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Top Chef: Mother's Day Comes Early

Last week Jen was sent home, under slightly saucy circumstances, apparently. I think that means all my local San Francisco contestants have been kicked to the curb. On a related note, I nearly ran over Zoi in SF's Mission District a few days ago. Sorry, Z. My bad.

Still, even with the City by the Bay woefully unrepresented, the show must go on. The guest judge for the Quickfire and the entire episode is Oprah's personal chef, Art Smith. The Quickfire Challenge gave the nine remaining chefs 15 minutes to make a complete entrée. The consensus was that this was no easy task. Several contestants claimed that even the 30-minute challenges caused near bedlam on the cooking line.

So what's the answer to this seemingly impossible situation, which is meant to simulate the intense time pressures of a popular restaurant? Uncle Ben's microwavable whole-grain rice.

[Once you stop laughing, make the jump, where the spoilers will be ready in about 90 seconds.]

The Quickfire Challenge

20080501-wgr.jpgLuckily, the show's video editors made it appear that all the contestants had kept a straight face as the featured ingredient was lovingly described by Padma. And while I'm sure many of them could have made a satisfactory dish without the addition of nuked starch, they each gamely included the sponsor's contribution in their dishes.

Antonia offered a staple from her childhood—the strange sounding Rice and Salad. RIchard made a pair of small tuna steaks and tomatoes drizzled with yuzu, on a bed of rice. Art Smith was very excited about those yuzu tomatoes.

Stephanie made a seafood pancake using the rice as part of the batter. She sprinkled scallops on top of the pancake. This was the first sign of many during this episode that Stephanie had completely lost her mind.

Spike got back to "his roots" and made stuffed tomatoes and peppers. Mark made miso-glazed turkey breast. Andrew made wild-rice-crusted fish. Dale made fried rice with some scallops on top.

After all was said and done, Antonia won with her childhood meal—rice salad. Smith was skeptical, but the combination of hot and cold ingredients won him over in the end.

Antonia was happy to have immunity, as one would expect, and took it with a kind of relaxed excitement. She seems to have mellowed a bit from the earlier episodes, where she was involved in several very strenuous conflicts. In previous years, tensions increased as the number of remaining chefs dwindled. This year, everyone seems more relaxed.

The Elimination Challenge

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On to the main challenge! The chefs are told they need to devise a complete dinner for a family of four, simple enough that the kids could help out, with a budget of no more than $10.

Jaws drop. Andrew says, "There's goes my lobster terrine!" Then everyone dusts themselves off and realizes that they'll just have to make due with less than they're used to.

They head to Whole Foods to do their shopping, which struck me as a little funny. I love Whole Foods, but I don't really think of it as the place to stretch your food dollar. That said, everyone seemed to manage, barely, to stay under $10. How they killed 30 minutes shopping with $10 is anyone's guess. I would've been hanging out near the checkout reading Yoga Journal and Dwell for a good quarter hour.

Back in the kitchen, each chef gets a young helper from Smith's Common Threads program. The customary two-hour time limit doesn't seem like much of an obstacle this week as the chefs only need to make four plates—and how much prep can $10 worth of food take? Not much. And that's part of the challenge—to make simple, tasty food that any family could prepare themselves.

As the pairs are bonding and getting down to business, Tom Colicchio comes through and asks the kids about their dishes and if they're enjoying the cooking process. They all seem to be great kids and they provide a nice tonic to the usual anguish that the chefs face as challenge deadlines loom. It was pretty clear that this was shaping up to be a feel-good episode.

On the Menu

As the plates roll out, the chefs learn that all of the evening's diners are kids from the Common Threads program. They all seem to take it in stride, unlike past years, where many of the culinary artistes were apoplectic over the prospect of being judged by children.

Here were the dishes, in the order they arrived at the judges' tables:

The Shakeout

In the end, it was clear from Padma, Gail, and Art's reactions where everyone stood. Tom came back from the kitchen, where he'd spent the entire service, and it didn't seem to take very long for the judges to come to a consensus.

The top three—Andrew, Nikki, and Antonia—were brought up in front of the judges. Everyone loved all of the dishes, and kudos were offered all around. It was no surprise when Antonia made the episode a shut-out and took home the top prize. As she put it, she would have been embarrassed not to have won this challenge, since she's a single mom with a daughter who helps her cook at home.

As for the bottom three, they were equally clear. Stephanie, Lisa, and Mark got called in to face the music. Much to her credit, Stephanie regains her wits just enough to take the judges criticism with humility and a few nods. On the other hand, Mark and Lisa both got a little hot under the collar. It was the closest thing to actual conflict we got in this very lovey-dovey episode.

Of course, the lovefest was no consolation for one unlucky cook and, in the end, Mark's unremarkable vegetable curry was judged to be the weakest effort of the evening. As a consolation prize, Tom did promise to share a pint with the pint-sized New Zealander. At least that's something.

Bye-bye, Mark. Please say hello to Gandalf for us when you get home to the Shire.

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