After an underwhelming steak dinner tonight, Tom said, "I'm starting to think I chose the wrong chefs." Looking at this pack of skittish, uninspired whiners, he may be right.

By Stephan Lee
Updated December 08, 2011 at 07:00 AM EST
Vivian Zink/Bravo

Whether trying to find hilarity in that hot mess of a progressive dinner last week, or focusing on the delightfully nerdy Chris Jones, I’ve been working hard to see the good in this season. But the fact is, this group of chefs has been totally underwhelming, and that came to the forefront even more so this week. The steak dinner challenge was a “team” challenge only in that the chefs had to coordinate a single menu (they were judged on their own individual contributions), yet their fear of standing out led them to work as a lame committee. The great seasons of Top Chef, such as the Vegas year, featured contestants with some level of ego and swagger that fueled their ambition to be great. For the most part, these chefs lack any of that grit and mostly seem petrified of being eliminated. We need some Texas outlaws up in here!

But first, we were treated to an intriguing Quickfire Challenge that tested the chef-testants’ skills as sauciers. Guest judge Dean Fearing said that the saucier is the most prestigious position in the kitchen, and Nyesha said she’d love to be a saucier for the rest of her life. I can see why. I imagine a famous sauce master as being a total diva who cooks up a single vat of brilliant sauce per night and goes around the kitchen with a ladle saying, “THAT’S ALL YOU GET!” to the ordinary chefs who are slaving away. (I’m sure that’s exactly how it works).

Each chef chose one of five “mother sauces” — béchamel, espagnole, hollandaise, tomate, or velouté — and had to use it as a basis for their own spin-off sauce. One thing everyone should know about Quickfires by now: You’re supposed to take the challenges pretty literally. Like if you’re supposed to make a dish using snake meat, it better taste really snake-y. So this week, the flavor of the mother sauce had to come through prominently, which is why Beverly basically ignored the espagnole aspect of her dish and instead concocted the Asian sauce she wanted to make (pretty sure soy wasn’t one of Auguste Escoffier’s five “mothers”) and promptly landed in the bottom. Heather, who has taken it upon herself to criticize Beverly as much as possible while still referring to her affectionately as “Bev,” complained that Beverly only makes Asian food, which seems quite true. Nyesha, despite her saucier ambitions, also landed in the bottom for muddling too many flavors.

NEXT: I know he’s a famous Dallas-based chef and all, but did anyone else think Dean Fearing was the most off-putting guest judge in recent memory?

Handsome Chris’ seafood-infused velouté and Paul’s espagnole-slathered quail came close, but Grayson, who said sauce-making “ain’t no thang” to her, won with a simple hollandaise ravioli. Yay! Grayson strikes me as the type of person who says things like “Hey, girlfriennnn” a lot, but on her it doesn’t annoy me for some reason.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs had to split up into groups and serve a four-course meal, two of which had to include steak, to 200 members of the Cattle Baron Club at the Southfork Ranch of Dallas fame (it was funny and weird that Heather wanted someone to look up “Who shot J.R.?” on a “Google machine”). When I heard “Cattle Baron Club” and Sarah’s description of it (in case y’all forgot, Sarah’s from Texas!), I pictured a grownup fraternity like the Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo from The Flintstones, where a bunch of men would be wearing horned hats and eating meat with their bare hands. Instead, it was a lovely, diverse affair that raised money for cancer.

I don’t know if this season’s just making me grumpy, but the chefs’ performance in this challenge really frustrated me. I get that there’s a certain code of mutuality in the kitchen, and that the chefs wanted to make a cohesive meal, but I think that they, as competitors, need to step it up and become more selfish. While I can certainly understand how Beverly could be a pain to work with in the kitchen, it was ridiculous how Heather singled her out for focusing on her own shrimp. Sure, she could have helped with the potatoes or the steak, but was that really her job? After all, they were being judged individually. I actually think Heather harassed Beverly about not being part of the nonexistent “team” because she wanted someone to blame if her own dish landed on the bottom, and she assumed Beverly was most likely to be in the bottom with her. I agree with Dakota: Heather’s pretty obnoxious. She was throwing her weight around when really, the entire meal would have turned out better if everyone had a slightly more laissez-faire attitude and focused on making their own components exceptional.

In fact, even though Edward was needed as a “secretary” in the beginning, his meddling with Ty-lör’s steak may have contributed to the failure of the evening. Ty-lör had a rough week. After talking about his father the grill master, Ty-lör took on the biggest burden of the night, promising to deliver 200 medium-rare steaks to a bunch of Texans who clearly knew their steak. While prepping, he cut the webbing of his fingers and had to spend all night waiting in the ER. It seemed like a worse injury than Jaime’s miniscule paper cut last year, but people made a bigger deal of it than necessary. The bigger travesty happened the next day when Ed prematurely flashed the steaks, which contributed to the 200 steaks being inconsistently cooked. As Chris Jones brilliantly put it, “Flashing the steaks early is the same as when the meteor hit the earth and made the dinosaurs extinct. It’s that big of a deal.” It really is.

NEXT: Tom gets mad about the poor quality of the dishes this week. He says he has an “easy” decision.”

Much to Edward’s chagrin, Heather opted to do a repeat of her cake from the quinceañera challenge, but this time around, it didn’t look like such a mess. The judges clearly thought it was different enough; Fearing called it “light as a feather” and Tom loved it too, although Hugh echoed the opinion of some of the hardcore cowboys in saying there wasn’t enough sugar. A very different kind of cowboy, with flowers brocaded on his hat and jacket, begged to differ and toasted the dessert.

The dinner ran smoothly from a plating and service standpoint, which is the part Heather, Lindsay, and Edward obsessed over, but the judges, including an increasingly grouchy Tom, were overall not impressed by the food — especially the third course. Ty-lör’s steaks were all over the place, but on the same plate, the unmemorable Whitney made potatoes gratin that were memorable for the wrong reasons.

The judges called Nyesha, Heather, and Chris Jones into the top group. Nyesha redeemed herself after the Quickfire for her compound butter and sauce, which “saved” the messy steak dish, according to Tom. Chris won raves for his beautifully marbled, perfectly cooked New York strip carpaccio, but big meanie Heather ended up winning for her fluffy, not-too-sweet cake. Who said making dessert was a Top Chef kiss of death?

There were no real surprises in the bottom group: Ty-lör and Whitney got called to the judges’ table, and Edward got called in as well for an uninspired tomato and asparagus salad that didn’t add anything to Chris Jones’ carpaccio. Ever since last week, Tom has been flat-out angry at the chefs who fail to impress. Tom said, “I’m starting to think I chose the wrong chefs.” We’re starting to think so, too.

It was no mystery who would go home. Ty-lör’s steaks were a disaster — as Fearing told him while flashing a creepy, crazed look, “If we were at a restaurant, you’d be refunding my money.” Ty-lör handled himself nobly and took full responsibility for the bad steaks, but I would almost have respected him more had he stuck up for himself. Isn’t this a competition? He could have mentioned the premature flashing of the meat, which wasn’t entirely his fault. But Top Chef judges almost always prefer a contestant who takes on too much and fail spectacularly than someone who fails while doing something middle-of-the-road. Whitney prepared a boring, unseasonal potato dish that was raw — she didn’t take the other chefs’ advice to start cooking them the night before — and thus got the boot. It must have been hard for her to be sent home by her mentor Hugh. He stuck up for his protegee (rather weakly) and didn’t stand in the way of the judges’ decision.

So foodies, are you getting as frustrated this season as Tom is? Do the chefs need to get competitive and start cooking to win the whole thing? Are you on Team Heather or Team Beverly? Did Ty-lör deserve to go instead of Whitney? Did Hugh’s slick hairstyle this week somehow distract you from his conjoined brow?

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