This episode brought to mind being pregnant with my first son. After being nauseated for three straight months, my appetite returned in the fourth month with a vengeance, and I craved RED MEAT. Big, honking slabs of red meat -- something that had never been high on my list. I would have been the perfect judge for the Quick Fire challenge -- and I probably would have plowed through those medium-rare steaks. OK, probably not all of them, but definitely the ones basted with butter as they cooked. Yum.
But enough about me ... the Quick Fire. The chefs go to a meat purveyor to cut beef -- an appropriate challenge for Chicago, which was the hub of the U.S. livestock industry in the 1800s. Spike says his grandfathers were butchers, so he's good at cutting meat. Well, my grandfather and great-grandfather were both butchers and I would be completely intimidated by the challenge, which was to cut huge slabs of dry aged beef into Tomahawk chops -- in 20 minutes.
"It was so easy, it wasn't even funny," Spike said, and indeed, he made it look easy. The rest of the chefs seemed to have a harder time of it.
Then it was back to the kitchen, and Padma was there (in unflattering pants) with Rick Tramonto, a well-known Chicago chef who is who is from ... Rochester! He got his start at the Strathallan Hotel, which is a smallish upscale hotel here. But as I think about it, this is the last episode in Chicago and they didn't include Charlie Trotter -- the chef who incited a brouhaha for taking foie gras off his menu? Or Richard Melman - who has opened a bunch of very popular theme restaurants in Chicago? That would have made for an interesting restaurant war, although the chefs would have hated it. And they didn't go to a blues club? Oh well, I guess not even 12 episodes can really do justice to the great city of Chicago.
The QuickFire challenge continues with them having to cook their Tomahawk chops, (which were HUGE) medium rare. It was interesting to see the various techniques the chefs used. To judge the steaks, Chef Tramonto cut open each steak, but didn't take a bite. Are you kidding me? (It looked like the chefs got to eat them later.) Spike was the winner -- surprise, surprise. He had seared it on the grill and finished it off in the oven. Later, he said the spirit of his grandfather was with him. Hmm ... me cooking with the spirit of my grandfather in his butcher days would make for an entertaining evening, as Dots, as we called him, liked drinking and having a good time.
The elimination challenge was to cook an appetizer and entree at Tramonto's new steak house. As Quick Fire winner, Spike got first choice of proteins from the restaurant's cooler. He had five minutes to make his choice. He pulled the Tomahawk chops (seen in the QuickFire) and he said he had his mind set on using scallops, so he grabbed a bag of frozen scallops -- a decision that raised eyebrows among the other chefs. (The fact that Tramonto's restaurant had frozen scallops in the cooler has also raised eyebrows, as you can see in the comments about this article. But both Tom Colicchio and Rick Tramonto explained on the Top Chef blogs that frozen scallops are not used in that restaurant.)
Stephanie chose to use sweetbreads, which are thymus glands, and she says that they are like Chicken McNuggets if they are done right. Lisa made peanut butter mashed potatoes. Richard shaved Hamachi like bacon and topped it with nuggets of crispy sweetbreads. For his main course, he chose to use filet. That's an interesting choice, because most chefs seem to think that filet is overrated -- tender to the point of being mushy, and low on flavor. Hmmm ... lots of interesting choices.
Antonia using a mandoline was a thing to behold. She uses her flat palm to move potatoes over the super sharp blade. One bad move and she doesn't have skin on her palm. Crazy.
Tom announced that he was expediting the orders that night, so he could watch how the chefs work in the kitchen. The chefs seemed to enjoy the experience. He also introduced the chefs to the guest judges -- the winners of the previous three seasons, who are asked what advice they'd offer to the cheftestants. Howard says to be true to yourself (sounds like him). Hung says to cook to win, not be fan favorite (also sounds like him, but I liked Hung). Ilan says not to shave any heads (sounds like him -- what a jerk -- all of the chefs that remain in the competition are more professional and talented than Ilan). I'll bet the past winners enjoyed the experience of being on the other side of the table.
As the six judges were dining and discussing the dishes, a thought occurred to me. They all were discussing the dishes with the names of the chefs attached. In most of the cooking competitions I've been in, the food has been judged without names attached. If the Top Chef competition was ONLY about the food, as the judges say it is, wouldn't at least some of the judging be done blind? Hmmm.....
After service is over, the chefs toast each other with Michelobs. Think any of them will drink Michelob beer after the show is over?
"No matter what happens, no matter who goes home, we've been through a sh*tload, and we've all rocked these challenges, and everyone's f-ing awesome and I hope we stay in touch," says Lisa in her toast.
Um ... well, I hate to point it out ... but three of the chefs rocked the challenges -- Richard, Stephanie and Antonia. Spike and Lisa, not so much. They have been on the bottom about as much as they haven't been.
At judges table, it becomes clear that Spike made a very bad decision about using the scallops, and flailing in desperation, Spike points out that the scallops had been in Tramonto's cooler. Tramonto gets ticked off and tells Spike that it was his bad decision to use them. As Spike is leaving the room, he shakes Tramonto's hand and says "it's an honor," clearly to dig himself out of a hole. When will these contestants get a clue that it's a bad idea to disrespect the judges?
Richard's appetizer was the favorite appetizer and the favorite dish of the night. In fact, Harold, on his blog, said it was one of the best dishes he's had in the past five years, and used "impressive" and "ridiculous" in describing it. (Harold's blog, by the way, is my favorite on the Bravo site. He is a straight shooter and has perspectives that I wouldn't consider, like why it wasn't right that Bourdain sat in for Colicchio last week ... you can read about it here.) Richard's main course missed the mark, though. Antonia's steak dish was Tom's favorite steak dish, and Tramonto loved her gratin, but her salad with poached eggs didn't get rave reviews.
The winner: Stephanie!!! Hooray!!! She gets a copy of Tramonto's new book -- she said she has the other ones -- and her own suite of GE kitchen appliances. Nice.
Richard and Antonia were then named to be in the finals in Puerto Rico. Hooray for the top three! It is satisfying to see the nicer, more professional chefs finish on top.
The bottom two were Spike and Lisa -- not exactly a surprise. And Spike is eliminated. That leaves Lisa going to Puerto Rico to compete in the finals. My husband only catches snippets of Top Chef, but his reaction to Lisa: "She scares the sh*t out of me." My husband is a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, so that's saying something.
In the end, three of the four chefs in the finals are women, which I think is great. Richard is going to be hard to beat, but my money is on Stephanie, as it has been from episode one. Go Stephanie!