'Top Chef': Things Get Sticky at Restaurant Wars

Top ChefI have a feeling that Tom Colicchio regularly shows up at 5:45 AM in most of the chefs' nightmares. That said, at the beginning of this episode, well before the sun cracked the horizon, the head judge arrived loudly at the Top Chef barracks.

And if the pre-dawn wake-up call wasn't enough, Tom tells the six remaining chefs that their Quickfire challenge will be to work the egg station at one of Chicago's best-loved (and busiest) breakfast spots. Of course, in the hustle, I managed to miss the name of the place. Any Chicagoans? A little help in comments, please...

[Spoilers, over easy, after the jump.]

Helene, owner of the aforementioned yet unnamed breakfast joint, acts as the judge for this week's Quickfire. The task is simple: Grab an apron and deal with the breakfast orders as they come in. Whoever Helene would hire gets the win.

Antonia is first up. The orders come fast and furious. Antonia does her best, but it really looks like it's hard to keep up. Fast-forwarding through a montage of the other chefs, Helene looks stern and shakes her head frequently. We end with Dale, who, despite getting a slew of simultaneous orders, manages to hold his own and deliver successfully. Helene gives him high marks for grace under pressure. However, apparently Antonia's calm, cool exterior impressed the boss. She wins the Quickfire (her 4th) and is promised an advantage for the Elimination.

Tom Colicchio excuses himself to head to a charity event and gives the chefs an address where they'll find Padma and be instructed about their next challenge.

When the contestant arrive at a large warehouse, it's no surprise -- they're doing Restaurant Wars. Two teams of three. Opposite ends of the warehouse. One big kitchen for everyone.

Antonia's advantage is to get to pick the teams. She chooses Stephanie and Richard for her squad, which means the other team is Dale, Spike, and Lisa. Turns out it's a rematch of two teams from Wedding Wars. Each team has $1,500 for food and $5,000 from decor from Pier One.

On to the conceptualizing: Antonia's crew decides to go with a modern American "gastropub" theme. The name of their spot will be "Warehouse Kitchen." This is the first example of this team's cagey strategy of setting the bar very low. Antonia and Richard will share duties in the kitchen, although Antonia is officially at the helm. Stephanie will both contribute to the cooking and handle front-of-the-house duties.

The other team names their Asian-themed restaurant, "Mai Buddha." Lisa wants to head the kitchen, but so does Dale. After flipping a coin, Dale wins the job of executive chef. Spike is all too happy to leave some recipes behind with the Bickersons and head out to the dining room to be interior decorator and head waiter.

Shopping ensues.

Back in the kitchen, a few hours into the prep period, Anthony Bourdain walks in and announces that he will be standing in for Tom Colicchio during this challenge. After grilling each team on their concept and dishes, Bourdain announces that each team will get an extra set of hands. Four ex-contestants are trotted out: Mark, Andrew, Jen, and Nikki. Mai Buddha picks Jen. Antonia asks for Nikki to help them roll out handmade pasta.

Overall, Bourdain seemed equally impressed with the groups and their choices in the kitchen. He felt like Mai Buddha was being more ambitious with their menu, and if they executed well their meal would ultimately be more memorable. Again, it seemed like Antonia and crew flew below the radar. Bourdain even mentioned the fact that they were keeping expectations at rock bottom.

Slow and steady, apparently served them well, because the rest of the kitchen time was dominated by Dale, Lisa, and Spike pretty much unraveling. Sauces went south. Soups drowned in smoke. Sticky rice wouldn't, um, stick.

That last moment was when you knew, instantly, which team was doomed. Top Chef truism, number 17: When your sticky rice won't stick, you are pretty much screwed.

The dinner service did nothing but confirm what had already become apparent in the kitchen. The judges mooned over Kitchen Warehouse's dishes, almost unanimously, noting that Stephanie's pasta dish was close to perfect. Seems like the group effort in the kitchen really paid off.

On the other side of the warehouse, thinks were bleak from the very start, when Bourdain started cracking wise about the Buddha crew's choice of metallic purple linens. Little did he know that the color scheme might have actually been the highlight of the meal. Lisa's Shrimp Laksa, which Bourdain had been excited about in the kitchen, met with little or no approval to start the meal. The praise, when it arrived, was muted, such as Ted Allen's comment that the fried dumplings were nicely browned.

Happily for Lisa, Dale joined her in the doghouse when his signature dish -- Scallops in Butterscotch Sauce -- frightened and dismayed the diners in both concept and execution. And just when you thought the judges were done one-upping each other with their criticism of that entree, out came Lisa's Mango Sticky Rice. Bourdain pegged it as "baby vomit with wood chips." Ouch. But the really telling part of that statement was that Bourdain was so turned off by the dish that he couldn't even enjoy the put-down. He said it with a genuine air of exasperation and disbelief.

Back at Judges Table, the victors were loudly and thoroughly applauded. Stephanie is given top honors for her pasta dish and her part in conceptualizing the whole "gastropub" theme. She gets hugs from her teammates and a trip for two to Madrid. Buen viaje! How many wins is this for Stephanie? Plenty. She is the most understated front-runner, ever. You have to love that. And has there ever been a chef as well-liked as Stephanie? Even Harold from Season One could get a little intense from time to time, despite being an all-around nice guy. Good luck in Puerto Rico, Stephanie. If you don't make the final four, I'll eat my hat with a side of rancid avocado sauce.

Speaking of which, the Mai Buddha crew faced the judges with exactly the kind of acrimony and mutual recrimination that we've all come to expect from them. Spike got the genius-of-the-week award for choosing to stay in the front of the house and out of the kitchen. He got a free pass because he clearly couldn't be blamed for how bad the food turned out.

Then we have Dale and Lisa. To her credit, Lisa took complete responsibility for destroying the Laksa, which Bourdain was so ready to love. She still tried to make some excuses for it, but they didn't involve her teammates and throwing them under the now-legendary Top Chef bus.

Dale managed to keep his cool for what appeared to be 60 seconds or so, before opining that Lisa was back-talking and undermining him at every turn. Taking the high road is probably the only viable escape route for the executive chef on a losing team, and even that path often leads to the nearest exit. Still, when you are in charge and you start taking swipes at your crew, it never makes you look good.

In the end, Dale's bad leadership, lack of collaborative spirit, and what I assume was a nearly inedible candified scallop dish was more than enough to get him the boot. Sad for Dale, who clearly had talent, if not the proper temperament. And isn't it just a little amazing that Lisa and Spike continue to dodge the Top Chef shepherd's crook? Can anyone remember the last time one of them cooked a dish that people really liked? I know I can't.

Next week: The final four are revealed!

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