Top Chef: Episode 4.5 Recap
As the kids like to say: It's on!

In the first three episodes of Top Chef 4, the cheftestants seemed to be a friendly bunch, and, other than some good-natured team rivalry, I was thinking we were in for a pretty drama-free season outside the actual cooking.

But as the chefs spend more time with each other, and there are fewer chefs in the kitchen dividing everyone's attention, it would appear that the happy fun times are over. Last week, we started to see our first cracks in the cheery togetherness, and tonight, another team challenge pushes some frustrations into outright confrontations.

The chefs meet with Padma Lakshmi and guest judge Ming Tsai, and Antonia Lofaso is stoked: it's a taste test! The chefs will taste two version of one ingredient, and will have to guess which one is the more expensive, higher-quality version.

Ryan Scott and Antonia head into the challenge with strategy. Ryan is using his palate, but he's also using his noggin, noting that cheaper ingredients are going to be more bluntly fatty, salty or sweet than the high-end. Antonia is methodical with her tasting, using a different finger each time she dips into the food and cleansing her palate between each version.

We don't get to see the full test or hear the full results, but we do know the top and bottom. Poor Stephanie Izard only gets six out of the fifteen right. We know she can cook – she's come into the top spot twice in just four episodes. I have a feeling that she might suffer a bit from nerves and psych herself out under pressure, as she admits herself that she just can't seem to win a Quickfire.

Ryan and Jennifer Biesty are the runners-up, with eleven right, but it is, in fact, Antonia who wins with twelve correct. She has immunity.

The chefs now get their Elimination Challenge. They will split into four teams – one for each element – and must prepare a first course for 300 diners for a Meals on Wheels charity dinner.

The chefs draw knives. Richard Blais and Andrew D'Ambrosi end up together again: fellows you can't keep meeting like this! Mark Simmons will also join the team and their element will be water. Richard jumps in immediately with strong ideas. Despite his early bluster, Andrew has seemed to appreciate the chance to work with someone as experienced as Richard, but this time, he notes that Richard is a take-charge kind of guy and seems slightly tired of it. The team is going to sous vide some salmon, put some of Andrew's faux caviar on it, add a salad and Mark will puree some parsnips with vanilla.

The fire team is Dale Talde, Stephanie and Lisa Fernandes. Dale is already annoyed by Lisa and doesn't seem shy about saying so in interviews. When Lisa raises some concerns about Dale and Stephanie's less-than-literal take on fire, he seems to read this as negativity rather than simply concern. And once again, I think, “Poor Stephanie!” She made several comments last time she worked with Lisa about Lisa's “strong” personality, and now she looks mildly worried about being caught between her and “self-proclaimed a-hole” Dale. The team struggles to agree on a concept, and winds up changing things at the last minute at the store. They are going to do a spicy shrimp that Stephanie knows well, chili vegetables from Dale, and bacon with a miso sauce. Dale initially resisted Lisa's push to do Asian (her specialty and as well as the guest judge's), but eventually, it wins out.

The air team is Nikki Cascone, Ryan and Jennifer. They decide to do something with birds, and settle on a duck breast with a pomegranate cocktail. The team encounters a mild bobble when Ryan uses up the pomegranate juice by accident, but otherwise seem to work without major incident.

The earth team is Spike Mendelsohn, Antonia and Zoi Antonitsas. Zoi and Spike want to capture earthiness with a butternut squash soup, but Antonia is insistent that while she will do it if she must, she thinks the judges will want something more high-end for this kind of dinner. They eventually compromise on beef with mushrooms.

In the kitchen, most of the teams are working fairly well together, although Dale continues to bristle at Lisa's loud “observational negativity” as he puts it. That is: if she sees it, she complains about it. It's annoying, for sure, but he seems as focused on finding fault with her as she is with everything else, which makes him negative AND a little hypocritical. I like Dale despite – or maybe because of – his brashness, and wish he wouldn't focus on what she's doing so much; it seems like a waste of time.

Zoi and Spike are still a little worried about their compromise dish, but each is taking an element and running with it. Spike wishes Antonia would have taken a back seat since she had immunity.

Richard preps the fish for his team, and he seems to be confident about his dish, but I have to wonder. Salmon with faux caviar? Didn't we just see that…in last episode of Top Chef 4? He tries to charm Tom Colicchio with some down-home jokiness when Tom makes the rounds, but the judge isn't having it. Tom wonders in interview if Richard and his team have gotten a little cocky and I am wondering the same thing.

As the teams plate, Richard's overconfidence seems even clearer. His ambition might outstrip his experience with serving 80 dishes of food simultaneously. They find some scales on some of the salmon; this isn't looking good, although Richard insists it was just a couple portions with an issue.

Team Earth also encounters some issues as they plate, namely, wondering if Zoi has seasoned her mushrooms properly.

Each course is served individually to the diners and judges. The diners will get to complete comment cards, and their opinions will play into the final call.

Team Water seems sunk: scales are everywhere, no one like the sous vide texture of the fish, and the caviar has been seen before.

Team Fire is pretty much loved by all. Tom was worried that it was too spicy for a first course, but his fellow diners pretty much tell it's too tasty to be an issue.

Team Air isn't an entire failure, but the duck breast wasn't cooked as well as it could to render out the fat, and the judges are annoyed by the little cocktail.

Team Earth, Tom notes, picked ingredients that were all “earthy” but they didn't season it properly, so it tasted of not very much at all.

Back at judging, the cheftestants stew. Richard isn't feeling too good about his chances.

Team Fire is called back first and called the winners. Each chef contributed something important to the dish, but it's Lisa's extra special bacon that wins Ming's approval. Finally! Someone broke the curse of the guest judge who specializes in their cuisine. Dale is annoyed that she won for bacon, and admits, “I'm bitter.” I guess I was wrong in my Predictions column: turns out you CAN be on a winning team and still throw a tantrum, since the previews have shown us he's going to at some point tonight.

Team Water and Earth are called back. Everybody on Water is dinged for something: Andrew for using the faux caviar again, Mark for his parsnip puree that didn't seem to serve a purpose, and Richard gets it worst of all. The prep of his fish was poor (I'm a little disappointed in Richard that he is at least edited to appear to play innocent at the concept of scales) and the texture was universally panned.

But it's Earth that was deemed the worst by the diners. Zoi's seasoning was poor and the judges can't understand why Spike didn't fight harder for his soup against Antonia, who had immunity.

Ultimately, Zoi's seasoning problem is considered the worst and she's sent home. She's been sliding in under the radar for a while so it seems about time, but I did think that we might see Richard go home for what I think amounts to hubris creating some sloppiness. I think he's smart enough to rein himself back in for the next challenge, but we'll see what landing in the bottom does for him.

Zoi heads back to say goodbye, and her partner Jennifer is stunned. She makes the rounds, says goodbye, packs her knives. Um, excuse me? I was promised a meltdown and I haven't seen a meltdown. With three minutes left, and the eliminated chef already gone, how are we going to get to the tantrum?

Ahh, here it is. Antonia and Spike get into a fight about the soup, with Spike telling her she should have taken a step back and let them do the soup. My oh my does this young man like to complain and point fingers at other people. Antonia doesn't back down about her opinion, and when he says she refused to do the soup, she points out that her actual response was taped. She has you there, Spike-O!

The rest of the tantrum I found a little confusing…I can't tell if Jennifer is mad at Spike for attacking Antonia or for not having the respect to wait a little longer since they should still be in mourning for Zoi. Then Dale speaks up, but about what I don't catch, and when Lisa says something to the effect that he's not helping matters, he loses it, telling her she complains all the time and he just said one thing. Yes, he's grabbing his crotch as he says this.

Hmm. I heart Top Chef. I still think it's one of the best reality competitions out there. But the editing of the final judging in particular the past few episodes hasn't seemed quite as tight and clear as we have learned to expect. I will have to watch it again to see if I can better explain how this fight played out.

However it all went down, one this is clear: it's no more Mr. Nice Guy/Girl in the Top Chef kitchen. And in the previews for next week, guess what! Spike appears to have an attitude again! I can't wait.

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)