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Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: Camping and the Great Outdoors on "Top Chef: Las Vegas"

I'm not exactly a fan of camping.

So I can only imagine how I would have fared had I been thrown into the challenge facing the cheftestants on this week's episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Camping"), where they were tasked with creating a high-end lunch for twenty-four diners under some rather adverse conditions.

Namely: outside in the heat over open flames.

Some chefs attempted to take the easy route and make ceviche, incorrectly thinking that the acid-cured fish would be just the thing to cool down some cowboys on the ranch after a long morning. Not quite. Others realized that they needed to stick to their own flavor profiles and aesthetics and offer up dishes that could work in white-tablecloth restaurants but that could be tweaked slightly for the ranch.

So how did the chefs perform this week? Let's discuss.

Former Top Chef Masters contestant Tim Love was on hand this week as guest judge and he presided over a Quickfire Challenge that stymied many of the contestants. Given forty-five minutes, they were told to prepare a dish using cactus, an ingredient which most of them hadn't worked with prior to this challenge. Suffice it say, cactus is not a forgiving ingredients: it's prickly and slimy and special care needs to be paid to how it's prepared for that reason.

Surprisingly, the top spots went to some rather unexpected contenders this week, with Laurine, Mike I., and Mattin ending up with the top three dishes. Laurine cooked a glazed pork chop with cactus salsa, Mattin offered up a breaded cactus, with halibut, red cabbage puree, and tequila-pickled cactus, and Mike I. delivered a dish of cactus and tuna ceviche. What did all three have in common? They all played up the cactus as the main star of the dish rather than just one of an assortment of components on the plate. And, frustratingly, Mike I. took away the win for this high-stakes Quickfire Challenge, landing himself $15,000 and an even more inflated ego.

But if the chefs thought that they would be leaving the outdoors as it were behind for the Elimination Challenge, they had another thing coming as they'd be camping out overnight and then cooking outside the following day with limited cooking equipment and open flames.

Some of the chefs really rose to the occasion this week. Perhaps gaining more confidence, Ashley turned out her best dish so far, a seared halibut with avocado mousse, bacon, and braised romaine, which was meant to mimic the flavors of a BLT. It was a conceptual dish that Ashley made sing, winning over the diners and the judges alike. I'm not sure why Ashley has tended toward the bottom of the pack (nerves perhaps?) as she often has some inventive and unique ideas (cactus doughnuts, anyone?) and needs to push herself more often.

Bryan took the brief to heart and created a stunning dish that not only looked as though it were prepared in a restaurant but could have been served at a fine dining establishment, serving a roasted pork loin with corn polenta, dandelion greens, and glazed rutabega. How he managed to turn out such a gorgeous and confident dish in the middle of the desert (and took that pork so perfectly) remains a mystery to me. No shock at all that he took home the win here for his confident, upscale dish. Well done.

Laurine once again surprised by landing in the top four this round; she's been such a non-entity (and really should have been sent home for that awful pasta salad two weeks ago) that it's surprising to suddenly see praise being given to her now. Could it be that she's realized what she needs to do in order to stand out and deliver some good dishes? Perhaps. Here, she cooked up a sauteed arctic char with tomatillo salsa and grilled potato that perfectly captured the smoke of the grill and was appropriate rancher fare, if not as complex or stunning as some of the dishes her competitors offered. Sometimes, folks, simple is not bad...

Finally, Michael Voltaggio went in a completely different direction as everyone else and served a dashi with miso-cured black cod, watermelon, and shittakes, a stunning dish that inverted the concept of ranch food and was a stunning display of technique, texture, and sophisticated vision.

Sadly, the same can't be said for the bottom three contestants. Robin shocked the judges with the lousiness of her dish, grilled romaine salad with drunken prawns and spicy chicken sausage, a jumble of ideas and lackluster execution that had one judge describe the taste of her shrimp as "chlorine." (Ouch.) Ron offered a sweet coconut-lime tuna ceviche served in a coconut shell with a Haitian mojito; while the judges didn't mind the ceviche, they were adamant that the mojito was just plain awful.

And then there was Mattin. The Basque chef really hasn't impressed me too much over the past five episodes and it was hardly a shocker that he landed in the bottom three for his trio of ceviche: salmon with apple, spicy tuna, and cod with corn. The cod was so raw and just so inedible that Tom actually spit it out for fear of getting sick from warm, uncooked fish. What was shocking, however, was that Mattin said he had tasted the three ceviches and liked them. There is something to be said for taste, but it's another thing altogether to taste something vile as a chef and say that it's good and that you are proud of your dish. (That Mattin thought it was a winning dish was a head-scratcher if there was ever one.)

Ultimately, the ceviche spelled curtains for Mattin, who was told to pack his knives and go. I really wasn't sure in the end if it would be Mattin or Robin who would get the boot and I have to say that I've yet to be won over by either of them or Ron.

What did you think of this week's episode? Would you have sent Mattin home? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Penn & Teller"), the chefs must work their own magic when asked to deconstruct a vintage recipe and re-imagine its components into signature dishes for magicians Penn and Teller.


rockauteur said…
Another great nail-biter of an episode, and I actually feared for Michael V. for a second before he rose to the occasion to pull out a top dish. Thank god Mattin got sent home, I've hated him since the beginning, and last week's horrible performance in a french cooking challenge spelled his demise. Loved in that episode how egotistical he was about his French cooking - only to see him torn down, and this week, he made the excuse that he was a Basque chef, not a French chef... Contradiction much?

Good riddance Mattin. I was hoping the judges would get rid of him AND Robin. She has to be a goner soon. Hector should still be in the competition over the two of them AND Ron, though he has to go at some point soon too.

Hopefully next week the problems Brian and Jen C have are simply red herrings by the promos department!

And oh yeah - how come Brian didn't identify Kevin and Jen C. as the other top chefs in the competition at the top of this episode? He only cited his brother and Mike I.
Brad said…
Nice write-up.
Slight correction: Ashley's sandwich mimicked a club sandwich, not a BLT. I was worried she was going to be sent home based on all the screen time she got (the bit with her brother becoming a dad was nice) and the "coming up" clip showing Tom hating some fish.
I'm pulling for her (and Robin) because of their Seattle connection--Robin's restaurant Crave is closed down, but my friends say it had great breakfasts.
Mimi C said…
I watched the episode twice and this morning I still couldn't remember that Mike I won the quickfire. I am betting he will now be unbearable for the rest of his time on the show.

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