Top Chef: A Riddle Wrapped in a Protein Wrapped in an Enigma Wrapped in a Protein

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Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Last night, the Top Chef judges decided they were done sweeping contestants like Robin and Jersey Mike under the rug, and they could finally welcome the likes of Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud into their little party. First, though, some human interest: It seems the Brothers V. are doing all of this for Mom, Kevin is doing it for his girlfriend (and Jesus), and Eli is doing it for Richard Blais? Anyway, onward! Café Boulud chef Gavin Kaysen looked about three feet tall next to Padma somehow her outfit caused us to picture her spanking him with a riding crop. The chefs are to pay tribute to the dish he made for the 2007 Bocuse dOr finals a ballottine of chicken, with chicken liver, foie gras, and crayfish. No mention of the fact that, owing to a mishap in which a dishwasher accidentally ate two of Kaysens sides, his platter placed fourteenth. In any case, everyone had 90 minutes to make their interpretation of a protein in a protein in a protein (shame on This Is Why Youre Fat for failing to get a plug on the show).

Kevin thinks he and Eli are ballsy to serve up home-style food (in Elis case, a bacon-crusted sausage with a six-minute egg in the center; in Kevins case, slightly overcooked catfish fillets wrapped around shrimp and scallop). Bryan, who wraps a rack of lamb and a Merguez sausage in caul fat, is diplomatic about what he calls Kevins lack of finesse (simplicity is okay if you do it correctly), but his brother, less so The food Kevin cooks is the food that I cook on my day off. And Kevin isnt the only one Michael is better than. When Kaysen tells Michael his chicken with turkey and bacon mousseline is more of a terrine than a ballottine, Michael is like, He didnt say make a ballottine. And if he said that, Im pretty confident it wouldve been as good as the one he probably made in the Bocuse dOr. So there. Meanwhile, Jennifer takes the competition by playing to her strengths via a calamari steak, scallops, and salmon (accompanied by a saleh, i.e., a salad). She gets to tack on 30 extra minutes to the four hours shell have to compete in the subsequent mini-Bocuse.

The challenge: Create a presentation platter with one protein (a choice of lamb or salmon) and two intricately prepared garnishes. The judges include Thomas Keller and his chef Tim Hollingsworth, Daniel Boulud, and a delectably décolleté Gail Simmons. Alex Stratta and Jerome Son of Paul Bocuse are also there both could probably beat even Amanda Freitag in a dour-expression contest. The prize: $30,000 and the opportunity to compete for the U.S. in the Bocuse dOr (or rather, the opportunity to compete for the opportunity to compete for the U.S., but unlike protein in protein in protein, that wouldve been too hard to explain).

The chefs had so much fun wrapping stuff in other stuff during the quickfire that they decide to do it again, and they go nuts crusting everything, too. Kevin decides hes going to do something hes never done before and asks the nice brother how to sous vide his lamb saddle. We see disaster ahead Kevin sous viding is like Dylan going electric. This could go very wrong, or it could be genius and Tom Colicchio knows it when he checks in on Kevin in the kitchen and begs him with his eyes not to eff this up. To make matters worse, Kevin totally shirks the obligation to prepare his garnishes in an elaborate manner, saying hes going for complex flavor instead. He simply poaches a lamb loin in caramelized lamb fat and olive oil. But, phew, the judges like it, even if its a little elementary, and after freaking out that he might be going home, Kevin gets the surprise win.

Another bad sign: Bryans nervous laughter when he says hes hoping his braised lamb shank and parsley-crusted loin turns out okay. Hes doing in four hours what hed normally do in ten, so its no surprise when his lamb ends up tough and undercooked. But the judges see where he was going with it, and theyre impressed with, among other things, his garlic chip made by spreading garlic pure over acetate and dehydrating it. He gets a nice technique from Keller which is the equivalent of getting a nice ass from J.Lo.

Meanwhile, Michael appalls everyone by describing his salmon loin paired with a cauliflower-chickpea tart plus a zucchini tsatsiki as Mediterranean, and very traditional, very classic to boot (what the hell is classic about cauliflower cous cous, Tom wonders). To make matters worse, theres a bone in the salmon, something that wouldve been a fatal fail at the Bocuse. But hes saved because, other than the bone, his protein was well cooked.

Jen gets in hot water (har har) for using hotel pans to slowly cook salmon in water and butter, in an attempt to make the fish cooked on the bottom but rare on top. Her salmon comes out uneven and Tom gives her the lecture on poaching fish that Eric Ripert apparently never did.

Elis sausage-wrapped lamb loin was also undercooked to the point that there were inedible chunks of fat in it. The judges at least liked the yogurt foam that topped his carrot pure, and Tom seemed to say it was Bryans dish that was at the bottom, but in the end, Eli was the one to go. He didnt get to do Richard Blais proud, but it was okay, because at least he didnt lose to that stupid Robin. Lets admit it, you had to feel for Eli when he choked up a bit, but the fact is well never have to hear him say small, sexy, and tight again.

Next week, the cheftestants take a train to Napa, and Padma has bangs.