And so it all boils down to this: a set of sharp knives and a hunk of aged beef. As the penultimate episode of this season’s Top Chef begins, the chef contestants find themselves at Chicago’s famed Allen Brothers, which we discover is a nationally recognized meat purveyor. After donning heavy equipment, including something that resembles a breastplate and, to Richard’s horror, hairnets, the chefs are given a caveman-size hunk of beef and asked to cut individual, frenched chops in 20 minutes.
The kids immediately start sawing away at their dry-aged USDA prime rib, and we soon discover—via their complaints, natch—that aged meat is extremely tough. Spike claims an advantage because both his grandfathers were butchers, and he does seem to have a savvy technique, neatly trimming the aged bits and cleaning off the rib bones. Twenty minutes is soon up, and the chefs pack up their chops and head home to the Top Chef kitchen, where they find host Padma Lakshmi with guest judge Rick Tramonto, the famed Chicago chef behind Tru.
For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs have 30 minutes to prepare one of their self-butchered tomahawk chops for Tramonto. “It’s a challenge about butchery and temperature,” says Tramonto, adding that he likes his steak medium rare. There are many ways to cook a steak, we discover, as the chefs grill, sauté, and roast. In the end, however, perfection comes down to the butchering. Spike wins with his beautiful, evenly cut chop, its flesh pink and moist. (Side note: We were shocked to see that Rick doesn’t even taste the steaks; he merely slices them and examines their interior. What a waste of good meat!)
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs take over Tramonto’s new restaurant, Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood, for the night. Though Rick has surely had ample time to consider this challenge, he still seems nervous at letting a pack of competitive chefs loose in his kitchen: “Please take care of my customers,” he pleads. “Don’t screw it up!”
Each chef has to create one appetizer and one entrée. As winner of the Quickfire Challenge, Spike chooses his proteins first. The contestants repress a collective sigh at this news, no doubt remembering the last time Spike had first pick of ingredients. In Tramonto’s kitchen, Spike chooses the aggressively named tomahawk chop for his entrée and a package of frozen scallops for his appetizer—though it’s obvious even to us that these bivalves have seen better days. We see him frantically dabbing the sodden, mushy scallops with paper towels. “I don’t have a problem using frozen scallops,” Spike claims to judge Tom Colicchio. In response, Tom blinks so fast that we fear his left eye is about to fall out—which we can only take as a very, very bad sign.
Meanwhile, judge Gail Simmons, Padma, and Rick take their seats at the judges’ table and are joined by former Top Chef winners Harold, Ilan, and Hung. Hung offers some advice to the contestants: “You’re here to win, not to be fan favorite.” No doubt his words are like music to Lisa’s ears.
Favorite dishes include Richard’s appetizer, “vitella Tramonto,” a combination of raw hamachi and crisp sweetbreads that Hung likes, so we know it must be good. Also at the top is Antonia’s rib chop with a luscious potato gratin, which Rick declares his favorite entrée of the night. And Stephanie has a strong all-round showing with her first course of sweetbreads with a sweet-and-sour sauce of golden raisins and pine nuts and an entrée of beef tenderloin with apples. Stephanie wins the challenge as well as her very own “suite” of GE kitchen appliances and looks absolutely thrilled, bless her little heart. She’ll be going to the finale in Puerto Rico along with Richard and Antonia.
Meanwhile, the desultory duo of Spike and Lisa is at the bottom, mainly for their poorly executed appetizers. Lisa’s grilled and chilled shrimp dish was purposely yet unpleasantly cold, while Spike’s first course of pan-seared scallops was “sort of dehydrated,” according to Ilan. Spike tries to blame his unfortunate scallops on Rick, claiming that they shouldn’t have been in the kitchen in the first place. Dude, are you insane? Rick is a judge. He decides whether you stay or go—you’re supposed to suck up to him, not argue with him.
“For one of you, the journey ends here,” Padma declares dramatically as Lisa crosses her arms and glares at her. In the end, it’s Spike who packs his knives. “It’s not going to stop me from my goals. It’s not going to put me down. No one puts me down,” he says. Take our advice, Spike, and remember the cardinal rule: Whether it’s your new burger joint or a reality cooking competition, the judge—not to mention the customer—is always right.
For last week's Top Chef recap, click here.