Knife's Edge: The Competition Turns Ugly on Top Chef

Say what you want about FOX's trashy Hell's Kitchen, but Bravo's superior Top Chef has usually managed to stay above the fray and remain relatively classy (well, except for that head-shaving incident last season, anyway).

So I was a little upset to see the competition take an ugly turn this week on last night's episode of Top Chef ("Guilty Pleasures"), especially considering that this crew of chefs seemed on the whole to be more supportive of one another. Well, except for maybe Hung. I've never really been a fan of Howie, either, but last night his true colors really came through.

Howie really is an aggressive bulldog of a chef, barking commands, snarling when confronted, and unable to work as part of a cohesive group. It's telling that any time there has been a team challenge this season, Howie's team has ended up placing in the bottom. Coincidence? More on that in a bit.

Last night's Quickfire Challenge was yet another product placement one: this time chefs had to create an ice cream mix-in, not an ice cream itself, for Cold Stone Creamery's sweet cream base. Um, sure. For some reason, we only saw a few of the contestants' dishes, including Howie's balsamic macerated berries which were torched with sea salt and sugar; Dale's "peach cobbler," consisting of Grand Marnier flambéed peaches, candied pecans, and cobbler topping; and Tre's combination of candied hazelnut, shiso, cherry, and raspberry-ginger sauce. A low point had to be Hung's mess of a topping which, among other things, contained tempura flakes, gelée, and a white chocolate-cauliflower foam which he described as a "palate refresher." It was as if he had melded minds with Marcel to create something so over-the-top and inedible that it deserves praise just for being that nasty. Kudos too to Casey for making guest judge Govind Armstrong (of Table 8) shudder when he tasted her Sriracha-laced concoction. Ick.

It was only fitting then that the winner was Dale. His dish elevated the mix-in to an elegant and textured flavor component of the ice cream and he seemed to truly understand the brief: devising something tasty that worked with the flavor of the ice cream but also keeping it sophisticated and yet approachable. Bravo, Dale! As the winner of the Quickfire Challenge, Dale gained immunity, a private four course dinner with Armstrong at Table 8, and didn't have to participate in what came next.

I had to say that I loved how the series' producers set up last night's Elimination Challenge: it was manipulative, underhanded, and brilliant. The chefs were told that they had the night off to go and enjoy Miami Beach's many nightclubs and it was great to see the contestants, who I've now begun to assume live in their chef's white, dressed up and all glam. So it wasn't a surprise to me that our erstwhile chefs wouldn't get to party: this is a reality series, after all, and the producers don't just give you the night off because they feel like it. There's ALWAYS a catch.

The catch this time was that our glammed-up chefs would be divided into two teams (with Dale sitting out) and plan a selection of bar menu items which they would cook in two mobile kitchens for drunken bar patrons. The evil side of me wishes that producers would have let the cast party all night and THEN force them to cook hangover food while, well, hungover. But, alas, not the case. Instead, the teams had to figure out how to organize themselves in the space, shop for ingredients, and create some mouthwatering food for a bunch of drunk people.

The Black team, comprised of Hung, Tre, Sara M., and Brian, developed a vastly different menu that included a raw bar with oysters with a watermelon mignonette, teriyaki chicken wings, onion rings, bacon wrapped shrimp with cheese grits, jerked beef soft tacos, and, um, hot chocolate (not sure where that last item came from). Brian completely took charge of the group, placing himself down on the ground where he kept the energy high among the revelers and oversaw the raw bar and created a fantastic ceviche dish. The star player of the night was definitely Tre, whose shrimp and grits was a beautifully composed dish that, while completely fulfilling the task at hand, was plated so elegantly and was so thoughtfully constructed that it could have been served in a fine dining establishment as is. (Bravo, Tre!) Sara M.'s tacos also looked stunning. I was unsure about the raw bar (take loads of alcohol, introduce raw oysters, and you could have a problem on your hands), but it appears to have worked out in the end. The Black team really came together and functioned as a cohesive unit and it was clear that they -- and their customers -- were having a great time.

Not so on the side, unfortunately. The Orange team, consisting of Howie, Sara N., Casey, and CJ (poor, poor CJ), created a menu that included medianoche (Cuban sandwiches), sliders with milkshakes, quesadillas, ceviche tacos, chocolate-covered bananas, and cafe con leche. It was clear from the start that this was an uphill battle: Howie was barking orders; Sara's head was not in the game (so stunned was she that they really weren't going out); and Casey seemed oblivious to everything going on around her. CJ tried to take control of the situation but, sadly, proved ineffectual at motivating his team. Not that that was the only problem. Howie's medianoche was doughy and dry and not pressed, making it a pale substitute for an actual Cubano sandwich. Sara was moving at the speed of molasses, only cooking three or four sliders at a time, which slowed down the entire group. Sure, the quesadilla may have tasted good, but it looked a soggy mess to me. It was obvious that this team was going down.

At the judges' table, Howie turned on Sara, calling her the "baby of the house" and cruelly remarking that everyone has to always do everything for her. I thought his criticism was completely uncalled for and unnecessary. The fact remains that Howie was the one who took charge of the menu, based on his experiences cooking in nightclubs in Miami Beach and locked Sara out of any discussions; additionally, if he had problems with her performance during the challenge, he should have raised his objections then, not during the judging. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I don't like Howie. Sara was stunned and gutted by Howie's accusations and the other contestants leaped to her defense.

Still, it wasn't enough to save Sara, who was told to pack her knives. Personally, I think it should have been Howie who got the boot, but I could see what Tom said about one of them being more suited to the competition. BTW, I loved the final shot of Howie sitting alone, isolated, while the other chefs sat several feet away from him. Only fitting.

Next week on Top Chef ("Restaurant Wars"), it's the moment we've all been waiting for as the chefs must battle to launch two new restaurants and develop the most innovative burger; Tre gets stuck in the weeds; and all of the chefs face guest judge Daniel Boulud.

* * *

Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.