Top Chef: Episode 4.4 Recap
Our fourth episode of Top Chef 4 starts, once again, with more discussion about Jennifer Biesty and Zoi Antonitsas' relationship. Gee, Top Chef, foreshadow much? What juicy developments are in the works?

The chefs head to the kitchen for their Quickfire Challenge, where they meet with Padma Lakshmi and the guest judge, famed French chef Daniel Boulud. Padma notes that the chefs should know who he is without an introduction, but for two of the chefs, there's even more to the story.


Richard Blais and Ryan Scott have actually worked in Boulud's kitchen before, but Boulud says that won't influence his judging.

(Interesting aside: in a brief interview, Ryan says he was only in Boulud's kitchen for a very short time because the cooking wasn't for him. It wasn't featured on last week's show, but in guest judge Rick Bayless' blog, he notes that Ryan also worked for him for a very short time. Sounds like he gets around…Bayless also said that Ryan mentioned their prior connection in a “brown-nosey” fashion. So maybe he doesn't get around in the best way?)

In honor of his presence, the cheftestants will need to produce a vegetable plate that will show their skill in three different preparation techniques that will impress a classically-trained chef.

For some chefs like Lisa Fernandes and Zoi, this is an intimidating exercise because they are not classically-trained. Lisa considers attempting a tricky technique of removing the skin from a cucumber in a single piece, but when she sees Dale Talde at the station next to her executing the same move with considerable ease, she abandons it. Zoi decides to keep things simple but tasty with a chiffonade of vegetables and a perfectly-poached egg.

For Spike Mendelsohn, who trained in France, and Manuel Trevino, who feels his knife skills are strong, the task seems less daunting.

Boulud makes the rounds. He finds Dale's vegan sashimi “impressive.” He likes Zoi's, and thinks Spike's shows skill. He like how simple Richard kept his plate, but there's a fine line between restraint and lack of creativity and Lisa's, Boulud thinks, is too basic without a good concept unifying the elements. Nikki Cascone and Manuel also get dinged for flaws with their technique.

Not surprising, Nikki, Manuel and Lisa are the bottom, and Richard, Zoi and Dale are in the top, with Dale's being the ultimate winner for showing both excellent technique and a strong unifying concept.

Now Padma announces the Elimination Challenge. The chefs will be working in teams again to create a dish for a multi-course dinner with film critic Richard Roeper and actress Aisha Tyler. The chefs will use a favorite film as a starting point.

The chefs draw knives to pair up, but since there are an odd number of cheftestants, Dale does not, and as winner, gets to decide what team he works with.

Richard and Andrew D'Ambrosi get matched up again. This is cool, because despite how annoying Andrew was in the first episode, I have been totally won over by how creative he's been in challenges, and so the two of these guys together should be a really interesting combination. Dale thinks so too, and opts to be with them after everyone else is paired up. Even better! Dale has impressed me so far.

The other teams are Ryan and Mark, Lisa and Stephanie Izard, Zoi and Antonia, Manuel and Spike, and Nikki and Jennifer.

The teams brainstorm. Richard says they should pick Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, because the film is all about creativity with food, like the gumball that has a multi-course dinner in it. When Richard points that out, it makes me think that could very well be the exact concept that planted the seed to make him want to be the kind of chef he is in the first place. I wonder if that might be true of a lot of molecular gastronomists since many of them are of an age where they would have seen that film as kids!

Mark and Ryan struggle to find a movie that they both know. Ryan doesn't know Mark's references because he's from, as Ryan puts it, “New Zealand…or New England?” And Ryan doesn't see a lot of movies anyway. But he does remember the scene from A Christmas Story where they can't have a traditional Christmas dinner, so they get Chinese food instead. Mark looks a little blank at this, but is game to try. This doesn't bode well.

Manuel is suggesting Like Water for Chocolate for him and Spike, but Spike wants to do Vietnamese, so he picks Good Morning Vietnam. Seems like he's picking the movie just so he can make Vietnamese food…he doesn't mention anything in particular about the film as an inspiration.

Jennifer and Nikki both make Italian food, so they pick Il Postino, a romantic Italian film, and decide to make fresh pasta. Nikki did well with this in the past, so that's a good choice because she needs to do something to redeem herself after being called out as bad so often.

Antonia and Zoi decide to pick a Spanish film by Pedro Almodovar called Talk to Her, which is about two creative and strong women, and features Almodovar's typical bright and colorful palette. They're going to do lamb.

Lisa and Stephanie decide they are not going to do dessert because they just did that last week. Instead, they are going to do beef based on the cow scene in Top Secret. They will also make a little potsticker with apple and a savory caramel sauce. Stephanie seemed a little nervous about working with Lisa but is diplomatic.

Richard, Dale and Andrew brainstorm and


They are going to do a dish with caviar and chocolate! This is the dish that just made Gordon Ramsay hurl on Hell's Kitchen. Oh no! I'm worried for my boys!

While shopping, the chefs encounter some protein-related issues. Spike is unsure about the fishy-tasting wild Chilean sea bass Manuel wants to use in their summer rolls. Mark and Ryan can find neither turkey nor duck, but they do find some quail, which Mark is optimistic about. The lamb Zoi and Antonia want is very expensive, so they have just barely enough for 12 and need to watch their cutting very closely.

Back at the kitchen, Antonia and Zoi have decided to not add more saffron to their dish. Although this means the color be more muted (color was an important tie to the film), the flavor is correct so they think it's the right call.

Richard, Dale, and Andrew are doing Richard's fancy smoke-under-wrap thing, but his smoker breaks. There's a momentary scramble, but the lads handle it admirably well. Richard notes the smoke is just an extra, it's not needed. But they do decide to set a block of wood on fire (!!) and hold the fish over it. I can't imagine they had enough to taste this before serving; it seems soooo risky.

Service starts, and Richard's team is first. He does a nice job of explaining the connection to the film, and they also serve a little foamy cocktail that he ties to the “Fizzy Lifting” drink from the movie. The judges seem apprehensive about the combination of salmon, faux tapioca “caviar,” wasabi and chocolate, but after a few bites, they all concede it's fantastic and it works. Who knew?! Whew!

Spike and Manuel go next. The judges sense the lack of connection to the movie, and they don't understand why the roll wasn't made with a more upscale seafood. The wrapper isn't good, and the chard on the side has no connection to the dish.

Nikki and Jen's Il Postino tortellini initially gets a lot of criticism from the regular judges, but Roeper and the other guests protest that it's tasty AND fits the film.

Mark is nervous about his and Ryan's quail, cranberry and spring roll dish as they head to service and so am I, but…the judges love it! It's a complete hit, and Aisha Tyler says she can't get enough of the carrot puree.

Antonia and Zoi are racing to plate their food and Richard is helping them make sure each judge gets the duo of lamb pieces. The two chefs talk about the vibrant colors of the film…but then the judges look at the plate and see muted tones. They can't connect the two, and wish there was a larger piece of lamb.

Stephanie and Lisa present last, and I am also worried about these two.  Once again, I worry in vain as the judges think their meat is cooked perfectly, the sauces are lovely and the dish fits the movie. Granted, since the tie to the film is cow, that's not hard to do.

The judges deliberate, and everyone heads to the judges' table. Richard, Dale and Andrew, and Stephanie and Lisa are called first. Back in the waiting room, the trash talking starts, with Zoi and Spike loudly stated how bad Richard's team's dish must have been with those elements.

The judges tell the teams they were the best. They said they were looking for a reason to not like the unusual flavor combination, but had to admit it completely worked. They liked the wasabi sauce (which was Richard's idea) and the tapioca caviar (which was Andrew's). Stephanie and Lisa get praise for their execution and flavors. Richard is the ultimate winner for its tie to the film and his leadership.

Richard heads back and has to tell Spike, Manuel, Zoi and Antonia to head to the judges. Zoi and Antonia are criticized for their dish not matching their speech about the film, although the judges admit the flavors and execution were not a problem at all. I think this goes to show how tight this competition must be: a bad sales pitch isn't really a strong reason to be in the bottom.

Spike and Manuel, though, clearly didn't link their dishes to the film, and the dishes weren't good enough either. Tom Colicchio says the rolls were as good as an “$8” appetizer from any neighborhood restaurant. Spike is criticized for poor direction, and Manuel for following the lead without, it seems, changing the course. Neither Spike nor Manuel will “throw the other under the bus,” so the judges have to make a best guess. After more deliberation, it's Manuel who is going home.

Well, he's seemed to struggle a bit in recent episodes, but I was excited to see someone with skills in Mexican cuisine in the competition since we really haven't seen that very often.

Next week on Top Chef: everyone loses their minds!! Dale, Spike and Jennifer are all featured in the preview screaming at each other. Jennifer kicks a chair! I can't wait! Although: my boy Richard also notes that he seems to be irritating Tom Colicchio. I am biting my nails!

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)