As this week’s episode of Top Chef opens, it’s nighttime in Chicago—except, this being a reality show, we can’t help but suspect that it’s actually very early in the morning and that our favorite chef contestants are about to be roused from their beauty sleep. Sure enough, we discover it’s 5.45 AM as judge Tom Colicchio wakes up the Top Chef house and announces the Quickfire Challenge: The sleepy group will work the short-order egg station at Lou Mitchell’s, one of Chicago’s most famous breakfast spots.
In “the hole”—as the egg station is called in diner parlance—the chefs struggle to prepare perfect eggs at breakneck speed. The diner’s owner, Helene, watches over them, a look of disgust crossing her face every time someone breaks an egg yolk (often). Spike claims an advantage, because he used to be a short-order cook, but in the end Helene declares Antonia the winner, with her “calm, controlled” style.
Tom announces that he won’t be at the Elimination Challenge and passes Antonia a slip of paper with a mysterious address, telling the group to meet Padma there. After some pandering car and cell-phone shots, the group arrives at a large building with hardwood floors and brick walls. Inside we find Padma, who announces the Elimination Challenge: the return of Restaurant Wars! The chefs will have five hours to create, decorate, and cook for their two competing restaurants. They all flash excited smiles and—did we see Dale wink? Yikes.
As the Quickfire winner, Antonia gets to pick her team first, and she quickly selects Richard and Stephanie. The three choose a “Modern American gastropub” theme for their restaurant with a simple menu featuring beet salad, fresh pasta with clams, a lamb duo, trout with cauliflower, and for dessert, Richard’s witty banana scallops and a savory Gorgonzola cheesecake, which makes our mouths water. Never mind that the menu seems more Modern American than gastropub—it’s still all unicorns at rainbows at Team Gastropub as they sing camp songs while chopping vegetables and lavishing praise on one another. Even the appearance of judge Anthony Bourdain—who is filling in for Tom and “bringing [his] warm, sunnier disposition to this challenge” (we think he’s being sarcastic)—does little to shake their confidence.
Meanwhile, the opposing trio of Spike, Dale and Lisa decide on a pan-Asian menu, which Antonia rather nastily scoffs at: “It’s no surprise that they were opening a Chinese restaurant.” Obviously, Antonia needs to expand her palate (or geographical knowledge) a little bit—things like laksa and sticky rice with mango are not found in China. Along with these dishes, Team Mai Buddha’s menu also offers pork/pickled-plum dumplings, braised short ribs, butterscotch-miso scallops (unanimously loathed by the judges), and two desserts: halo-halo shaved ice and the mango sticky rice, which Bourdain likens to “baby vomit with wood chips.”
Though Team Mai Buddha starts out with forced bonhomie, gritting their teeth and pasting tight smiles on their faces, their false optimism begins to disintegrate when Bourdain stops by and mentions, “I happen to really love laksa. I take my laksa real serious.” Alas, we soon discover the laksa tastes like an ashtray. Then Dale’s avocado mousse turns into something resembling baby poo and Lisa’s rice goes awry—again! For a self-proclaimed expert in Asian cuisine, she sure has trouble cooking the region’s staple food.
In a decision that surprises no one at all, guest judge and renowned Washington chef José Andrés proclaims Team Gastropub the winner. He praises Stephanie’s fresh linguine with clams and Gorgonzola cheesecake and awards her with a trip to Barcelona. Her huge smile nearly blinds us, and her teammates seem genuinely happy for her. We do notice, however, that she doesn’t offer to split her prize with Richard this time.
Over at Team Mai Buddha, Dale and Lisa stand on the chopping block and begin to bicker over minutiae such as who first reached for a sack of rice at Whole Foods. Andrés looks appalled by their behavior, saying, “You’re showing a lack of teamwork that shows me, wow, that is not what this business is about.” Spike squirms his way out of the fray, claiming that his front-of-house duties should absolve him from any responsibility. Amazingly, the judges actually seem to buy this excuse.
In the end, forced to choose between Dale and Lisa—both of whom could use a crash course in positive body language—the judges declare Dale the loser for his lack of leadership skills and for the scallop dish with the horrible butterscotch sauce. He packs his knives, but just as we’re starting to rejoice in his departure, his bravado dissolves and he actually starts to weep. Seriously. Dale cries big buckets, and we find ourselves feeling sorry for him. “You either love me or hate me,” he says. We kind of hated you, Dale, but now we wish you hadn’t left so soon.
For last week's Top Chef recap, click here.