Last week, Top Chef bid goodbye to Manuel and left Spike in the mix to stir up some controversy. Would that strategy pay dividends this week? Not in the QuickFire, which was a pretty sedate affair. No cook-off this time. It's a blindfolded palate test! Guest judge Ming Tsai, chef-owner of Blue Ginger in Boston, announces that each contestant will try to determine the higher quality item in 15 pairs of ingredients.

Most of the contestants seemed to do alright, especially since the fast-forward editing of this challenge didn't really amp up the drama in any meaningful way. After the blindfolds were removed and the scores tallied, a very confident Antonia had correctly chosen 12 out of 15 ingredients and was rewarded with immunity. Close seconds Jen and Ryan each got 11 answers correct, while Stephanie, who already has two Elimination challenges under her belt, brought up the rear with 6 out of 15. Oops.

[Spoilers after the jump.]

A Catered Affair

The Elimination Challenge is to cater a first course for the Meals on Wheels Chicago Celebrity Chefs' Ball. "Taste, taste, taste. That's the key," says guest judge Tsai. The contestants are knifed off into teams and given 15 minutes to plan their course, which needs to be themed around a specific element.

Here are the rosters:

Team Earth: Spike, Antonia, and Zoi
Team Fire: Dale, Stephanie, and Lisa
Team Air: Jen, Nikki, and Ryan
Team Water: Mark, Richard, and Andrew

Right away, some of the teams seem a little fractious. Spike and Antonia butt heads over the idea of serving soup. Spike wants to do butternut squash soup, and Antonia hates the idea of preparing soup for 80 people. Spike also thinks Antonia's immunity should make her a little less opinionated.

Over on the Fire team, Dale and Lisa seem to be having an even more intense disagreement. Lisa really wants to impress judge Tsai, since he's the first guest judge who works in a cuisine that she likes to cook. Dale and Stephanie seem to be willing to improvise and compromise, whereas Lisa looks like she wants to take her spatula and go home. This is clearly the "big drama" of the episode.

After a trip to Whole Foods, which sees the Fire crew get a little closer to some kind of team-wide consensus, everyone ends up in the kitchen for two-and-a-half hours of prep and cooking.

Getting Ready

We see Team Water preparing its salmon via sous vide. Get it? Fishes swim in water and they're cooking them in water. Deep. They seem pretty confident, driven by Richard, who has clearly stayed out of trouble in most of the previous Eliminations.

We also learn that Spike, Antonia, and Zoi of Team Earth have settled on a beef carpaccio with a mushroom salad. Then things get really interesting. During the talking-head interviews, Spike shows up in the ugliest hat yet (by a factor of five), and all of a sudden, I'm deeply concerned that he'll be sent home and millions of viewers will miss out on even uglier headwear that has yet to be revealed. I immediately register The site will be up tomorrow.

More cooking ensues, as do several bouts of second-guessing. Was the salmon scaled properly? How heavily do you need to season a mushroom salad to accompany sliced beef?

On the Menu

When the dishes finally emerge, they roll out as follows:

Team Water: Poached Salmon with Faux Caviar, Parsnip Purée, and Watercress Salad

Team Fire: Grilled Shrimp with Pickled Chili Salad, Deviled Aioli, and Miso Smoked Bacon

Team Air: Duck Breast with Citrus Salad and Pomegranate Prosecco Apertif

Team Earth: Beef Carpaccio with Mushroom Salad and Sunchoke Aioli

Here Come the Judges

At the main table, Padma and Tom are joined by Gail Simmons and guest judge Tsai, as well as some guests from the charity ball, including noted pastry chef Nancy Silverton. It's clear from the on-screen tastings that there is one winning dish and three distant runners-up. The fiery discord on the team with Lisa, Dale, and Stephanie has resulted in a winning dish. The shrimp is pleasantly hot, the pickled peppers are delightfully acidic, and the pressed and marinated bacon bowls everyone over. I have to admit, it was the one dish that I wished I could sample.

When the Fire team is called to Judges' Table first, no-one else in the room seems surprised, but the lingering air of anger and self-recrimination was palpable as they marched out to receive their kudos. All three chefs are ultimately applauded, but Lisa's bacon earns her the win and a trip for two to Italy. Dale is mad. "She cooked bacon," he scoffed. Of course, what he forgets is that EVERYONE LOVES BACON.

On the bottom of the table of elements are Water and Earth. Richard's salmon is lambasted for both the rogue scales that made it from kitchen to dining room and the texture produced by the gimmicky sous vide cooking style. Luckily for Richard, his previous outings have clearly earned him a get-out-of-the-doghouse-free card for this round.

Since Antonia has immunity, that means that it's Spike and Zoi of Team Earth on the chopping block. Both have found themselves in jeopardy in previous weeks. Will it be Zoi, who has never really seemed to connect with any particular challenge or individual dish? Or will it be Spike with his crude chapeaux and his clear disregard for team solidarity?

Pack Your Knives

In the end, it's Zoi and her rosemary-infused mushrooms that get the boot. She takes it well, admitting that competition might not be her strong suit in the kitchen. Still, her departure and Spike's seemingly endless supply of second chances sets off a serious firestorm back in the kitchen, where Jen is rightfully unhappy about her partner's departure, and all the other accumulated aggressions of this challenge bubble to the surface.

Dale goes off on Lisa. Spike and Antonia do their best version of "Did not!" vs. "Did too!" and the mood in the room is about as bad as we've seen in a few seasons of the show. Not since Marcel needled his way to universal loathing has the Top Chef crew unleashed such raw animosity. It's shaping up to be a fun season...


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