“Top Chef: Las Vegas” mini-cap: What happens in Vegas, ends up in Napa

Buy your souvenirs now, kiddies, because this is the last you’ll see of Vegas. The remaining cheftestants talk about their progress. Bryan worries about his restaurant. Kevin misses his wife. Eli praises his mentor Richard Blais while making ill-advised Princess Bride references. And Jennifer just hopes she can pull it all off. They arrive in the Top Chef kitchen and find Padma wearing something from the Phantom of the Opera Thrift Store.

With her is Chef Gavin Kaysen, who in 2007 represented the United States in the Bocuse d’Or — otherwise known as the Olympics of cooking. He tells them about the ballotine dish he made in the competition, one it took him four months to perfect. Then, wouldn’t you know it, the chefs are tasked for the Quickfire Challenge with making their own take on his ballotine — essentially a protein wrapped in a protein wrapped in a protein. Or, as Jennifer helpfully explains, a turducken.

The Voltaggio Brothers seem comfortable with the challenge. But Jennifer has never made one before and worries. Michael assesses her chances to the camera saying that while she started off strong “at this point in the competition I really don’t think there is a whole lot left for her to do.” Man, this guy just gets douchier by the second. If the asshat fits, wear it.

With cooking done, Padma and Chef Kaysen make the rounds. Everyone pretty much gets a polite “Thank you, chef,” except for Jennifer. When asked why she chose seafood to make herballotine, she says it’s one of her strengths. Padma smiles and says warmly, “Welcome back.” Did anyone else’s knees just weaken?

Chef Kaysen sizes up all their offerings. He says Kevin’s catfish was overcooked, while Bryan’s lamb was nicely cooked. He liked Eli’s Scotch egg concept, but not Michael’s terrine instead of a ballotine. Michael scoffs afterward that he if he has made a ballontine he is “pretty confident it would have been as good as the one (Chef Kaysen) made in the Bocuse d’Or.” Confident turns into cocky turns into “God, I hate that guy” in an instant, buddy.

But who won? Jennifer! Welcome back, indeed. What was that about having gone as far as she could go? While immunity is off the table,Padma tells her she will get a significant advantage. That bad girl of the kitchen is back!

But before our last hope for Team Estrogen can celebrate too much, Padma announces the elimination challenge. The chefs must compete in a mini-Bocuse d’Or by creating a presentation platter consisting of a protein (salmon or lamb) and two garnishes. The dishes must be intricate and show method and technique. Oh, and it all gets served up on a mirrored platter. But, you know, no pressure.

They’ll have four hours to cook with Jennifer, as the Quickfire winner, will get an extra half an hour. They will cook for a panel of 12 judges including the American advisory board for theBocuse d’Or, acclaimed chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Jerome Bocuse (son of the event’s namesake Paul Bocuse). They will be judged on taste, creativity and execution. But again, no pressure.

The chefs get back to their Vegas pad and start planning. Well, everyone except Michael who goes straight to bed. The rest watch videos of pastBocuse d ’Or competitions. It looks intense and the fans are nuts. I mean, I never thought I’d see the wave from a cooking crowd.

Kevin asks Bryan about how to sous vide his lamb. Oh, God. Not the Carla move. Please don’t make Hootie Nation have a flashback to last year’s disastrous finale. Don’t start experimenting this far into the game. Kevin. Oh, the humanity!

Luckily Bryan is not an asshat and helps Kevin figure out what temperature to set his meat. As he astutely notes, “my brother might not have done that.”

The next day they start working. Head judge Tom Colicchio arrives with Chef Keller to intimidate check in on the contestants. Kevin says Keller’s book, The French Laundry Cookbook, changed his life. Everyone is serious and heads down. This ain’t no hot dog challenge. Jennifer calls is a “battle of perfection.”

Michael is his normal, cocky self saying he is confident because a decade ago he did culinary competitions. He then says he picked salmon because it is harder to cook consistently. In what is becoming his signature, he then goes on to bag on the other contestants, this time picking on Kevin saying the food he cooks “is the food I cook on my day off.”Hmm, well maybe if you cooked like that on your days on Kevin wouldn’t be kicking your ass in challenge wins. Just a thought.

Tom makes another round and checks in on everyone’s progress. He seems concerned that Kevin is going the sous vide route. Me too, Tom, me too. Kevin tries to assure us by saying he is going to give the judges complex flavor in a neat, simple package. I’m still nervous. Tom then adds even more pressure by telling everyone that the winner gets $30,000. High stakes or go home, kids.

The judges start to arrive. It’s very Reservoir Dogs meets Top Chef. Also, why is Jerome Bocuse’s tie so short? Is this some sort of sly way of ensuring it doesn’t get dragged in the soup?

Kevin is up first. His lamb loin is called light and well done, but “a little elementary” by Tom. Elementary is fine in my book. At least it’s not “Dear God, I can’t get this out of my mouth fast enough.”

Next is Michael and his salmon. One judges calls it “pretty but disparate.” Another finds a bone (a surefire elimination in the realBocuse d’Or) and Chef Boulud says it has “a total lack of harmony.” It’s like music to my ears.

In the kitchen, Bryan is scrambling to finish. Jennifer pitches in thanks to her extra half an hour and says she is there for anyone who needs help. Teamwork, it’s what’s for dinner. Bryan presents his dish and the judges love the concept but not the execution. The lamb is a little undercooked and he clearly ran out of time.

Eli follows and he has a bone-headed idea of cutting his lamb sausage at the table. Uh, dude, this is a competition about precision. How precise will you be carving in front of the judges in a hurry? Padma pokes at her lamb with obvious worry and it only gets worse from there. The meat is undercooked leaving “very unpleasant” pockets of raw fat.

Finally, Jennifer brings her poached salmon to the table. Some judges get their salmon perfectly cooked while others are underdone. Some judges grouse about her pack of vision and thought.Padma praises its visual appeal. Oh, Padma. I love it when you start siding with the girls.

With dinner over, Gail Simmons (and we all sigh in relief that it’s not Toby) raises her glass and says she is very proud of the chefs. Keller says it took “a great amount of courage to cook for us.”Padma tells the chefs that besides winning the $30K, the winner will also be awarded a spot to compete for the Bocuse d’Or 2011. Lord, are they giving away a house for the grand finale? These prizes are nuts.

Back in the Stew Room, the chefs try to relax. Bryan echoes Gail’s sentiments and says they should all be proud that they cooked for the best chefs in the world. Jennifer then says while they may be competitors, they’re “friends more at the end of the day.” Then they sing Kumbaya and braid each other’s hair. Huh? That’s how it played out in my head.

Padma arrives and invites them all in. Waiting for them are Bocuse, Tom and Gail for the final Judges’ Table in Vegas.

Michael gets questioned for calling his dish Mediterranean and the bone in his fish. Bryan gets told his lamb was underdone, but they know it was a time issue. Kevin gets told his dish was too simple and safe. Jennifer is taken to task for her cooking method and inconsistent salmon. And Gail calls Eli a fat sausage. Wait, sorry, she tells him there was a big piece of fat in her sausage.

Back in the Stew Room the chefs are feeling pretty universally lousy. Kevin in particular is beating himself up, as is Bryan. The judges mull over their options some more. It’s a tight race with no clear winner or loser in my book. I feel nervous for them.

But who won? Kevin! Whew and hooray. The king of Day-Off Cooking prevails. Kevin gets the $30,000, a Bocuse d’Or jacket and cookbooks and the pride of knowing Voltaggio can suck it. He then endears himself further to us by saying his winnings are “almost what I make in a year.”

Tom then turns his attention to the remaining chefs saying it will be “hard for one of you to go.” He recaps the problems: Eli was execution, Jennifer was consistency, Bryan was time and Michael was underwhelming. But who gets PYKAGed? Eli.

Well, we all saw this Final Four coming. And I do think the four most talented chefs in the competition made it to the end. In fact, this may be the most talented final foursome in Top Chef history. There’s not a dud in the bunch. It’s going to be a hell of a finale.

NEXT: The chefs head to Napa. Padma has bangs. (The two-part finale begins Dec. 2.)

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