Top Chef: Episode 4.12 Recap
Allright Top Chef, what's it going to be?

This isn't just the episode that takes us from the final five down to the four heading to Puerto Rico. It's also a sort of existential crossroads for the invested viewer. Is Top Chef going to affirm our underlying belief that the world is just, that hard work and consistent performance will ultimately be rewarded in the end? Or is this episode going to be another lesson that fate is ultimately fickle and that one bad night can undo a season's worth of good (or vice versa)?

In other words, she wrote, with nails bitten down to the quick, are Richard Blais and Stephanie Izard safe tonight??

And Antonia Lofaso too? I'm not as charmed by her as I am by Richard, who has considerable creativity wrapped in an adorable unrepentant dorkiness. Or as I am by Stephanie's wobbly back and forth between top and bottom and her tendency to wow the judges in a way that always seems to surprise even herself.

But I still would hate to see someone who's been relatively solid displaced by Spike Mendelsohn and Lisa Fernandes. Those two have shown promise, but their lows have seemed lower than Antonia and it would just seem unfair for one of them to take her spot.

So let's see what the answer to our existential question will be.

The episode starts with the chefs all reflecting on their place in the competition, with the women noting that it's unusual for there to be so many of them at this stage of the game.

The cheftestants are taken to their Quickfire Challenge. After suiting up in regulation butchering outfits, they head out to a meat processing center. Their assignment is to properly butcher a piece of beef and then they will need to cook it. 

Stephanie had a bit of a challenge just even managing to handle the large piece of meat, while Spike – who has butchers in the family – Lisa, and Antonia all do well. They are all called out as good by the guest judge, Chicago chef big wig Rick Tramanto, back in the Top Chef kitchen with Padma Lakshmi. Spike is named the ultimate winner, and while he won't get immunity, obviously, he will have first dibs on the protein for the elimination challenge.

The chefs' elimination challenge will take them to Rick's own restaurant, where they will each be in charge of serving one appetizer and one entrée of their own creation using certain ingredients.

Spike chooses his proteins - the Tomahawk steak and scallops.  However, his scallops are frozen, and his decision raises some eyebrows among his competitors.  None seems too sad about missing out on the scallops, and they all grab for their own cuts of beef and seafood. 

The chefs get to work prepping for the service, and they all seem to be happy with this challenge, which allows them to be creative while working solo in a fine dining environment.  I'm happy too: this kind of environment is always the most interesting to me to see how a chef would most likely do in his or her own natural environment.

Stephanie is chatting to herself as she preps, and notes that she is using sweetbreads, which are the thymus gland of a calf.  She notes in interview that it might not sound appealing but it's actually like a "chicken McNugget" if it's done right.  Another reason to love Stephanie: she unselfconsciously references similarity to fast food as a selling point  for a dish.  It will be interesting if the final two are indeed Steph and Richard as they seem to be in some ways on opposite ends of the stuffiness spectrum.

Tom Colicchio makes the rounds and makes some observations about Spike's choice of frozen scallops and Lisa's peanut-butter mashed potatoes.  His doubt makes both chefs nervous, but Spike is determined to stick to his plan, and Lisa wants to demonstrate her creativity.

The cheftestants are serving some familiar faces. All the previous Top Chef winners are back: Harold Dieterle, Ilan Hall, and Hung Huynh, who all have some advice for the chefs. Harold says just be yourself, Hung says don't worry about being a fan favorite, and Ilan says don't shave anyone's head.

Tom Colicchio was in the back expediting the food, which was fun to see and fun for the chefs to work with the judge in a different capacity. While he never reached Gordon Ramsay apoplectic levels, he does at one point tell slowpoke Richard “You're killing me!” as he waits for the dishes.

The chefs are asked to do tasting menu portions for the judges (which are about one-third the size of regular portions). The appetizer go out. Richard and Stephanie's sweetbread apps really impress the judges, with Rick saying he's put Richard's on the menu. Lisa's flavor is good but her shrimp is cold and the judges don't like this. The judges are not impressed with Spike's textures. Antonia's salad has a perfectly poached egg but the overall starter falls apart.

Then it's time for the entrees. Richard's dish only works if it's all eaten together, but he put it on the plate deconstructed. Lisa's mash is good but her meat is not. Spike's meat is good but his overall dish is underwhelming. Stephanie once again totally charms me by asking someone “Does this look stupid?” right before she sends out her entrée, which the judges then love. Antonia focused on serving something that she would like to eat in a steakhouse and her gratin is so delicious Rick can't stop eating it. (I am starting to get the sense that justice might prevail in this episode!)

The chefs make their way to the stew room, and toast their last night waiting for the results. Padma calls them all into the judging room, where each chef gets feedback as the group holds hands. Stephanie is the winner, and looks shocked as usual. Richard is told he had the best appetizer and that he is also going on to the finals. Antonia had the best entrée, so she too is headed to Puerto Rico.

Ahhh, justice prevailed! So now I can relax and turn my attention to Spike and Lisa. Which one is more deserving of that final spot? The judges tell Spike that he should not have used the frozen scallops in his dish. He then tells Rick Tramanto, basically, “Well, they were in your walk-in.” As you might imagine, Rick is not thrilled with this. Lisa stands there in her usual crossed-arm, head back posture, taking the criticism that while she has good flavors, her technique is frequently lacking.

After a brief stint back in the stew room, where Spike regrets throwing blame back on Rick for having the frozen scallops, the two chefs are called back to hear the verdict…and it's Spike who is packing his knives. Wow, I have to say I'm kind of shocked. There's a Tom voiceover that sounds edited in to note that Spike has been in the bottom seven times to Lisa's five, and I have to wonder if that was added to help build the case that he should stay over Lisa. Skillwise, I guess it was a draw, but as a “character,” he's definitely been on a more likable track of late.

So Lisa is going on to the finals: three gals and Richard. Spike, meanwhile, will be talking to us tomorrow, so come back here for the interview.

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)