On ''Top Chef,'' in order to get to New York City, the contestants have to pass a tough challenge in Newark; plus, CJ and Padma seem to have a love connection

By Erin E. Stevenson
Updated September 17, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
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”Top Chef”: Trapped in Newark!

The ads have promised that the Miami season of Top Chef would be ”muy caliente,” but I’d venture to say it’s been more like ”muy harsh” with the judges seeming more catty and critical than ever. (Tonight featured more helpings of the same, which I’ll get to later.) Still, muy caliente might have finally been delivered, and I’m not talkin’ about a flaming stove burner: What’s with the heat between Padma and CJ? Did anyone else feel the love tonight?

The episode opened with dawn breaking on our favorite cheftestants, and it wasn’t long before an almost frisky Padma, in what’s supposed to be her morning look (less makeup, mussed hair, casual clothes, belly bared), let herself into the suite, making a personal wake-up call in the form of a quickfire challenge. I swear it seemed that CJ might just grab her and pull her into his narrow single bed. But there was breakfast making to be done as a giddy Padma gave them each a blender and 20 minutes to answer the call of her grumbling stomach. While they all scurried about in their pajamas, I found myself marveling at how refreshing it was to see the frost melt a little off the chilly Padma; she sure must love breakfast!

CJ hoped to impress her with crepes (”women love crepes”). Hung said that he doesn’t usually eat breakfast because he’s too busy running around, but he opted to make steak and eggs. (Of course, while in mid-hustle, he broke a bottle of oil, or so his colleagues said. He denied it.) Dale declared he’s basically a breakfast expert but usually has four hours to create, instead of 20 minutes. (There are breakfast foods that take four hours?) To prove she hadn’t completely thawed, Padma told Hung she doesn’t generally like steak and eggs, but she pronounced him the winner because his papaya and Grand Marnier drink ”hit all parts of my palate.” Siz-zizzle!

Everybody’s hearts started to race when Padma announced the show was hitting the road and would be in transit until the Aspen finale. Adios, Miami! (Cue hugs and high fives all around.) First destination: New York City. But after they landed in Newark, the chefs learned that between them and the Big Apple lay an elimination challenge. (The loser would be left behind in the Garden State.) Once again the group’s excitement was for naught (just like when they thought they were going to get to go clubbing and instead had to sweat it out in catering trucks cooking for drunk people).

COMING UP: A fond farewell

The challenge required the chefs to whip up highfalutin airplane food for Continental Airlines’ business class in two hours in a strange kitchen while wearing hairnets. I knew from last week’s teaser that I’d love this part; hairnets are the ultimate humbling accessory. Who do you all think pulled it off with the most panache? Padma cheated; half of her hair was hanging out. Dale gets my vote: His looked a bit like a beret!

No major meltdowns occurred in the kitchen. Hung finished early and didn’t offer to help anyone else. As usual, Chef Tom turned up the heat and the sweat factor with his probing questions and smirks. No one was allowed to choose the same protein; out of earshot, Tom prepared us for the critique ahead by predicting the meat cookers would fare better since fish is easy to undercook or overcook.

Tonight’s guest judge was Jimmy Canora of the Continental Congress of Chefs (which could have used a little more explaining: Is the Continental Congress made up of two houses? Can they filibuster?). For added spice, No Reservations‘ Anthony Bourdain was back. Maybe he’s an acquired taste and might overpower the ever-changing mix of judges if he were added to the show permanently, but this guy’s criticisms are Wüsthof sharp. I say, if you’ve gotta be skewered on TV, better to be skewered by the best. Some of his grade-A tidbits tonight:

About CJ’s broccolini: ”They were cleaning Bob Marley’s house and found this in the closet.”

Brian’s lobster ”had the texture of doll head” (at least that’s what I think I heard Bourdain say).

Sara’s salmon ”was beyond overcooked. We’re talking cat-food territory, that dry.”

Not to be outdone, Chef Tom told Brian he was in the bottom three because his lobster and potato hash ”was disgusting. The hash was gross.” And he called CJ’s broccolini ”the single worst dish that we’ve had in three years of this competition.”

Casey outcooked Hung and Dale and was declared the winner (for the second time!) with her veal medallions and cauliflower gratin (despite Continental Congressman Canora’s concerns about an unappetizing potential side effect of the veggie — mile-high flatulence). CJ and his ”wretched” (per Bourdain) broccolini were sent packing. But I swear there was something going on once again between Padma and CJ. Her typically stoic ”pack your knives and go” had something extra this time: a flirty glance and maybe the hint of a coy grin? As he walked out, she watched with an ever so slight look of distress on her face. Or maybe that was just a little gas….

Your usual Top Chef TV Watcher, Greg Kirschling, will be back next week, but in the meantime, did anyone else notice that connection between Padma and CJ? Do you think the judges’ criticisms have been more or less harsh than in previous seasons? And who’s your favorite guest judge so far?

Episode Recaps


Top Chef

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