“Top Chef: Las Vegas” mini-cap: Natalie Portman gets salty


Please be forewarned, this recap will include in no specific order: Padma Lakshmi, Natalie Portman and an inordinate amount of dick jokes. So, now that that’s out of the way, who wants to meet a movie star?

The chefs are at the house sharpening their knives — quite literally in Mike V’s case. Jen is beating herself up and Robin is just lucky to still be there. So off to the Top Chef kitchen they go to find Padma with guest judge Paul Bartolotta, an award-winning Italian chef. Padma is wearing yet another jumpsuit. Is she trying to single-handedly bring them back? Let me be the first to say, honey, no.

The TV Guide Quickfire Challenge (look, people, these products won’t place themselves) is for the chefs to each create a TV dinner inspired by a classic show. They draw knives to find out what must-see-TV they’re cooking about. They pull: Kevin, The Sopranos; Eli, Gilligan’s Island; Jen, The Flintstones; Robin, Sesame Street; Mike V, Cheers; Bryan, MASH and Mike I, Seinfeld.

When talking about TV dinners, Mike V says his mom was a “mom mom” with “dinner on the table at 5 every night.” Um, so moms who work and can’t cook every night aren’t real moms? Wow, does anyone else like him less and less as the season progresses?

Jen, meanwhile, is explaining the charms of The Flintstones, saying: “I would relate to Pebbles. Pebbles has a sweet little boyfriend, Bam-Bam. I don’t know if I like that he carries a club around and drags her by her hair, but it could be fun sometimes.” Oh, Jen. We knew deep down you were a naughty little minx.

Padma and Chef Bartolotta get served in a retro living room set because, apparently, besides promoting TV Guide this challenge also invented the time machine. Mike I tells the judges that he has never watched an episode of Seinfeld — ever. How is that even possible? It’s still on TV every single day, multiple times a day. Then Bryan’s meatloaf and apple tarte gets “mmm-mmm” noises from Padma. I just love it when that woman goes nonverbal.

So which dishes are “up for cancellation”: Jennifer’s chicken roulade and Robin’s burger with egg. And in turn which have a chance of “going into syndication”: Kevin’s meatballs and Bryan’s meatloaf. So who gets picked up? Kevin. Immunity is no longer on the table, but his dish will be featured in a new line of frozen foods. Will Julia Louis-Dreyfus show up and start hawking those, too?

Now that the TV-themed Quickfire is over, it’s time to go for the big screen in the Elimination Challenge. Padma tells the chefs that they will take over head judge Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak in the MGM Grand. So, naturally, all the chefs start thinking beef, it’s what’s for dinner. And, Robin aside, they’re all thrilled with the meaty ideas.

The next day they arrive and immediately raid the meat locker. It’s like steak Valhalla where only the best are allowed into its hallowed grounds. But then, just as everyone is elbow-deep in red meat, who should walk in but Tom and a very special guest. Look, kids, it’s Oscar nominee Natalie Portman.

I think Mike I actually drooled, and more than just a little.

Eli, the underdeveloped adolescent that he is, is thinking less carnally and more nerdily. He comments that, “Really the only important thing (Natalie) ever did was in Star Wars, which is the only important thing you can do.” Gosh, and you wonder why this guy still lives at home.

Natalie tells the star-struck cheftestants that she loves flavors, trying new taste and — oh yeah — she is a vegetarian. So, for one night only, Craftsteak will be a vegetarian house. You’d think she told them she was a three-legged albino pygmy goat from the bewildered looks they all gave her.

Jen unleashes an expletive. Kevin calmly says everyone has to now change their dishes. And Robin is thrilled because she just loves cooking vegetarian food. In the pantry, Jen and Eli both want to use eggplants so they slip a dehydrated orange chip to see who gets the purple prizes. Necessity really is the mother of invention, and an interesting fruit salad. Eli wins which leaves Jen with the baby eggplants.

Robin rushes around like a kid in a candy store, talking to herself as usual and grabbing pretty much everything she sees. She decides to make a dish she has never made before. Could this big red flag I’m waving be any bigger and redder? Will these people never learn?

Mike I is cocky (what else is new) about his food saying “I can cook anything; I can cook dogs.” Um, someone is perhaps unclear on the meaning of vegetarian. Eli jokes that vegetarians are “lower human beings,” but says actually he is sorry for them because they get the “short end of the stick” cuisine-wise. Scorn then pity, that’ll endear you to the vegetarian viewers.

The judges and guests arrive. Tom, Padma, Chef Bartolotta and Gail Simmons (am I the only one who does a little dance every time I see Gail instead of Toby’s bald head?) are joined by Natalie and several for her friends. Her friends all look very normal and un-Hollywoody, with nary a spray tan in sight. The chefs arrive to serve their entrees one by one.

Robin is first with her stuffed squash blossom, fresh garbanzo bean and chermoula sauce concoction. Padma says the sauce is salty and she can feel her ankles swelling. Gail agrees and Tom says the balance was off. Also off of his plate were the garbanzos, which never made it onto his serving.

Eli is next with an eggplant, lentil, radish salad plate. They all seem to enjoy the salad, but Chef Bartolotta says the lavender in it reminds him of sucking on a bar of soap in the Provence. They all laugh knowingly. Their travel budgets and judgment about appropriate snack food items must be vastly different than mine.

Mike V is up with his asparagus salad with banana polenta. Natalie calls the dish “exciting” and says, “It makes me smile and laugh and I’m confused.” I think that’s good, right? One of her female friends then calls Mike V “Picasso.” OK, that was definitely good if a little — well, really a lot — hyperbolic.

Jen’s charred eggplant with fennel follows. She comes around to sauce everyone’s plate individually and her hand starts to shake, adding an element of danger and/or increased dry cleaning bills to the evening. Gail says everything tastes beautifully, but it doesn’t feel like a main course. One of Natalie’s male friends says it is “a really beautiful side dish if there was an entree next to it, a steak preferably.” So she dragged along some of her carnivorous friends for fun.

Though, how is Mike V’s dish any more substantial than Jen’s dish? They both seem pretty small and unfilling to me.

Mike I and his roasted leeks are next. He apparently had trouble cooking them, because they were supposed to come out looking like scallops and instead look like, well, mushy leeks. He says he wanted them to represent “the protein” on the plate, except of course leeks have no protein, a point Padma happily points out.

Bryan is next with his artichoke, shallot and fennel dish, complete with garlic bulb crumbles. Padma notes that the garlic is “like a little prick on the tip of my tongue.” Natalie turns a shade of red and jokes, “Oh, don’t say that. That’s awesome.” No, this face is awesome.

Penis humor! On a cooking show! In a meatless challenge! It’s like someone turned a Whole Foods into a frat house. But, oh kiddies, it gets worse. When discussing the food further, Padma says the flavor went from tiny on the plate to big, and then Natalie finishes for her “big in my mouth.” That’s what she said! Cymbal crash!

But wait, there’s more. Tom chimes in, “it went from a little prick to big in my mouth.” And, finally, one of Natalie’s friends completes the unavoidable joke: “That’s what usually happens.” Man, and you thought Robin’s dish was salty. That whole exchange made my ankles and brain swell.

Kevin’s dish rounds out the night. People love his mushroom and smoked turnips dish and nobody mentions the male anatomy.

In the Stew Room the chefs await their fate. Padma calls in Kevin, Mike V and Eli. Tom praises Mike V’s ingenuity and Natalie says his food has “so much humor is it. What is going on? Who is his dealer and does he want new clients?” Then Eli’s food gets calls “fun” and Kevin’s dish “delicious.”

So who won? Kevin. He gets a suite of GE appliances like those in the Top Chef kitchen. Afterward he says he was proud of winning because it showed that he “knows how to cook vegetables.”

Considerably less happy is Mike V who makes a pouty little face at the news. He then tells the cameras he could have made Kevin’s dish “in 20 minutes — my second year of apprenticeship.” Are those grapes sour enough for you, Mikey? You know what some people forget about food? If it tastes good, nothing else matters.

They return to the Stew Room and send in their less fortunate comrades Robin. Jennifer and Mike I. Mike I gets roasted for not including a protein. Gail even asks him if he knows leeks aren’t protein. Ouch. Tom then goes after him for taking two hours and still undercooking his leeks. Guess Mike I’s “I can cook anything”-boat has sprung a leak. When Padma tells him she was surprised he didn’t ace the challenge he replies with a glib, “It’s like whatever, whatever. What am I going to do?” Glib, yeah, the judges always love that.

Robin then gets told she was all over the map and that nothing tied together her food. And then Jen gets scolded for making too small a portion. Tom tells her “You made it this far but your performance is starting to suffer,” which is sadly true. She tells them she will do better if given the chance but if not, thanks for letting her be on the show. I should have labeled this shot: “Defeatist attitude is defeatist.”

But who gets PYKAGed? Mike I! And this little piggy goes wee wee wee all the way home.

In the Stew Room, he tells everyone “it’s nobody’s fault but my own.” But then to the cameras he said “one person should have been eliminated tonight, Robin.” Robin celebrates his departure saying maybe the house will be “less back stabby.” Eli then promptly kicks a chain in frustration, so so much for that.

NEXT: OH MY GOD, PEOPLE! Padma and Nigella Lawson are in bed in robes. I have had dreams like this — very, very good dreams.

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