“Top Chef” mini-cap: Beware of cranky bald men with forks

We’re back! Are your knives sharpened? When last we saw our intrepid cheftestants, they had just been granted a Christmas miracle by Santa Colicchio. No one went home in the holiday episode, but that doesn’t mean everyone is merry and bright. Well, Hosea is since he won. But the spared bottom three of Gene, Melissa and Jamie are feeling less than festive.

Jamie’s a little down in the dumps, but she promises to pull through for the people who care about her and are rooting for her back home. Hmm, what people? Girlfriend-like people? Hey, just curious.

In the Top Chef kitchen, Padma is waiting for them with guest judge and Sylvester Stallone look-alike Jean-Christophe Novelli. The acclaimed French pastry chef also happens to have a new show, Chef Academy, coming soon on Bravo. But I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

As you might have guessed, with a pastry chef judge the Quickfire Challenge is a sweet one. But, it’s a sweet one without the most common sweetener. They will need to make the ultimate sweet treat without any sugar.

And, as if to prove that no amount of product placement is too much product placement on Top Chef, this isn’t just any Quickfire Challenge; this is the Diet Dr. Pepper Quickfire Challenge. Christ, are all the challenges going to get corporate sponsors now? Because I really don’t want to see what kind of food gets made in a Pepto-Bismol Elimination Challenge.

As the chefs cook, Diet Dr. Pepper shills shamelessly and in the span of three minutes, we hear it mentioned and/or see a can shown no less than 10 times. We get it; you paid a lot of money for the naming rights. Now just show us the food.

With time up, judging begins. I still half expect Padma to break into “I’m a Pepper” before each bite. Jean-Christophe tells Fabio his cream is not good enough. Fabio thinks his critique has geopolitical implications: “Everything in Europe is between Italy and France.” But he isn’t the only one with geography on the mind. Stefan jokes to the judge that he is French and then that Finland invented chocolate mousse. That man is missing the endearing gene.

In the end, Jean-Christophe deems Carla’s bland banana baklava, Ariane’s twist-free crepes and Jamie’s overpoweringly cheesy napoleon the worst. Best was Radhika’s challah bread pudding, Leah’s ricotta crepes and Jeff’s baklava spring roll and frozen yogurt. And the winner of the soda-sponsored Quickfire Challenge: Radhika, who gets immunity.

The Elimination Challenge, blessedly, does not include a Pepto sponsorship, But after hearing who the new guest judge is, many of the cheftestants may want to reach for the pink stuff. Taking over for newly hitched judge Gail Simmons will be badass English food critic Toby Young. But before they have to face the Simon Cowell of the food world, they get a night off. Eugene phones his family. Just in case you thought all the product placement was over, observe:

The next morning they get a visit from Tom, who tells them this Elimination Challenge will be different. Because so many of them have been frustrated by the restrictions on challenges, this one has no limits. They can cook whatever they want to showcase their style, and it will be served family-style and judged blind by a panel of “foodies and critics.” Oh, and one more thing, since no one went home last time, this is a double elimination. Tom giveth and he taketh away.

The chefs draw knives to see which group they will cook in, because their kitchen will be small. Radhika gets to pick, and she goes with “whatever group Stefan is not in.” Such a smart girl. Group A (Radhika, Jamie, Eugene, Hosea, Melissa and Fabio) heads to Whole Foods. After hearing what Eugene is preparing, Jamie and Radhika share a laugh at his “f—ing weird” concept of daikon fettuccine in a tomato basil sauce to go along with his fried snapper. It sounds bitchy but actually made me giggle because, hello, radish in marinara is weird.

Group A gets cooking and Hosea notes that it’s quiet in the kitchen without Stefan, to which his fellow chefs reply, “Exactly” and “It’s nice.” I giggle even more. Then they get busy. Hosea is making bacon-wrapped hailbut, Radhika crab bisque, Melissa Ahi tuna tacos, Fabio — what else — pasta with sous-vide lamb (cooked in a plastic bag in water, like super-fancy Minute Rice) and Jamie scallops with a fennel salad.

Scallops three challenges in a row? Really, Jamie? Apparently she wants to prove to the judges that she can cook them after her raw-scallop debacle last time. But, as Fabio notes, “This is Top Chef, is not Top Scallops.” Wait, Top Scallops? I’d watch that.

Group B gets shopping and Carla, bless her kooky heart, decides to slow it down so she can hear her intuition. She really wants to do a vegetarian dish, but her intuition apparently tells her she might get dinged for not having a protein. So she picks up scallops to add to her mint risotto.

Back in Group A, Eugene declares himself the most creative chef in the competition and says none of the other chefs would “have the balls to make daikon fettuccini with tomato basil sauce.” Do they not have the balls, Eugene, or do they have too much brains?

Time winds down and the “food experts” are revealed. Lo and behold, judging the challenge will be the four pros along with the remaining group of cheftestants. So Group B gets to judge Group A’s food and vice versa. How very Lord of the Flies of you, Bravo.

Group A goes back in the kitchen to watch the judges pick apart their dishes. They are initially worried about what their cohorts will say about the dishes. But they soon realize they’ve got bigger problems. Like a bald, cranky, bespectacled problem named Toby. A sampling of his criticisms:

Radhika’s bisque: “I have found the weapons of mass destruction and they are in this bowl.”

Eugene’s fish: “The bland leading the bland.”

Melissa’s tacos: “I think it tasted a bit like cat food.”

Even Carla, whose food isn’t even being judged yet, senses trouble and makes a plaintive call for Gail.

On the plus side, they loved Jamie’s scallops and liked the sides, if not the proteins, on Hosea and Fabio’s dishes.

Now it’s Group B’s turn. Jeff makes a tapas trio, Stefan duck with cabbage and dumplings, Leah fried fish on fried beans (yeah, don’t ask) and Ariane skate with cauliflower puree and pineapple. Though, can we discuss Stefan’s shirt for a minute? “I Make Good Babies” — seriously?

Dude, you’re a pompous loudmouth who is chasing after a lesbian. You’re not making any babies, good or otherwise.

Now Group A gets to sink their knives teeth into their rivals’ backs dishes. But everyone’s comments were rather mild and even Toby is fairly glowing. What, did he burn himself out of good insults in the first round?

At Judge’s Table, Ariane, Stefan and Jamie get called in first. The love gets slopped around, and in the end our little chefbian finally pulls out the win. Jamie seems almost more relieved than happy. But, a win is a win. I really thought it might be a mistake making scallops three times in a row. But, hey, what the hell do I know? I’ve never even cooked one.

But if there is a winner, that means there is also a loser and this time more than one. Melissa, Eugene and Carla get called in and the spankings are dispensed. Carla isn’t confident enough, Melissa isn’t creative enough and Eugene isn’t honoring her ingredients enough.

Instead of who gets the PYKAG, the decision is really who gets to stay. And who stays? Carla. So who goes? Melissa and Eugene. I’m not going to lie, I’m so glad kooky Carla gets to live to cook another day.

NEXT WEEK: The chefs get Hung out to dry. Jamie and Stefan keep up the dyke drama.

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