Top Chef: Block Rockin' Eats

And then there were 14. A nice, even number. And we all know that means two teams competing against each other at some point in the episode. But first, the Quickfire Challenge.

Guest judge Rick Bayless, the mucho muchacho of Mexican fine-dining, is brought into the kitchen, and the Top Cheffers' task is explained: Take one of the most down-to-earth staples of Mexican cuisine—the taco—and redefine it as a fine-dining dish.

Seems a simple enough task, but a lot of the chefs are having a tough time of it. As Erik says, "Mexican food is about the people, it's about the street. It's a soulful kind of thing, and and to put fine dining in it, it just kinda bugs me." And Spike, too, wants to keep it street.

Um, guys? Was that the assignment?

Gals? Well, we don't hear much from the women during the Quickfire, as the producers kinda glossed over them for some reason—probably that their dishes were middle of the road, I'm guessing, and didn't make for great TV. [Warning: Spoilers after the jump.]

After the allotted time is up, we have an array of interesting dishes, from Andrew's plantain and duck tacos ("The duck taco is my favorite taco," Bayless says) to Richard's minimalist taco whose "shell" is made of thinly sliced jicama—it actually looks more like a spring roll than a taco.

Bayless says, "We've got a lot of good flavors going on, but the challenge was to translate something that could work in fine-dining, and we got a lot of street tacos." Erik is singled out for having a plated dish that looked "like a train wreck," which prompted from him perhaps the most memorable quote of the ep: "I don't think fine-dining and Mexican go together, so he can go screw himself." Damn. Watch that lengua. Lisa also gets singled out for putting rare-cooked skirt steak strips in her taco, which Bayless could not even bite through. Tough times ahead?

Richard, whose jicama tortillas enveloped avocado, papaya, and cilantro stem and who was going for a "bright, fresh start of meal" with his appetizer tacos, wins and gets immunity. But wait, there's more! Richard also gets a "special surprise": "We're gonna steal that dish," Bayless says, "and put it on the menu in Topolobampo."

Say wha? So Bayless "steals" (his word, not mine) Richard's intellectual property and that's his surprise? Ay caramba!

Elimination Challenge

The cheftestants divide into two teams.

Red Team: Zoi, Dale, Andrew, Spike, Ryan, Jennifer, Erik

Blue Team: Stephanie, Nikki, Antonia, Mark Manueal Lisa Richard

And then it's time for the meat of the night's hijinks: The Elimination Challenge. So it's time for a field trip, brought to you, apparently, by the Toyota Highlander—there's copious footage of a caravan of them snaking around Chicago, taking the chefs to the site of their next challege, which as of yet remains a surprise. Until the fleet of SUVs parks in an unassuming, everyday-looking Chicago neighborhood (maybe some of our Chicago readers can tell us exactly which one it was).

The folks in this nabe just happen to be having an annual block party the following day. And the Top Cheffers are going to help about 40 adults and 70 kids cook up a memorable feast. Actually, they're just going to make the feast for them. But they have to do it using groceries collected from the folks on the block. After gathering the supplies, they'll have three hours the following day to prep and cook before the party.

And They're Off!

So they're trying to collect food, and they're all worried about it—worried about freaking people out. Whatevs. Do you really think the residents weren't prepped for this event? They all knew the score, so the "intimidating" nature of approaching these strangers was a bit of a strawman, I think. And, hell, even if you didn't know ahead of time, if someone showed up at your door asking to take the block-party cooking off your hands, wouldn't you hand them over your entire pantry and then some?

A lot of these people are amazingly well-stocked, which isn't super surprising because, as Padma explains, they "may have" already shopped for supplies. The Red Team grabs a ton of food and lucks into some people with crazy pantries. The Blue Team seems to be having trouble finding stuff.

Spike, you damn dirty sneak! He tells the Blue Team that the house he just came out of—and that they're about to hit up—has been cleaned out. But in the confession room he says that in reality there was a lot of stuff remaining in that house. And that, ladies and gents, is how you win this junk.

So after "grocery shopping," the teams settle on their strategies.

The Blue Team wants to go with "upscale—not just hamburgers and hot dogs."

The Red Team wants to take the familiar—um, hamburgers and hot dogs—but to concentrate on the toppings, elevating them to make things a little different. So, Zoi says, they're going to do little corn dogs with a pomegranate mustard, sliders, and some other gussied-up grill-out staples. Red Team seems smart—they're cooking for the neighborhood and the judges.

On the Menu

Blue Team Menu: Paella, Slaw, Barbecue Pulled Pork, Bean Salad, Inside-Out Cookie, "Sexy Drink," Fruit Cobbler, Mac and Cheese. As will come to pass on the Red Team as well, each Blue Team member handles one of the dishes. The big questions here: Will Nikki's mac and chese coagulate before in the two-hour lag time between prep and party? Will paella work? (Richard is going for it with this dish, which he admits is not a traditional block party food but that, hey, he's gotta go with it 'cause that's him. Easy for him to say; he's got immunity.)

Red Team Menu: Sliders, Corn Dogs, Pork Skewers, Sangria, Waldorf Salad, Pasta Salad, Taco Salad, S'mores. Dale wants to push as opposed to playing it safe, but he gets stuck doing pork skewers. Ain't nothin' edgy 'bout that. The big question here: Will the corndogs stay crisp? How will the Waldorf Salad hold up in the lag period?

On the Block

The teams set up on opposite sides of the street, and residents and judges chow down.

Red Team Erik's corndogs are a little soggy, he tells the judges, but they didn't toss them because the block people had given them 12 packs of hot dogs the day before.

Blue Team Nikki's mac and cheese is completely dry, and she ties to rehydrate it with cream and butter. Ugh oh.

Judging by the looks of the food, it's hard to say who's got the better menu. Originally I was pulling for Red, because I'm completely in love with sliders (and corn dogs). But the Blue Team has some really interesting dishes that look wonderful (except the mac and cheese) and, though they're a little more upscale they still hew nicely toward traditional outdoor, celebratory foods. Plus, the team is really trying to "take care of them" (the block), so they do a service line, doling out food onto plates for the street—instead of the ragamuffin grab-your-own buffet.

The Red Team, though, really looks like it's won the hearts and minds of the crowd. And at the end, they're hanging out, shooting hoops, and generally giving the blue team agita, since everyone on Blue is psyched out by the Red Team's cocksure frollicking.

Here Come the Judges

But it all evens out in the end, and now the Red Team is sweating it because the Blue Team got called in before the judges first. Richard gets dinged on his paella; it was more a rice pilaf, Tom says, as it didn't have the crunchy bottom or top you'd expect in a paella. And, yeah, that mac and cheese, Nikki, it "turned into a brick," Queer Eye Ted says. Plus, no one took on a leadership role.

Still, Blue wins. By a nose. Stephanie, who conceptualized the dessert and helped with the "Sexy Drink," wins the competition (win No. 2 for her), while Antonia's bean dip gets some props.

Pack Your Knives and Leave

The Red Team, and time for elimination....

The soggy crust on the corndog and the Waldorf salad (also soggy) doomed them. And when the judges ask about the pasta salad, they're just nonplussed with the cheftestants' response. "Everybody here tasted Zoi's pasta?" Colicchio asks. "And everybody thought it was good? Then you all, collectively, have really poor palates. Because it was bland, oily, and had no flavor at all." The judges hated pretty much every damn thing the Red Team made and didn't even bother to comment on the other supposed duds on the team's menu.

But what gets them more irked is that the Red Team's attitude toward the crowd. As Zoi explains, "We all just decided it was Middle America, block party, kids," to which Colicchio responds, "Does that mean you should dumb down what you're doing?" And later, as the judges are pow-wowing, Queer Eye Ted makes an excellent point: "If you think you're playing to the crowd and not the judges, you're condescending to that crowd." Bayless chimes in: "Good food sells to everyone."

And ... Erik is booted. Bayless is just stunned that he tried to get away with serving the soggy corndogs, saying that Erik has done similar foods at his restaurant and should have known that they wouldn't hold up in the hot box on the way to the party. I don't know if the judges also see the confessional tapes before judging, but Erik's badmouthing Bayless might not have helped.

Tricky Editing

And this is what gets me. I watch these shows, and I fall into the producers' and editors' traps every damn time. It seemed clear to me that Red was winning all night, but in the end the Blue Team gets the nod. This seems like a pretty common trick in reality and restoreality shows—to set up expectations and then dash them. I think next week, I'm going to watch with this in mind and try to do some on-the-fly predictions based on reverse-psychology.