Top Chef: Season 3, Episode 11
Episode Overview: The Top Chef road show makes its first stop in New York City…well, almost. The six remaining chefs don't quite make it there; they make it to the Newark Airport instead. They only have to go through two things to make it to Manhattan: the Holland Tunnel and an Elimination Challenge.  The chefs learn that potentially the only thing more arduous than eating airline food is making it.

The saying is “out of the frying pan, into the fire,” but this week on Top Chef, it's out of the bed, into the Quickfire.

After being awoken by Padma Lakshmi, the chefs stand bleary-eyed in their pajamas in as she gleefully informs them that their challenge will be to cook her breakfast in their apartment. Their living room has been converted to a kitchen, with a portable burner and blender set up for each chef.

They only have twenty minutes to cook, and of course, as the chefs run around, spaz attack Hung Huynh knocks over and breaks a bottle of truffle oil. Then, of course again,  Hung denies doing this, and then talks a bit about how great he is. The usual. For me, he has cycled past being the chef I love to hate to being the chef I just love to love. He's so consistent, just so perfectly Hung. The other chefs, what with being in the same room and all, don't find it nearly so charming, especially those in bare feet, or Casey, who nearly slips and falls on the oil.

Padma seems absolutely thrilled about her breakfasts, and begins her tasting. Chris Jacobsen (CJ) has made her a sweet crepe – because, he says, women have a mysterious love for crepes – and a smoothie. Sara Mair has made Padma what is essentially a fancified McGriddle.

Hung's choice of steak and eggs was a risky one, because, as Padma tells him, she's not generally a fan of the dish. But she likes his, and especially likes his smoothie, which features Grand Marnier. The liquor was not a risky move; as Sara noted, the chefs all knew that Padma likes mascarpone, whole grains, and, apparently, alcohol.

Dale Levitski made a ham and apple frittata and smoothie; Casey Thompson, a savory French toast with salsa; and Brian Malarkey, a lobster and butter poached egg, also with a smoothie.

Padma announces her favorites: Sara and Hung.  Hung is the winner for his excellent smoothie and ability to make Padma enjoy a dish she doesn't normally. He gets a copy of her new book as a prize, and another privilege to come later.

She tells them they won't get to find out about the Elimination Challenge just yet. That's because they are going to be leaving Miami. They're going to take this crazy show on the road, with the final stop being Aspen. She gives Hung a set of tickets to pass out and scampers off.

The chefs all open their tickets to reveal…they're going to New York City. CJ is excited: he wants a piece of pizza, which is an excellent idea.

However, after they land, it turns out they haven't quite made it to the Big Apple. They're at Newark Airport. Padma greets them, and is once again quite gleeful (Padma really seems to be in a loopy mood this episode, and it's kind of endearing) as she announces that the Elimination Challenge will take place there, at the airport, and only five of the chefs will actually make it to the island of Manhattan.

After a night of rest, they meet up with Padma in the airline kitchen for Continental Airlines. Their challenge will be to prepare a meal to be heated and served on an airplane. The chefs get the skinny from one of the Continental chefs as to some of the restrictions involved in preparing food for airplane service. All of the different elements of the single meal must be heated together, and must be heated for a minimum of ten minutes. The heating trays are quite shallow, so none of the elements can be more than a couple inches high.

For winning the Quickfire, Hung gets to choose his protein first, and none of the other chefs can pick the same one. He picks a Chilean sea bass for its high oil content that should reduce any chance of drying out.

The other chefs all make their selections and then prep begins. They have two hours, but complicating matters is their lack of familiarity with the airline kitchen, and the low number of burners they have access to. When Tom Colicchio makes his usual rounds, the chefs try their best to seem collected, but Tom says he can see the stress about the preparation conditions getting to some of the chefs.

Also getting to the chefs? Hung's Me-First attitude. Although he finishes with plenty of time, he makes no effort to help a stretched CJ. He says later CJ didn't ask for help, but the other chefs feel Hung is being unnecessarily selfish.

The cheftestants head to an airplane to meet their judges and serve the meals. Along with a group of Continental flight attendants, Padma, Tom, and (insert ominous music!) chef, author, television host, and withering critic Anthony Bourdain will act as judges. The chefs are a bit nervous about this; Bourdain seems to find as much creative pleasure in coming up with a novel way to tell you how much a dish sucks as he does in cooking itself, so they know the losers of this challenge are in for a rough judges' table.

First up are Dale and Brian, one in the front galley and one in the back. Brian's surf and turf dish gets some kudos for the large portion of strip steak, but it's overcooked, and his lobster hash is nearly inedible to Bourdain and Colicchio. Dale's pepper steak goes over better – although Bourdain wonders if it's too highly seasoned for airline food – but he miscounted and left one attendant without a meal.

Hung's sea bass seems to go over well, but Sara does not have the same success. Her salmon is grossly overcooked, according to Bourdain, and her couscous side seems like an afterthought.

The last pairing, CJ and Casey, also gets mixed results. Casey's veal medallions are very tasty. Her cauliflower gratin is good too, but some wonder if serving cauliflower in a closed plane is a good idea. Maybe with a side of Beano?

CJ's dish falls flat. His halibut is unremarkable, but his broccolini is so overcooked that none of the judges can believe he served it at all.

After the results are assessed, the chefs meet with the judges. Casey, Dale, and Hung are called back first, and all win praise for their dishes, having the top three meals. Casey is the ultimate winner – again! – and received two free business class tickets anywhere in the world.

She sends back the remaining three chefs, who get their rough assessment from the judges. Bourdain tells Sara her fish was “cat food territory” and no one can understand why her couscous was so blah. Brian's hash was awful, and in their private evaluation, Bourdain says he finds it worrying that Brian doesn't seem to get it. But CJ's overdone broccolini was, Tom says, the single worst thing he's eaten in three seasons.

Not surprisingly then, it's CJ who is going home. We should have known that as soon as the editors included the footage of his simple desire for a slice of NYC pizza that he would be going home…that's the cruel cruel world of Top Chef.

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