Chef Tell: The Immigration Challenge Before the Emigration Challenge

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Last night, Top Chef began with chefs still in shock that stoner food icon Dale had been sent packing...oh, and with Tiffany declaring that she simply cannot be sent home on the same challenge she was sent home on last season (the final one before heading abroad). A jinx? Perhaps, especially given that Blais had just called her "invincible." But we had challenges yet to come...

So, as the cheftestants sat trying to predict the day's challenge in their IKEA-ed apartment, Padma walked in to freak them all out and give them a Quickfire Challenge on the roof...which is much further from a sex move than it sounds.

They were sent to Ellis Island, but the QC involved composing a dish with whatever they could find on the ferry (snack bar items like pump-action cheese, potato chips, soda, juice, hot dogs and absolutely no liquid nitrogen), before it docked there. Rather than being given a set time limit, the chefs had to work from "horn to horn," and it was unclear just how long the ride would take.

There was no kitchen equipment, so the challenge was even more intense than previous seasons' gas station or vending machine challenges. Blais was unhampered by the lack of gas, because he had an instant boil MRE bag...naturally.

Local food guru Dan Barber, of Blue Hill restaurants, judged the processed food fiesta. Most of the chefs just talked shit and made faces while he tried their opponents dishes. Which, I get, but c'mon, no one had an "elevated" dish. No one. MREs do not best an infused sliced orange, and a hot dog bun soup doesn't best a nacho. It's what tastes better and that's it.

Blais (hot dog and jerky sandwich with jalapeño, pork rinds, lettuce and apple), Carla (orange and papaya salad with carrot and rosemary juice) and Antonia (grilled cheese with apples and raisin bread) landed on top with Carla taking the win, while Tiffany (nachos and a second dish of popcorn and dried fruit) got called out for a "throw-away" and Mike Isabella (bread soup with cheddar, sour cream, green chili and pork rinds) was accused of sinking the ship.

For the Elimination Challenge, Padma and Barber explained that knowing one's heritage helps one to cook better, so the chefs were given their researched genealogies, along with a visit from a family member to help them sort through the documents.

The arrival of the relatives was emotional to say the least, with tears and smiles and Padma making a weird face looking on. But they all quickly got to work with their dossiers. Tiffany and her mom, Louisa, discussed old food traditions from Louisiana, while Blais discovered his heritage included chemistry, butchers and Worcestershire (which he equated to his loving the eponymous sauce). Carla found relatives that fought in the Civil War, and Antonia and Mike Isabella discovered they were cousins through distant Italian branches of their family trees.

I worried for T-Derr as the chefs began prep. While others were pushing themselves and going beyond, she described her dish as being something you'd have at her family's house any night. Then again, that could be simply because she repeatedly referred to the challenge deja vu throughout the show, and the paranoia was catching. 

Plus, as if there weren't already enough pressure on the chefs to be inspired by and live up to their heritage, their family members dined with the judges. 

The dishes:
Mike Isabella: grandmother's potato gnocchi with braised pork shank ragu and burrata cheese
Antonia: braised veal, rapini leaf and fava bean risotto
Tiffany: braised short rib with mustard greens cooked with pigs feet, stewed okra and oxtail marmalade 
Blais: short ribs, potatoes, fried bone marrow, corn puree and pickled glasswort (aka, sea beans)
Carla: braised pork shoulder, fried grits, corn and sweet potato hash and cheddar biscuits

Maybe it was because the family was there, but there was not one negative comment at the table. The judges were complimentary as were relatives of competitors. I couldn't make a prediction, and because of the personal nature of the challenge, I found myself honestly hoping that when Antonia's mom asked if there'd ever been a Final Five, perhaps it was foreshadowing.

At Judges' Table with the chefs present, it got even more hard to foretell thanks to a love fest...which, again, is further from a sexual innuendo than it sounds. From Carla's broth to Tiffany's okra (anti-okra Tom admitted to having been converted: "If this is what okra's about, you changed my mind.") to Mike Isabella's "gravy," all four judges praised and praised and then bestowed more praise. Even I felt like they were proud of me, and I didn't make anything -- I was just sitting on my couch shoving cookies in my facehole.

But after they left, the judges finally had some teeny bones to pick. Antonia's veal was a shade salty and Tiffany, as Tom said, had a "Coco Chanel moment" and needed to lose some accessories (I think I heard Padma snort at that -- she is a jewelry designer after all -- but I couldn't be sure). Yet, even as one judge might offer a criticism, the others would praise other aspects of the dish in question. If I had to pick then, I'd say Tiffany would go (only by a julienned hair), if they didn't keep them all.

Antonia took home the win, a 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and a spot in the finals to take place in the Bahamas. Also, she'll get to pay taxes on the car, but oddly, Padma didn't mention that.

Then Mike Isabella was safe. And Richard. Carla and T-Derr were left standing for an inopportune commercial break...and based on Tom's and Padma's total lack in the poker face department, I was convinced the Final Five was for real. And was proven correct when Carla and Tiffany were told to both pack their knives and go to the Bahamas.

Next week: Competition against the winning chef of their season. 

Additional thoughts: The Bahamas seem like a lame choice for the finals and, yes, that has almost everything to due with the incessant playing of Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out?" most places. Blais needs to wipe the half-crazy, half-depressed look off his face at every Judges' Panel -- he's got his own show on the Science Channel, for crying out loud. Bourdain better show or I'll be pissed. Also, I will continue to miss Fabio.

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