Last week, Jennifer Biesty was sent home from Top Chef 4 and her fellow chefs were rattled by the surprising elimination. Back at their house, the empty beds serve to underscore how tight the competition is getting.

The competition is tight, but as the chefs learn their new challenge from Padma Lakshmi and guest judge Art Smith, a James Beard award winner for his cookbooks and humanitarian efforts, we recall that no matter how fierce the competition might be, there is always time for one thing.

That’s right! Painful product placement.

I feel terrible for Padma as she delivers the Quickfire rules, which force her to incorporate singing the virtues of the product being placed. Her entire face is scrunched up in apology. I am not mentioned the brand name of the product because I don’t want to encourage this. Or, at least, okay, I don’t mind product placement that serves to help underwrite making entertainment available more widely. But at least it should be a product the chefs would use and enjoy, and this rice product they will be using just seems to be the antithesis of what a chef would actually ever consider using as a main ingredient in a dish.

But anyway.

The chefs have to use this rice product to make a quick, family-friendly meal in less than 15-minutes. Flurried cooking begins.

Stephanie Izard and Mark Simmons are both cooking something they’ve never made before, and both admit they are not quite sure what it will ultimately taste like. Richard Blais ominously notes that not tasting your food is a critical error.

Not surprisingly, Mark, Stephanie and Lisa Fernandes all wind up in the bottom three for Art. Mark’s miso-glazed turkey was dry, Stephanie’s was just overall not a success, and Lisa was pretty, but not very original.

In the top, we have Dale and Richard…again…and Antonia. Dale used his background in Asian food – which focuses on quick cooking strong flavors – to make a stir-fry, Richard’s tuna steak and tomatoes really impressed Art, and but it’s Antonia Lofaso’s unusual combination of warm rice and cold salad that wins the challenge. She says it’s a meal her mom taught her to love, and one that she, as a single mom, still loves to make.

Now the chefs learn what the Top Chef elimination challenge will entail. Cook a simple-to-prepare, healthy family-friendly meal…with a budget of $10.

Shopping, needless to say, proves tough. Everyone runs for chicken, so Dale goes for bratwurst. Mark decides to go with a vegetarian curry. I am surprised that more chefs don’t go for a vegetarian option. Meatless entrees can be super-cheap, with things like beans and eggs being so inexpensive.

Stephanie wanders around in a fog. She grew up with a gourmet-style mom, and so isn’t quite sure what to get for this kind of healthy meal.

The chefs head out to an offsite kitchen, where they get the twist: they will each get a young sous chef, one of the kids from Art’s Common Thread organization, a group that serves to build families and communities through food and cooking. The chefs are admirably game. Lisa’s excited, which sort of surprises me, but it turns out her girlfriend has a kid so she is used to a young one in the kitchen. I’m not usually a big fan of censoring people…but I sort of hope she keeps it clean, language-wise.

Antonia starts crying when she sees the kids, missing her own daughter, who just told her not to come home without a win. She thinks if her sous chef is a girl, she’ll just cry the whole time so maybe it’s for the best that she wound up with a boy.

The young sous chefs do pretty well. Spike Mendelsohn’s does cut himself on a peeler, but Spike is impressed at how the kid jumps right back into prep. Spike is making a pasta puttanesca. I hope none of the kids ask what puttanesca means. Richard is going to serve beets, which is something his sous chef has never eaten. Same for Mark’s curry, and the other chefs wonder if a curry might be pushing the envelope too far for kids.

Nikki Cascone’s dish seems almost too simple – one pot roasted chicken with vegetables – and she is adding Brussel sprouts, a vegetable which vies with beets for World’s Most Challenging Vegetable.

Andrew is excited to work with kids. He didn’t have the opportunity to eat very well as a kid, and weighed over 200 pounds in high school. He taught himself how to cook in order to help himself lose weight. He is making a chicken dish that requires the kid to pound out the chicken. Tom Colicchio looks exceedingly nervous as he makes his rounds, cautioning the kid to watch his fingers.

Tom sticks around after his walk-through, observing the teams, which rattles Mark. Tom thinks that Spike did a good job of stretching his dollar, since Spike is serving a soup and baked apple with the pasta.

Stephanie continues to look a little lost. She can’t be going home tonight, can she? I’m not ready to say goodbye! Her sauce with peanuts and tomatoes perplexes Tom, and she admits her couscous is overcooked.

The chefs serve the food to small groups of kids, including the kid that was their sous. Padma and Art are there as well, with Gail Simmons. Tom tries the dishes, but hangs out in the kitchen to do so.

The judges seem to like Spike, Antonia’s stir-fry with whole-wheat noodles, and Nikki (NIKKI?!?!?!) right off the bat. They are less impressed with Mark, Stephanie and Lisa.

Back at judging, the top three are called, and it’s Nikki (NIKKI!?!?!??), Antonia and Andrew D’Ambrosi. Yay! I’m glad Andrew’s getting some solo positive feedback. Nikki’s dish was simple and well-seasoned. Andrew’s made fruits appealing in a savory dish, and opened up the kids’ to fennel. But mom Antonia has the win for her noodles.

In the bottom: same as the Quickfire. Mark, Stephanie and Lisa. Mark wonders if Tom doesn’t like him and he seems genuinely upset. The judges point out his dish did not have enough protein, and the green vegetable (cucumber) not enough nutritional value. Stephanie’s appeared to be an overall disaster, and she doesn’t seem too surprised. Lisa’s dish was underseasoned, and she gets a little defensive.

In private judging after the chefs leave, Mark’s is called “so lacking,” and Art takes issue with Lisa’s defensiveness. But it’s Stephanie’s dish that is called “disgusting” and “awful,” with the judges agreeing it could not be improved upon. Padma said she “detested” it. OMG is Stephanie going home?!

No, it’s Mark. Hmm. Well, I am obviously a Stephanie fan, so I am happy she is staying, but based on the judges’ comments, and the concept that they are supposed to rate only the most recent dish…I am shocked it was him and not her in this particular judging.

We’ll talk to Mark tomorrow, so come back here to hear his take on his time on Top Chef.

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


Staff Columnist, BuddyTV