The Final Five Face Off on Top Chef

Ah, the final five. The knives always do come out at this point, but I was happy to see on last night's episode of Top Chef ("Manhattan Project") that the cheftestants' knife skills were used in pursuit of the top prize rather than, you know, stabbing each other in the back.

Quickfire Challenge: The chefs were invited to have lunch at Le Cirque with legendary owner Sirio Maccione. They were treated to taste an exquisite potato-wrapped sea bass with creamed leeks, a specialty at Le Cirque for twenty years. Their challenge? To recreate the dish they had just eaten in only twenty minutes.

Hung impressed me immensely in this challenge, which gave him the rare opportunity to show off his classical training. His dish looked gorgeous and he cooked the fish perfectly. While others may quibble, I really don't blame Hung for not telling his fellow contestants how exactly he recreated the dish. After all, that WAS the challenge, so I was a little annoyed at Dale for getting miffed over this.

I'm suddenly rooting for Casey, who also prepared an elegant, perfectly cooked and seasoned recreation of Maccione's legendary dish. I was hoping she'd win this challenge, but alas, it went to Hung. Casey has really stepped up these past few episodes in a major way and she's become the one to beat. It should be a very interesting finale, if in fact she faces off against Hung... who at this point is her main competitor.

Elimination Challenge: Arriving at the French Culinary Institute, the contestants were shocked to learn their next challenge: create an awe-inspiring dish built around the simplest of ingredients -- chicken, yellow onion, and Russet potato.

I was absolutely stunned by Brian's plate but even more so that the judges liked what they ate. In my eyes, it was a disgusting pile of green sludge on top of a pile of brown poo. Brian called it "Spring Harvest Peasant's Feast," with pheasant sausage, chicken, and a potato and ramp puree. I'm still amazed that it tasted as well as it did, a rich, hearty concoction that was overwhelmed by the pheasant.

Casey set out to do an interpretation of Coq au Vin, based on a recipe of her French grandmother, with potato puree, sauteed ramps, and asparagus. Her dish was beautifully plated, elegant, and intensely focused.

Sara's dish -- a fricassee chicken served with seared breast, couscous and potato risotto, and confit onions with a microgreens salad -- definitely suffered in the execution. The chicken served was either rubbery or undercooked ("Danger, Will Robinson!"), the seasonings were off, and the onions were actually pickled, rather than prepared confit-style. Not her best effort.

Dale set out to do his most ambitious dish to date, a truffle-honey duet of chicken with leg confit, asparagus, and potato and onion puree. Unfortunately, he left off the honey and rosemary sauce that could have linked the two halves of this plate. As it was, the dish was schizophrenic at best and showed a lack of focus, conceptual skill, and organization.

Finally, there was Hung who served an elegant Sous Vide chicken with a crisp square of skin, Pommes Dauphin, petit greens, and a natural jus. It was beautifully plated, skillfully executed, and absolutely delicious.

Ultimately, it was hardly surprising that Sara would be the one to pack her knives, even if she did refuse to accept Gail's criticism about the undercooked chicken. (Me, I was more surprised to see Gail in the flesh as I thought she had perhaps disappeared off the face of the planet.) Sara's dismissal leaves Hung, Casey, Dale, and Brian to fight it out for the final cook-off in Aspen. Who do you think will make it to the final two and who should pack their knives now?

Next week on Top Chef ("Finale, Part One"), the remaining four chefs jet off to Aspen, Colorado, for the semi-final and some rather interesting in-the-wild cooking, only to fall victim to some hard questioning and even harsher criticisms from the judges. It all starts here!

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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.