Top Chef: Season Three, Episode Five

Episode Overview:  This week, two chefs who have butted heads in the past become each other's biggest supporters - but will it be enough to finally get one of them a win?  Meanwhile, overconfidence, lack of experience and poor timing results in some chefs taking a swift nosedive from the top all the way down to the chopping block. 

Eleven cheftestants remain on Top Chef, and some are feeling more confident than others. Joey Paulino believes in his own ability, but is frustrated with being at the bottom of the pack in previous challenges. Hung Nguyen is just confident; despite being called out for poor dishes a few times now, he is still feeling sure he can make it through to the top.

For the Quickfire Challenge, Padma Lakshmi introduces this week's guest judge, pastry chef and restaurant owner Maria Frumkin. Dale Levitski is fuming; after last week's dessert debacle, the last thing he wants to see is anything related to pastry.

Too bad, so sad, pastry it is, in the form of time-saving frozen pie shells. They will have ninety minutes to create an amazing dish using the pie shells. Due to the extra time, Padma states, the expectations are higher than ever.

Hung is, per usual, totally positive his dish is a winner. He makes a chocolate and banana mousse accented with spicy nuts. However, his mousse doesn't seem to want to set, so he has to improvise a sort of buttress of strawberry slices to keep the pie slice from sliding into a puddle.

Dale tries to knock it out of the park, pairing sweet and savory with a salmon en croute and strawberry saffron tart. Both of Sara Nguyen and Sara Mair are feeling a little nervous. Sara N. isn't comfortable with any kind of dessert course. Sara M. has embarked on a complicated series of dishes including one using rabbit. Tre Wilcox has worked with a sort of apple tart on his restaurant's menu, so he makes a variation on it, and develops a nice presentation using cut-out stars of pastry.

Joey might just be the dark horse in this competition. It turns out he actually does have pastry experience; he just opted to keep that under his hat during the last competition when the group needed a volunteer for the dessert course. That seems like kind of a jerky thing to do at first, but this is an individual – not team – competition, and since the eliminated chef came from the dessert course, this was probably a wise personal decision. So he finds himself in the enviable position of having some unexpected skills in this competition and designs a trio of tarts to capitalize on this.

Padma and Maria make the rounds, and then announce the best and worst. Hung, Dale, and Lia Bardeen made the bottom three. Hung for his runny mousse, Dale for overpowering saffron and Lia for unsuccessfully marrying her flavors. In the top three, it's Tre for his tasteful and restrained tart; Sara M. for all her dishes, but especially the “exceptional” cheese tart; and Joey, whom Maria thinks could have a “very nice future in tarts.”

And, after languishing at the bottom, Joey finally gets himself a win with this challenge. He is safe for the Elimination Challenge.

That Challenge this week is to prepare a Latin-inspired meal for the cast of a Telemundo telenovela called Dame Chocolate. The crew and cast will be rushed to eat, so the flavors and satisfaction will have to be top notch.

The chefs prepare their menus, and we learn that two former enemies now find themselves to be friends. Although Joey and Howie Kleinberg have had a prior shouting match, they are now buddies. Therefore, Joey now wants the best for his former rival and wishes Howie would consider moving away from his tried and true pork dishes.

The other chefs settle on their dishes. Sara N. is making an avocado ceviche. She wants to make her own tortillas, but wisely buys a pack of pre-made ones just in case. Brian Malarkey – a seafood chef from the Northwest – is a little concerned about his Latin flavor skills. So is Lia, who has eaten a lot of Latin food but has not prepared it. Hung is feeling…well, you guessed it: confident. He speaks Spanish and thinks his traditional chicken and rice dish will be a hit.

Things are going along fairly smoothly when Tom Colicchio makes an appearance and a very very unwelcome announcement. The shooting schedule for the telenovela has been changed, and now the chefs will only have half as long (ninety minutes) to prepare their meals. What a thoroughly believable coincidence that in a Top Chef episode all about timing, the chefs find themselves with less time.

While this announcement is good news to exactly none of the chefs, Howie is the one that seems most at risk. He's struggled with timing in the past, and was already mentioning how he needed every minute of the three hours he thought he had. However, when Tom asks him if he might change his plan, he says he's going to stick with his plan to braise (a relatively slow cooking method) his pork. Tom looks unconvinced of the wisdom of this course of action.

And at last, a mention of Hung that does not reference his confidence or cocky attitude. Instead, let's talk about how you handle knives in a busy kitchen. In a word: carefully. You do not, as Hung does in this episode, run around at top speed with a cleaver aimed business end towards your competition. Or, come to think of it, this is a competition, so maybe you do. He nearly slices and dices Casey Thompson. Tom Colicchio sees this and is not impressed.

The chefs scramble to finish and then head to location to serve the cast, crew, and of course, their judges. The frantic pace has created some problems. In the rush, Casey overcooks her rice to mush and her chicken to dryness. Her twist on mole – a coffee and molasses sauce – tastes like “cough syrup” to the diners. Sara N. has to abandon the homemade tortilla idea, and leaves her with just her ceviche to impress. The diners, unfortunately, think her ceviche is just a guacamole, and are not impressed. Hung's dish also fails to win any fans. Lia's dish shows her lack of experience; it's not very spicy or flavorful in comparison to the other dishes, but it's also just a bland mush in any context.

Other dishes, though, are successful. Howie tastes Joey's bean stew and likes it so much he can't stop eating it himself. Tre's prawns and dumpling impresses Gail with the originality. Sara M.'s chile rellenos wins praise from the cast. And what about our slowpoke Howie himself? Despite everyone's reservations about his time management, the diners love his pork dish.

At the judges' table, they decide upon the two former rivals Joey and Howie as the favorites. Joey is commended for turning what was the “family meal” at his restaurant (the dish served to the employees) into a sophisticated dish. Howie wins praise for the perfect flavors of his dish and for overturning expectations by accomplishing everything in the time allotted. Howie is ultimately named the winner, and receives a bottle of wine for his success. Back in the room with the other contestants, he gives the wine to Joey, whom he feels deserves the kudos just as much.

They then have to send in the least successful dishes, and once again, it's a crowd: Lia, Sara N., Hung and Casey. Hung again seems shocked at being in the bottom, and (also again) argues with the judges about their decision. Casey and Lia, on the other hand, seem less surprised that their dishes weren't a hit. Sara N. is called out for failing to deliver what she advertised her dish to be.

After some additional deliberation, the judges call the cheftestants back, and announce it's young Lia who is going home. That seems far to fall from the top spot last week, but that's how the cookie crumbles on Top Chef.

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)