The Friendly Skies Were a Mean Challenge on Top Chef

Was I the only one depressed by this week's episode of Top Chef ("Snacks on a Plane")? Talk about a downer...

The chefs' challenges last night were perhaps some of the more, well, challenging this season and the series' producers seem hell-bent on making these contestants jump through ever increasingly difficult hoops. The male chefs didn't particularly seem to mind being awakened by Padma but they did blanch a little when they learned that they'd have to prepare breakfast for her. In twenty minutes. Using a blender and a little butane stove.

But the Quickfire Challenge was only the beginning as the pajama-clad chefs were told to pack their bags and hop on a plane for New York. The chefs, of course, freaked out, but little did they know that they would soon be waylaid by Padma at Newark Airport. The mission for the next Elimination Challenge: design and cook a meal for Continental Airlines' business/first class passengers and serve it to a select group of travel experts (read: flight attendants). Only five chefs would make it through to the next round and one wouldn't even make it into Manhattan. Cruelty, thy name is Top Chef producer.

Personally, I was hoping that Brian, as much as I like the guy, was going to be the one to get the boot this week. His dish was just not appropriate for airline food. I thought that his New York strip steak was way too huge, even for business/first class, and the Peruvian purple potato and lobster hash was ghastly. For a guy who knows his seafood (he's cooked it nearly every challenge), this was an unforgivable error in judgment as the lobster was rubbery and inedible. Even guest judge Tony Bourdain had a hard time figuring out what was in the hash in the first place. (If you can stump the master chef, it's never a good sign.)

Also in the bottom three: Sara, whose dish -- seared salmon dusted with coriander over a leek and tomato fondue, served with a bland and boring couscous and fig side that seemed to be mere afterthought -- failed to impress the judges. Poor CJ. While I was hoping the vertically ample chef would squeeze by, I had a feeling that he would be the one to pack his knives after seeing that egregious side dish of overcooked broccolini which looked more like charcoal covered in breadcrumbs than an appetizing side. Additionally, his main course, pan-seared halibut with toasted farro and mint oil, didn't exactly go over too well with the judges. Still, at least CJ was able to count properly and serve all of the flight attendants, unlike Dale.

Dale's dish, steak au poivre with demi-glace, leeks and asparagus served alongside shrimp with zucchini and celery, hit the brief completely. Not only was it elegantly devised and plated, it looked delicious and was rich without being heavy and overwhelming (see Brian's steak). And Hung surprised me with his Chilean sea bass, served with tomato sauce, baby squash, and onions; the fish was perfectly moist and retained its flavor and texture during reheating. Impressive, considering I thought all the fish dishes would fail outright.

I will say that I was extremely impressed with Casey this week. For a contestant who has flown nearly under the radar most of the competition, leaving herself either in the middle of the pack or a few times at the very bottom, she has really stepped up in the past few episodes to prove why she's still in this competition. Her dish, grilled veal medallions with Brussels sprouts and crimini and apple brandy sauce served with a Gruyere-laced cauliflower gratin, was a self-assured, elegant triumph in its own right. Even more so when you consider the fact that it was reheated in an airplane's galley kitchen and had the same limitations in terms of cooking time, height, and preparation as the other chefs. It was only natural that Casey win this Elimination Challenge. And, with her win, this competition just got a hell of a lot more interesting.

Next week on Top Chef ("Manhattan Project"), the five remaining chefs head to New York City, where they must dazzle some of the industry's most accomplished chefs, including guest judge André Soltner of Manhattan's famed Lutece. Bon appetit!

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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.