Top Chef: Episode 4.3 Recap
This week's Top Chef 4 is another episode to give me hope that this season will be like the most recent season of Project Runway. While I felt Project Runway 4 did remain a little distant from the contestants as people, I preferred that to an artificial soap opera or too much interpersonal drama. This week's episode of Top Chef has the cheftestants separated into two teams, but other than a little competitive trash talking between teams, there is an admirable level of teamwork and camaraderie within the teams themselves.

As I suspected in my Predictions column, this week did offer up a Mexican-themed challenge. While this is, in some respects, me patting myself on the back for being oh-so-clever, I have to admit there was a way bigger clue than simply the photograph I referenced of the cheftestants working with some Southwestern-looking ingredients.

In addition to that, Bravo's pre-show promo pictures feature – prominently – this episode's guest chef Rick Bayless. Um, duh on my part. I spent most of my life in the Southwest, and while Rick is actually part of the Chicago food scene, my exposure to Mexican food means I should have picked up on that pretty major clue. Bayless is one of - if not the - biggest name in the US when it comes to Mexican cooking.

While Manuel – who is Mexican-American and currently cooks Mexican cuisine, seeing Rick Bayless is no doubt some good news. Stephanie, on the other hand, isn't quite as enthused, saying, “Oh crap,” at the prospect of making a cuisine she would appear to not be as familiar with.

Padma Lakshmi gives them their Quickfire Challenge: reinvent the taco as fine dining. The chefs have 30 minutes to get to it.

Manuel decides to focus on ingredients, bringing in cactus paddle, something some other chefs might not be as familiar with. Spike appears mildly irritated that they are supposed to elevate something that he thinks is just fine as street food. Andrew decides to use plantains and duck, and says he could win Top Chef 4 for his “random and crazy” ideas. Oh Andrew, I just can't decide whether I think you're adorable or ready for a roundhouse kick to the noggin. Maybe it's both in equal parts.

Richard says reinvention is his thing, so he's going to take a taco and make a jicama taco shell for it. Ryan is taking a cue from the San Francisco taco trucks he usually visits. Mark is confused as to why so many chefs are taking a street food angle, and I can't say I disagree: Padma's directions to make it fine dining were pretty clear.

Padma and Rick make the rounds. Manuel's is traditional flavors and the judges don't really react. Lisa's steak is impossible for Rick to bite through and she's well aware this is a very bad sign. Andrew is stoked to find out that Rick loves a duck taco. Erik sticks with traditional flavors of chipotle for his. Spike gets kudos for mastering the street style, but since that wasn't the challenge, I wonder if that will be an issue in the evaluation. Richard's flavors are praised.

Before Rick announces the winners and losers, he notes that the cheftestants mainly didn't really follow the directions: i.e., elevate street food to fine dining.

The losers were Erik, who was dinged for his presentation, something that so far seems to be a consistent problem for the chef. Lisa's skirt steak was an obvious problem. Ryan served his taco with paper, a nod to its street origins, but this bothered Rick.

On the positive side, Andrew had good flavors, Richard's mastered the street food flavors in a fine dining package, and Spike is named last (poor Manuel looks so depressed when he's not named) for his extremely tasty dish. Richard, though is the ultimate winner, which ticks of Spike, because Rick liked how his tasted so much. Yes, Spike, but he said your presentation was more street-food-like, and that didn't fit the challenge. Richard says the win is a “pleasant surprise” and he gets immunity for the elimination challenge.

Now Padma directs the chefs to split into two teams – Red and Blue. Some chefs gravitate to Richard, since he's got that fresh winner odor. For some though, that odor is overwhelmed by his immunity, and Spike notes that just from numbers, you're setting yourself up for trouble by joining a team with one person who can't go home.

So the teams are as follows:

Red – Dale, Erik, Spike, Zoi, Jennifer, Ryan and Andrew

Blue – Richard, Stephanie, Nikki, Antonia, Mark, Manuel and I think Lisa. I am looking back through my notes and I have not mention of her but I think she must have been on this team just due to the numbers.

The two teams are directed to get into their cars and head on a field trip. As they head through different neighborhoods in Chicago, the local chefs try to guess what kind of cuisine they could eventually arrive at based on the ethnic or national make-up of the location. However, they eventually arrive at a neighborhood that would appear to be more of a mix, so the chefs are stumped.

Padma arrives and tells them that their challenge will be to prepare food for a block party for the neighborhood. And the neighborhood itself will be providing the ingredients: the chefs will have to go door-to-door to source their ingredients.

The Red Team seems to start off well, with charming and handsome Ryan being the team's choice to be the main face of the group. He find a household that recently visited a farmer's market and scores some good produce. Andrew and Spike find a pantry that has been stocked for the apocalypse and/or bird flu outbreak, and are able to fill many grocery bags.

On the Blue Team, Richard is feeling a little nervous about approaching the houses because he's “not super-social” in his own words, which only serves to endear him to me further. I am printing up my Team Richard shirts right now. Nevertheless, despite this – and despite Spike dissuading them from visiting a house he knew had more food to give – they seem to source adequate supplies, with Nikki landing a bunch of pasta for her a mac and cheese dish she says is one of her staples.

Back at the kitchen, the teams spend three hours prepping and cooking, and both groups work really well as teams. The Red Team is more collaborative, but the Blue Team still seems to be keeping a friendly and team-oriented vibe.

As they cook, the Blue Team has a possible issue with Nikki using some Velveeta for her mac-and-cheese. But on the positive side, Stephanie revamps her dessert on the fly to include some cinnamon-sugar fried wonton wrappers too go with their fruit, and it sounds tasty. They also have a “sexy drink” which mainly involves lavender, citrus and carbonation. When Tom Colicchio makes his rounds, he seems skeptical how sexy this concoction will really be, but he's open-minded.

On the Red Team side, they're all very Go Team! But there are still a couple of issues. Erik's corndogs seem likely to get soggy during transport, and Zoi is not thrilled with the pasta salad she was left to make.

At the block party, the Red Team seems to see themselves more as crowd-pleaser, with Spike thinking they have more fun personality and dishes that aim to satisfy the average diner, like sliders, those corndogs, pork skewers, sangria, Waldorf salad, pasta salad, taco salad and s'mores.

Blue Team has decided to keep things on the more refined level, with paella, slaw, BBQ pork, bean salad, the “sexy”drink, inside-out cookie, cobbler, and mac and cheese. The mac and cheese is an issue: Nikki notes that it set rather solidly and so she has to add a lot of butter and milk to try to loosen it back up. Between this and last week, clearly catering is not her forte.

The judges and block partiers don't seem to pick an obvious winner, but back at judges' table, the Blue Team is called first, which makes the Red Team – thinking they are the losers – incensed. They are positive they did a better job.

The Blue Team is first raked over the coals a bit for their mac and cheese. Richard gets dinged for having a tasty rice pilaf – but not the paella that was advertised. Stephanie, though, is praised for her dessert and for her role in the drink, and for those, her team wins and she is the individual winner. (That's twice in just three episodes – go Stephanie!)

Tom tells the cheftestants not to get too excited though. They were better than Red, but not that great and he expects more.

They send back the Red Team and Spike is on fire, saying their food was better than the other team and they were more in tune with what the block party wanted, even if it might not have pleased the palate of the judges. The judges accuse them, essentially, of dumbing things down for John Q. Public.

Erik is criticized for his corndogs, Zoi for her pasta salad, and Ryan for his Waldorf salad. Andrew says the other team are hacks, and he will not go home because “This is my house.” Oh Andrew. You have to know when to hold them, know when to fold them. Have you never watched America's Next Top Model? Excessive entitlement at panel only means the judges will later seek to take you down several pegs.

The judges send them out and deliberate. Zoi's pasta salad was flavorless and Erik should have known better about the soggy corndogs.

The chefs come back in, and it's Erik who's leaving Top Chef 4. I'm a little surprised. While overall, I don't know if his performance was really as strong, Tom and Padma have said they go dish by dish. While Erik's was soggy, the judges themselves said it was tasty in concept, whereas Zoi's was poor in execution and the concept was non-existent.

Nevertheless, it's Erik who's heading back to his real life as an Executive Chef in San Francisco. We'll be speaking with him on Thursday afternoon, so head back here for that interview.

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist
(Image courtesy of Bravo)