapped shrimp and port wine fig sauce. Tom says figs and shrimp together don’t make sense, but figs and bacon of course make sense. Duh! Did you know that? I knew that. I wrap my Fig Newtons in bacon all the time. Janine prepares seared scallops with baby clams, bacon, corn, and watermelon garnish. Emeril likes it, but Hugh doesn’t like that the watermelon was “ostracized.” While the other cheftestants think Janine is a shoo-in, Grayson gets the 16th and final jacket. Sad for Janine, but yay Grayson! Yay final 16, finally! Now the competition can really begin.

Lastly, to steal a page from Annie Barrett, I have a nomination for the NOT-HIDDEN-AT-ALL TRUFFLE OF THE NIGHT. When moving into the Top Chef Manse, Chris Jones, who’s delightfully daffy, mixed up his fairy tales: “It’s like the Seven Dwarves: This bed’s too soft, this bed’s too hard.”

So foodies, what do you think of the top 16? Are you glad the preliminary rounds are over? Did your favorite bubble people make it through? And Last Chance Kitchen (a.k.a., Top Chef‘s Redemption Island): good or bad idea? Sound off below!

UPDATE: Did anyone catch the first Last Chance Kitchen on Bravotv.com? It’s a web-only series of challenges that allows recently eliminated cheftestants to battle it out for a chance to get in the televised game. This week, Andrew and Janine — who were on the bubble of the on-the-bubble group — went head to head making pizza. Ultimately, Andrew beat out Janine, which means she’s been rejected three times in two episodes before the season even started. This, on top of her breakup over the phone — yikes, she’s having a bad year. Andrew’s win doesn’t mean that much just yet. He’ll have to beat every eliminated chef for the rest of the season to get back into the main competition, but anything’s possible, I guess…

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