Alright, we're still in Chicago and we still have six more chefs to sort through, several of which I hadn't pictured making it past week two, much less week ten.
Here's who's left, with a cheat-sheet in case you still don't have the names straight: Lisa (pierced eyebrow), Antonia (unflappable expression), Stephanie (curls) , Richard (fauxhawk), Dale (headband, grimace), Spike (hats), Andrew (beard, crazy eyes).
As we head into the Top Chef kitchen for the Quickfire, we see that this week's guest judge is Sam Talbot, a popular finalist from Season Two. He and Padma introduce the opening challenge, which is to make an innovative salad, or as they embarassingly put it: "bring the sexy back to salad." [Insert eye-roll here.] The chefs have 45 minutes and access to whatever ingredients they need.
[Incredibly sexy spoilers after the jump.]
Everyone seems to take some chances with this one, especially given that they have ample time. Unfortunately, Lisa, Stephanie, and Richard's salads are neither sexy nor appetizing, at least not to the hunky hipster chef judging the contest.
That said, Talbot did enjoy Dale, Antonia, and Spike's salads, and, surprisingly, Spike wins the quickfire with his "Sensual Beef Salad," featuring Pineapple, Radish, Cucumber and Skirt Steak. After what seems like an endless parade of non-wins and near-eliminations, Spike finally gets a -- wait for it -- feather in his cap. And not only that, he is also promised a significant advantage in the Elimination Challenge.
That challenge, as it turns out, is to create gourmet, yet healthy box lunches for the cadets at the Chicago Police Academy. Each contestant will create a dozen box lunches that need to contain a protein, a whole grain, and both fresh fruits and vegetables.
Spike's advantage is, in fact, pretty substantial. Not only does he get a 10-minute head start at Whole Foods, but he also gets to choose four ingredients that none of the other chefs can use. He selects chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, and bread. During the shopping excursion, it becomes very clear that Spike is excited to have successfully screwed his fellow chefs.
And his plan works, at least at first. Spike's strategically forbidden foods cause Lisa and Stephanie to need to change their menu plans. Of course, you don't get to be in the final seven contestants on Top Chef if you can't improvise under pressure. After a few adjustments, all of the chefs are happily purchasing alternative ingredients and plotting how they will make healthy, hearty meals that will appeal to cops on the beat.
Back in the kitchen, we get a first glimpse of the chefs' creations. Most seem like they've got their schedules and plans under control. Tom's mid-session tour offers several relaxed conversations with confident chefs. No-one's in the weeds. Not yet.
That all changes as Lisa, whose dish requires slow-cooking brown rice, notices that her burner is set to "high" when she claims she left it on "low." Oops. Or perhaps it's sabotage! Can this be true? Who knows. Lisa says it wasn't her fault, so it must have been foul play. After this bombshell, we get a few fellow chefs poo-pooing the idea in interview clips, but Lisa stays on message about the tampering throughout the rest of the episode. In the end, the rice goes into the boxes underdone, but edible, with instructions to nuke it good in the microwave before serving.
Once Lisa's pot boils over, the rest of the contestants seem to join her in melting down. Judging by the chaos towards the end of this challenge, not many of the chefs understood how long it would take to move food from the stove to a dozen boxes.
Still, the dishes do manage to find their way from the Top Chef kitchen to the Police Academy and the tasting begins.
Here they are, as they rolled onto the plates of the Sam, Padma, Tom, and Ted Allen:
Stephanie -- Mushroom and Meatball Soup with Barley, Vegetable Puree and Yogurt.
Spike -- Chicken Salad with Pita and Raw Vegetables.
RIchard -- Grilled Tuna Burrito with Lentils, Quinoa in a Rice-Paper Tortilla.
Antonia -- Curry Beef with Jasmine Rice, Berries and Figs with Grape Syrup.
Dale -- Lemongrass Bison Lettuce WrapS with Brown Rice and Herb Salad.
Andrew -- Salmon Sushi Rolls with Parsnip-Pine Nut "Rice" and Pickled Ginger Wasabi.
Lisa -- Shrimp Stir-Fry with Brown Rice, and Berries and Yogurt.
The cops say something nice about just about every dish, although the judges are not so diplomatic. They seems to make quick work of separating favorites from failures. In no time flat, we are out of the police station and back to the Judges' Table.
Stephanie and Dale are anointed as the top two challengers for this challenge. Dale got high marks for the choice of Bison, which has less fat and cholesterol than beef, but the same essential feel within a dish. Stephie's soup was praised for perfect seasoning.
In the end, Dale gets the nod and a big bottle of wine, plus a trip to Napa Valley to see where wine comes from. He seems stoked. Give Dale a challenge sans teammates and he has a very solid track record. Lucky for him the finals aren't usually a collaborative affair. If he makes it that far, he's probably got a chance. He'll just have to survive Restaurant Wars, which this week's preview showed as still on the schedule for the current season.
As for the bottom three: Andrew, Spike, and Lisa are asked to make the long trudge to the Q & A of shame.
What can you say about this session? Not much that wouldn't get bleeped by network censors, apparently. So angry. So very angry. Andrew goes first and seems willing to defend his sushi as an innovative and healthy choice. In fact, it seems as though he might be willing to fight to the death. It's clear that he is severely irked to be facing an inquisition.
It seemed likely that Andrew's fulminating would give the other chefs pause about getting too aggressive with the judges, but the actual effect was just the opposite. Spike and Lisa were equally determined to stand by their choices, even if it meant calling the judges' taste into question.
Right before heading out to wait out the decision, Lisa reminded the judges that Andrew hadn't technically included a whole grain in this lunch, which set off a whole new set of pyrotechnics between Andrew and Lisa, both in front of the judges and continuing back in the kitchen.
In the end, it was really hard to handicap who was likeliest to be expelled. My gut feeling was that the new-found Andrew vs. Lisa drama was too juicy to cut short, and that Spike would be sent home. My logic was that Spike's dish was just as dismal as the others, despite the fact that he was at an advantage and they were at a disadvantage, as dictated by his Quickfire win. It seemed like the greatest crime in this challenge was Spike's lack of creativity or even basic execution. I thought the hatted one was going to get canned, not only for this challenge, but for a long, storied history of unflagging mediocrity and laziness.
The judges did not agree. Andrew's sushi was just too bad, apparently, and his gracelessness under pressure kept the judges from wanting to find a way to forgive him. The rule-breaking didn't hurt him, it seemed. The judges had ample reason to send any one of the bottom three home. So, Lisa's last-minute indictment of Andrew didn't really serve much purpose, except to make her look desperate. On the bright side, she now has a life-long nemesis. At least that's something...