Top Chef: Season Three, Episode Ten
Episode Overview: Seven cheftestants are left on Top Chef, and once again, they find themselves forced to set aside competition to work as a team to cater a fancy fashion luncheon aboard a yacht.  Despite all the differences the chefs have had in the past - or more accurately, despite all the differences Howie Kleinberg has had in the past with the other chefs - the group actually seems to come together well with few sparks flying in the kitchen.  Unfortunately, this doesn't result in either excellent food or scintillating on-screen drama. 

Without a new Top Chef episode last week, we viewers have had two weeks to process the somewhat surprising departure of Tre Wilcox, but for the cheftestants, it's still a new development at the time of the taping.  Tre was a likable guy, and even Hung Huynh, who makes an effort to present himself as dispassionate about everything except cooking, is a little bummed that Tre is gone.

Per usual, there's no time to wallow, as it's straight to the next Quickfire.  Today's guest judge is Michael Schwartz, an up and coming local chef.  Padma Lakshmi asks him what to consider to be a successful chef in Miami, and he responds that the food has to be "fabulous" and "look and taste great."  That', I guess.

This Quickfire Challenge is called the "Aisle Trial."  Each chef pulls a numbered knife, which corresponds to an aisle in the grocery store.  The chef will have ten minutes to shop, ten dollars to spend, and twenty minutes to prepare a dish using only ingredients from that aisle with some basic pantry items.

Yikes! They head out to shop, and find out what their aisle has in store.  Howie is disappointed to find himself in the canned and dried fruit and juice aisle.  Casey Thompson is in the cookie aisle, and so decides to try to make a pudding of sorts with ginger snaps and mango chutney.  Dale Levitski happens upon some queso fresco in his aisle, still cold from the dairy case, so he snags it to make a dish with ramen noodles and hominy.  Brian Malarkey at first feels lucky to be in the canned meat aisle - seafood is his specialty.  But he recalls that judge Tom Colicchio has confronted him in the past about his over-reliance on seafood so he decides to use Spam instead.  Sara Mair decides to make a free-form ravioli with white beans and sweet peas.

Back at the kitchen, it's prep time.  Hung Hunyh had the cereal aisle, so he decides to have fun with the challenge, making, as Chris "CJ" Jacobsen puts it, a cross between "Candyland and a diorama," making a miniature scene with pulverized colored cereal.  CJ's attempting a risotto, but when he confuses his salt for his sugar, he knows the dish can't be saved.  Neither can Howie's, apparently, and when time is called, he dumps out his dish, opting to not serve anything.

This doesn't impress Michael or Padma, but some other dishes do.  They like Brian's Spam dish, and Michael says it makes a Spam believer out of him.  CJ's salty risotto is a predictable failure, and Dale's spicy breakfast might be a smidge too spicy.  Sara gets the faint praise that her ravioli is "not as bad as [they ] thought it would be."

Howie and CJ end up in the bottom two, and for this challenge, there's only one best, not a group to pick from.  It's Brian, and while he doesn't win immunity, he does win the privilege of selecting who will lead all of the chefs as they work together to cater a fancy luncheon for a fashion designer, an event sponsored by a nightclub.  Brian steps up and takes the leadership role himself.

His first order of business is to decide on the dishes they will serve.  Or, more accurately, to facilitate the other chefs deciding what they will make.  Was Brian in the corporate world before he became a chef?  His ability to effortlessly slickly spin everything that happens sounds so very middle-management.  So while CJ observes that Brian seems to be avoiding making any decisions by letting everyone else just pick what they want to make, Brian appears to decide that his leadership style isn't lacking, it's just empowering others to lead themselves.

He does set some boundaries with cash, though, and so each chef has to limit himself or herself to $50 at the store.  Howie is the trouble child here, as Brian expected.  He is already over his $50 before even half of his items are accounted for.  However, Howie, chastened, it would seem, from his previous team experiences, might still be a bulldog, but he's making himself the omega dog of the pack, respecting Brian's authority.  He steps aside to see what might happen once the others ring up their purchases.

Dale also has to scale back in order to have enough for a team dish with Hung.  He opts to make his dish with yogurt instead of goat cheese, which does not seem promising.  Casey also chips in for a team dish with Sara - the two decide to attempt a sweet for dessert.

Thus far, folks, we have some good news and some bad news.  The good news: the team is actually working...together...well.  All friendly-like.  All pitching-in-for-the-greater-good and all.  The bad news?  Snoozers.   Merry togetherness does not compelling reality television make.

So here's a minor curveball the group is thrown: the party is on a boat.  Will million-feet-tall CJ even be able to fit in the kitchen?!  Yes.  It's mildly deflating to see that he does, just perfectly, and he does not even knock his noggin on any of the lower lights once during the entire prep, at least not that we see.  Not that we really want to see CJ knock his noggin, but I mean, something, some kind of challenge in this challenge, right?

Well, here's something.  The yogurt Dale used in place of goat cheese...isn't working as well as the goat cheese.  It's kind of runny.  I am on the edge of my seat!  "Watch what happens," indeed!

Tom Colicchio visits the chefs and he's bored by all of it too, complaining that for a fancy event, no one is "wowing" him with their originality and creativity.

A few more ho-hum bobbles before the service starts: Howie's mushroom tarts look...well, Hung thinks they look like dog poop, and it's true they are a little unappetizing in appearance.  Brian approves of them, though, and once again CJ says in interview that he thinks Brian needs to take a stronger hand with the others, while Brian feels he's giving the other chefs the "opportunity" to succeed or fail.  Seriously, he has a future in PR if he ever hangs up the chef's hat.

The service begins, and we have another special judge, Dana Cowan from Food and Wine magazine, and who might be familiar to fans of Iron Chef America.  In addition to Dana, we have a hungry boat load of guests, and they descend and quickly decimate every tray of food as soon as it's brought up. 

Sara's bread pudding is a hit, but Brian's tuna dish is not.  Howie's asparagus and prosciutto "cigars" are "ugly and greasy" per Michael Schwartz.  Hung's salmon canape is uninspired, and the judges aren't too keen on the yogurt substitution in Dale's dish.  CJ's shrimp and scallop sausage goes over well, though, and Casey's beef tartare is a favorite for the guest of honor designer. 

Although the guests are eager for a dessert, the mousse Sara and Casey were going to attempt turns out poorly and the whole team decides to scrap it.

At the judges' table, all of the chefs are called back to discuss the evening with the judges.  Brian is called out for his lack of leadership, which he defends by making a distinction between being a leader of fellow chefs and being an executive chef over sous chefs.  Forget PR, put this man in politics.  Nevertheless, the judges aren't impresses with the lack of oversight with the menu, and Dana points out that 80% of the dishes were served on bread. 

Hung once again has to defend his dishes, with the judges saying his salmon was straight out of the '80's.  He points out that all of their dishes were classics, and gets quite impassioned.  Tom Colicchio does get him to admit that he is sitting on better dishes, and then silences the whole bunch by asking why they're not pulling out all the stops now.

Howie is criticized for his unappealing dishes, and in an odd move, he decides to throw himself on his own sword, and offers to take himself out of the competition to save Brian.  Padma appears completely annoyed and tells him it's the judges' decision.  Really?  So like Howie couldn't leave if he wanted to?  Will Padma handcuff him and his knives to a prep table?  "You may NOT take your knives and go until I tell you to."

After some private deliberation, all the judges are brought back.  Casey, Sara and CJ are singled out for being strong in the competition, and Casey wins, getting a MacBook as a prize.

The others are in the bottom, and it's Howie, actually who will be packing his knives and going.  The bulldog has left the kitchen.

Next week: the judges are going on a trip!  Top Chef Road Show!

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)