And so, the final episode of Top Chef in Chicago starts out where Chicago itself starts out: no, not in a muddy onion field, but at the Allen Brothers steak warehouse. But first, Stephanie has to deliver the requisite line about there never being “this many girls” at this stage of the competition. Okay, Bravo, we get it! Lady power!
Back to the steak. The first part of the Quickfire involves Frenching a long-bone dry-aged rib rack, an activity to which Spike is unexpectedly well suited. Both of his grandfathers were butchers, and he adds, “there seems to be a little strain of butchery in me.” You, and Pol Pot!
Spike did, in fact, do a great job cutting up and cleaning the ribs, while the girls suffer mightily against the ribs’ tough outer layer of agedness. So much for lady power.
The cheftestants took their meat back to the Top Chef kitchen, where Rick Tramonto of TRU and Tramonto’s Seafood & Steakhouse asks for the steaks to be cooked medium rare, please. (Tramonto must be pretty please about ultimately getting his way in the foie gras wars. Did you know he’s the national spokesperson for the U.S. Duck Council? The ducks can not be happy about this.)
So the Quickfire is all — and only — about appearance: who butchered their meat the best, and then who cooks their steak to LOOK medium rare the best. No one’s judging the taste of the steaks, or apparently even eating them at all. Hopefully they gave them to the homeless or something!
Each chef approaches cooking the steak in a different way; some grill, some pan-fry, some pop it in the oven, some do a combination of the three. But all must converge on the correct layering of red, pink, grey and black in order to please Tramonto. Richard and Stephanie fail to do so (they are not “tomahawky” or “lollipoppy” enough), and while Lisa and Antonia’s impress, Spike edged out the competition with his superior butchering abilities.
The Challenge is revealed to be a takeover of Tramonto’s Seafood & Steakhouse for an evening. Spike’s reward for winning this Quickfire, much like when he won the healthy lunch Quickfire, was to have his first choice of proteins for his appetizer and entree. And much like the last time, he completely squandered it! He heard all the chefs talking about scallops, so when he spied some scallops in the kitchen, he nabbed them. But when they turned out to be frozen, instead of dropping them like a sack of frigid bivalves, he stubbornly decided to cut off his nose to spite his face and use them anyway. Right at that second, he was off the show.
Instead, we had to watch him unravel for 35 more minutes anyway. Each of the other chefs picked their proteins, which mostly involved seafood and organs for appetizers (sweetbreads, which both Richard and Stephanie used for their appetizers, are so hot right now we can hardly stand it), and various cuts of steak as the main. It’s been a while since the elimination challenge was a solo event; when it’s impossible to slough off the blame, you really have to bring it.
To make matters worse, Padma trotted out three VIP guest judges in the form of the winners from seasons past: Harold, Ilan and Hung. Everyone knows Ilan is a hipster douchebag, which is fine, but why did he wear an ill-fitting t-shirt to this relatively fancy restaurant? A fashion faux pas much worse, in our estimation, than Rachael Ray’s keffiyeh kerfuffle. But we digress.
Onto the tasting and judgment. Richard’s hamachi and sweetbread appetizer overwhelmed the judges with pleasure, to the point of it being their favorite appetizer. Similarly, Antonia’s perfectly cooked, very “steakhouse” steak was their favorite entree, and they love how “from the heart” she is. Stephanie was determined (by the judges) to be the most “well-rounded” chef of the evening, and Tom Colicchio is amazed by her unflappable demeanor. All three are off to Puerto Rico (just in time for the primaries!), and Stephanie took the prize this week, which is a Tramonto cookbook (obviously) and a suite of kitchen appliances (kind of awesome, if a little Price is Right).
The bottom is always more interesting than the top. It came down, as everyone expected, to Lisa and Spike: Lisa’s shrimp dish was served cold and her steak was cooked unevenly, while Spike’s frozen scallop dish was a complete disaster. Lisa’s face, while the judges were faulting her for various things, was a thousand different shades of hideous. But the best part of the episode was Spike’s exchange with Rick over the scallops, which took around three seconds to devolve into a frat house shouting match.
Tom started it off by rightly criticizing Spike for using frozen scallops, which are mad declassé (and not very tasty). Spike suddenly blurts out, to Rick, something along the lines of “why do you have frozen scallops in your pantry?” And Rick reddens and says “yo, I’ll take the shot, bro, that I had frozen scallops, but you gotta take the shot that you used them.” (By the way, scallops are not currently on the menu at Tramonto’s.)
After the interrogation round, Spike cracked up backstage because he knew that interchange was the death of him, and he was right. So the final four are Richard, Antonia, Stephanie and Lisa, and three out of four ain’t bad. Lisa’s going to get a hilarious sunburn in Puerto Rico next week, and then go home. Unless she kneecaps Antonia and no one finds out until it’s too late, or something.
[Photo: “you’re next,” via Bravo]