Let the Champions Round commence!
We're down to the six "Top Chef Masters" finalists, the heavy hitting crew that includes Chicago's own Rick Bayless and Art Smith. Last night's episode started with a bang -- the always nail-biting mise en place relay -- and just kept on going.
The chefs were split in teams for the quickfire challenge, with Bayless, Anita Lo and Hubert Keller on one side and Smith, Michael Chiarello and Suzanne Tracht on the other. The chefs had to divide and conquer these tasks: shuck 15 oysters, dice five onions, break down four chickens, separate five and beat the whites so that they hold upside for at least five seconds.
Never mind that these guys and gals haven't done their own prep in years - they still had it. When huggable Smith went up against smooth Frenchman Keller in the onion relay, and the cameras shifted between Keller's robotlike precision and Smith's seeming clumsiness, we were thinking, no way in hell. So was Bayless, who watched with amusement and said of Smith, "He's cutting his in a way I've never seen before!"
Yet ... Smith pulled his team ahead!
In another fascinating relay, Bayless faced off against Smith in the egg task -- and proceeded to beat the Big Bear rather soundly. "Rick Bayless was like Mr. Kitchen Aid," Smith admitted.
Afterward, the chefs were asked to prepare their signature dish. They sat down for a nice meal together, enjoyed each other's creations -- and learned that the elimination challenge was to prepare one of their competitor's dishes, but with their own stamp on it.
Smith's task was to interpret Tracht's clean dish of chopped sirloin with green peppercorn sauce topped with a fried egg. Bayless drew Chiarello and his fennel balsamic roasted quail with greens and roasted apples.
All of the chefs fretted about not wanting to insult each other by tweaking their assigned dishes too much. Yet, as the challenge wore on, we began to see just how strong the competitive fires burned. (Especially with Chiarello and Bayless - both chummy, all grins, but watch those two.)
Smith's dish was a take on a Scotch egg -- a hard-boiled egg enclosed in ground lamb -- served with sweet potato fries and a delectable tomato tart. Judges liked all the other stuff on plate. His downfall: "The grotesque huge ball of undercooked lamb was just terrifying," judge Gael Greene said. Youch. Tell us how you really feel, Gael
Bayless, meanwhile, just kept doing it right. His parsnip- and prosciutto-stuffed quail over wild greens delighted and surprised judges, who were expecting something Mexican from the Mexican master.
Ultimately, though, it was the quiet, methodical and mind-blowingly creative Lo who beat out Bayless by half a star. The ax was to fall either to Smith or Tracht, and in the end it was Tracht who was sent home .... again, by half a star.
Whew. Go Chicago.