20081119-topchef-season5.jpgAfter last week's "battle of the blands" and Toby Young's raucous entrance, we weren't sure what to expect on this week's episode. It seemed like we might have seen the season's low point, at least we hoped. I also have to confess to feeling a bit more forgiving after watching last night's premiere of Chopped.

[Warning, spoilers ahead.]


Quickfire Challenge: 15 Minutes in the Pantry

Season three winner, Hung Huyhn, is back to serve as this week's Quickfire Challenge judge. Padma reveals what Jeff describes as "a pile of garbage," a spread of cupboard and pantry staples. And in honor of Hung, the "fastest Top Chef in history," the cheftestants will only have fifteen minutes to make a delicious dish using only these pantry staples for the challenge. The kitchen is oddly lacking in gratuitous product placement (aside from the GE Monogram close-ups) and there's even tape over labels. It's oddly disconcerting. When Padma calls time, there's a mad rush for the pantry items and the elbows are flying. In a moment of weakness, Hosea gives Stefan some of his Spam. Radhika (spicy red bean dip with grilled bread) and Jamie (bruschetta with garbanzo beans, artichoke, and smoked mussels) phone it in with their dishes. Stefan wins the challenge and immunity with his baked bean and ham soup with grilled cheese and Spam sandwich. "This is something I'd eat at three in the morning," declares Hung. Hosea, of course, is kicking himself for sharing his Spam with Stefan.

Elimination Challenge: Going Back to Basics

This week's elimination challenge is to create a seasonal meal around a protein. The cheftestants draw knives to determine teams and their proteins—lamb, pig, or chicken. They'll be cooking a family-style lunch including dessert for sixteen guests. The cheftestants finally get a break from the catering gigs, I mean, challenges!

Hosea, Ariane, and Leah are the lamb team; Stefan, Jamie, and Carla are the chicken team; Radhika, Fabio, and Jeff are the pig team. The teams start planning their menus and in the case of Jamie and Stefan, butting heads. Stefan thinks Jamie's cute when she's angry, and Jamie thinks Stefan should let her decide the menu since he has immunity.

5:00 a.m. the next morning, everyone's awake and getting ready to head out. They're on their way to do their shopping when they realize they aren't headed for Whole Foods, but pulling up in front of Blue Hill at Stone Barns where chef Dan Barber and three of the Stone Barns farmers are waiting to greet them. It's "a different kind of whole food" quips Barber. They'll be gathering their ingredients from the farm and preparing lunch for the farmers, staff, and friends. We have a lot of respect for the folks at Stone Barn (we spent some time there this summer talking to the farmers about honeybees and eating some amazing and important food), so this challenge has got our attention. Finally!

As they "shop" for ingredients on the farm, Fabio explains that he's never been a vegetarian, but even so you should treat the animals you eat with respect. "You born, you be raised, and you get killed for the purpose. But still, in this lifetime process, you deserve respect." Meanwhile his sidekick, Stefan, is checking out the hens with his teammates and basking in the glory that is being "the only cock in the stall."

The three teams put together what sound like very compelling menus. Team lamb is up first with roasted duo of lamb, heirloom tomato salad, rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes, Swiss chard, and summer berry trifle. Ariane is in charge of the lamb and struggles to butcher and tie it while Hosea and Leah watch idly. What's on the plate reflects that. The judges are not pleased. "The lamb is a mess," says Dan. It's "lamb dressed as mutton" according to Toby. "This is no way to honor the lamb," says Tom.

Team pork is up next with seared pork loin, sausage ravioli with pesto, fried green tomatoes, and grilled corn salad with bacon. The fried green tomatoes are Jeff's idea, and it works. Fabio's ravioli is overpowered by the pesto. "The big bad wolf which has blown this plate's home down," says Toby.

Team chicken has overcome Jamie and Stefan's battle of the wills and turned out some surprisingly good dishes. Jamie's chicken cutlet and Carla's nectarine and strawberry tartlet get favorable reviews from the judges, especially the tartlet. Dan calls it "intelligently done."

Judgment Time

Padma comes for team chicken: Jamie, Carla, and Stefan. They are the judges' favorite team, and Carla's nectarine and strawberry tartlet is called out as their favorite dish. And now for the winner... They all are winners! Stefan kisses Jamie on the kiss with more feeling than necessary, and then Carla because it'd be rude not to. Woo hoo!

The lamb and pork teams face the judges next, and they aren't keen on Jeff's decision to take the pork off the bone and lose the additional flavor. Tom calls out Radhika for taking three hours to make a salad and help out on dessert. She could be in trouble.

But it's the lamb team that's really in trouble. The rolling, tying, and butchering, oh my! They've done a very bad thing to this baby lamb, and it is clearly the worst dish. Ariane was in charge of its butchering and prep while her more experienced teammates let her flounder. Ed messages me to say, "I think anybody who decided to tenderize baby lamb should not only go home, they should also be sent to chef jail for felonious assault of an already dead baby lamb." Dan is "appalled" that Leah wouldn't own up to her role in the team's failure.

Toby's best quote of the evening is, not surprisingly, inspired by the pork:

When I am faced with a beautiful, well-reared piece of meat, I don't want to stand back and admire it, I want to have full-blown unprotected sex; I didn't even get to first base with the pork.

Zing! Even so, it's not enough to save Ariane from going home. You've come a long way, baby. Ed and I agree that it was a good episode. The Stone Barns challenge was totally legit—it felt real, not artificial. As for Leah, she dodged a bullet this week.

Related

'Top Chef' Season 5, Episode 7: Toby Young Rocks
'Top Chef' Season 5, Episode 6: It's a Wonderful Kitchen
'Top Chef' Season 5, Episode 5: Stefan Is a Snarky Button-Pusher, But Knows Turmeric
'Top Chef' Season 5, Episode 4: Accents Are Good for TV
'Top Chef' Season 5, Episode 3: Food Fighters
'Top Chef' Season 5, Episode 2: It's a Dog Eat Dog World
'Top Chef' Season 5, Episode 1: And So It Begins

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