Top Chef Masters: Odd Woman Out

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Men at work. Photo: Kelsey McNeal/Bravo

It’s counterintuitive that, as the competition draws closer to its conclusion, it should be less engaging for viewers to watch. Yet that’s how we felt watching this week’s installment, which left four chefs in the race to get to the semifinals round. The cooking was a little bit off across the board, there was no entertaining contretemps between chef and judge, and in general there was just nothing to love or hate in this episode. Still, it was a little bit sad to see one of our favorite chefs sent home, but before we bid farewell, let’s do a taste test of this week’s highlights.

Cheftestants: Susan Feniger, Susur Lee, Rick Moonen, Marcus Samuelsson, Jonathan Waxman

Best-Dressed Chef: Susur’s ponytail is awesome (and likely the source of all his culinary power), but the sartorial master in this competition is Marcus. We’ve always liked the combination of his navy chef jacket with a green T-shirt underneath, but he’s really taking kitchen couture up a few notches with those Burberry pants. It’s likely that his sophisticated flourishes in fashion and cooking helped attract his glamazon wife, whom we saw a picture of for the first time this week. She towers over Marcus, looks like the next Iman, and apparently makes a mean steak tartare. Can there be a Top Chef for chefs’ spouses?

Best Idea for a Quickfire: After last week’s weird leg-meat challenge, it was good to see a return to basics, which came in the form of the Top Chef favorite, Name That Ingredient. As always, the chefs were asked to taste a sauce and name as many ingredients as they could. Marcus and Susur faced off, Susan went up against Rick, and Jonathan got to pass on the first round. Rick won the challenge by “playing it safe,” according to him, or by not really doing anything, according to us. The best part was when Susur owned Marcus, rattling off six ingredients and even deducing the kind of bone that was used to make the stock. Marcus looked pissed, as usual, but all we could do was bow down. (See the video below to witness the “sauce-tasting master” in action.)

Silliest Mistake: We know southeast Asian cooking is not at all on Jonathan’s radar, but he made a pretty silly flub when he guessed that there was butter in a green Thai curry. Of all the things he could have said — garlic, coconut milk, chiles, etc. — he came up with butter? As he admitted, he even had a piece of ginger stuck in his teeth and didn’t think to mention that. His loss, though it didn’t seem to set him back any.

Worst Concept: For the Elimination Challenge, chefs were asked to cook dishes that captured the spirit of Greek gods. Susur felt culturally disadvantaged once again but managed to overcome that with a well-cooked, if not thematically appropriate pork loin. But it was Marcus, whose dish was inspired by the Greek god of war, who overly intellectualized his food and went for a high concept rather than something that would have made more sense on its own terms.

Taking inspiration from Ethiopian cooking, in which wartime dishes are often raw so as not to create smoke that the enemy can see, he served up a plate of cured beef and salmon in an apple broth with oyster foam. It was a fine dish in its own right, and apparently quite delicious since he received high marks across the board, but for this challenge it would have been better to see something more visually appealing — maybe foods battling each other. In any case, a missed opportunity.

Best Line of the Night: “I have to cook for the god of wine,” said Susur. “Who give a shit about that?”

Best Presentation: Cooking for Hades, the god of the underworld, Rick went all out with his plate, serving a salad of root vegetables next to some crimson potatoes and swordfish. The variety of reds was appealing and also playful, reminding us that fun cooking can also be serious.

Biggest Screw-up: Jonathan made the risky decision to cook scallops à la minute, and he suffered for it. The judges found them too salty, while Jonathan noticed he wasn’t getting the right sear on them.

Most Overplayed Story Line: We’ve harped before on the abundance of references to Marcus’s orphanhood and subsequent adoption, and this week we learned that his biological father is actually alive and that he loves him. Now, we don’t mind getting the backstory on these chefs, but it wasn’t until last night that we realized why it bothers us so much in this case. The main concern is why the show spends so much time on this, and we’re scared it’s a not-so-subtle cue that Marcus will be walking away with the top prize. Or are we totally paranoid about this?

Best Judging Comment: “I love [Susan’s] coconut jam,” Gail excitedly told the other judges. “I want to be sticking my fingers in it at all hours of the day and night, and perhaps spreading it on a loved one.”

Winner: After ending up on the bottom last week, Rick rebounded in a big way and won both challenges in this episode, making his total charity winnings now $22,500. He shouldn’t have won the Quickfire, but the main challenge was all his from the beginning.

Loser: “Always I’m in that sensual, sexual mode,” Susan explained to Jonathan, and we hope she stays that way after being told to pack her knives and go. We’ll miss her, but her elimination was the least surprising from the entire season. She was doomed from the minute we saw her grab loaves and loaves of white bread. Her dish consisted of some sort of sweet-coconut sandwich served alongside a fried egg. No one had anything bad to say about the taste, but this was a dish for the goddess of love, Aphrodite. As Jay pointed out later, it seemed like the kind of dish one would eat after making love, not beforehand.

Ultimately, Susan wasn’t criticized for a lack of skill (she did, after all, cook eggs to order), but rather a lack of concept. Earlier Susan said, “I think being a hippie at heart influences my cooking, because I like really down-to-earth dishes.” But on Top Chef Masters, that type of cooking just won’t do anymore.

Next Week: There’s too much testosterone in the kitchen; Gail shows off a new hairstyle; and we find out which three chefs are moving on to the semifinals.