Hopefully this week’s episode will be more exciting than last week’s, which seemed to suffer from post-Jen timidity. While “Top Chef” isn’t the kind of hair pulling, immunity idol stealing, bar brawling reality TV show we can expect from other networks, it seems like the chefs deliver some of their most inspired dishes while under intense pressure. If that happens to include some pan stealing of monopolizing the liquid nitrogen while cursing a blue streak, so be it. And this week promises to offer not only plenty of stress, but one of the wackiest Quickfires ever. So let’s get to it!
 
For the Quickfire Challenge, Tony Mantuano, owner of Spiagga in Chicago and a friendly looking guy who slightly resembles a happy basset hound, joins the judges’ table. The challenge? The chefs must make stuffing. Eh, no big deal. Except they have to do this without kitchen tools or knives. Wha? No spoons? No forks? No graters? How are you supposed to cut up produce or meat without a knife? This just seems like a recipe for injury (although, granted, no one will be cutting off a finger). Still, with $20 grand on the line, the chefs are seemingly willing to do almost anything. You can almost see the little dollar signs flashing in their eyes.  
 
The chefs go raring into the pantry like shoppers at Wal-Mart on Black Friday. Carla being Carla, she decides to walk in after the melee has died down. Thus, Carla ends up with black quinoa. Black quinoa actually could be wonderful if it didn’t take forever and a day to cook, and while this que sera, sera attitude is awfully zen by way of Doris Day of her, I wish she’d fight a little harder.
 
I have to hand it to Tre, who concludes that, by freezing his ingredients, he can then smash them into bits. But really, necessity is an awesome mother of invention because chefs are stirring their dishes with slabs of bacon and using the storage racks as graters and all sorts of clever stuff. It’s sort of like cooking brownies in your dorm room or making Dorito pie in prison (Martha Stewart actually made that on her show a while back, no kidding), but I’m sure the results are much tastier.
 
Tony gives everyone an A for effort, but he still fingers three chefs for delivering an ick factor. First up is Carla for her underdone quinoa. Carla, Carla, Carla! The zen thing is costing you! Tiffani F.’s stuffing is deemed too sweet and Casey’s stuffing was more of a plated appetizer than a stuffing, which seems like an odd criticism given that Marcel actually served an entire squab, which is not stuffing the last time I checked.
 
Tony’s favorites are Tre’s Southwestern stuffing with bacon, cheddar, bell pepper and chili powder (which does look really tasty), Marcel’s squab with raisin brioche, cherries, currants and ras el hanout (a North African spice blend, if you’re wondering) gravy. I was surprised Dale T. didn’t get a nod for his crab, oyster and olive dish for pure inventiveness, although it was pretty far from any traditional idea of stuffing. For once I wasn’t surprised that Richard didn’t end up in the top two, only because his stuffed onion looked like something I’d find in the bottom of my vegetable drawer. I’m sure it was delish, but you’d have to get past a certain level of revulsion to find that out.
 
The winner is Tre, which is great simply because he’s already said he’s going to blow the 20k on his two girls, and I just have images of two little girls losing their minds at Target.
 
There’s not too much time to dwell on the Quickfire, as Padma informs the chefs that for the elimination challenge they must prepare meals for the tennis players and guests at the U.S. Open. This means healthy, light and suitable for scarfing down before hitting the court. The teams are Team Orange and Team Yellow, and dishes will be served one at a time, head to head. The chefs who face elimination must deliver both a losing dish and be on the losing team. So, there’s strategy involved. Let the plotting begin!
 
On Team Yellow (Tre, Tiffani, Angelo, Spike, Casey and Jamie), even though Spike seems worried about not having any allies among his teammates (Spike, no one is your ally on this show) he and Angelo click right away in wanting to make dishes that are high on flavor. But Team Orange (Carla, Marcel, Dale, Antonia, Richard, Fabio and Mike) isn’t so harmonious. Carla wants to make a peanut stew, which Dale finds far too pedestrian for the likes of the U.S. Open. Shut up, Dale. Marcel seems okay with the starchy thing, but I’m not convinced Carla is going to stick to her guns.
 
Back to Team Yellow. That night, Spike suggests that the team put up their weakest dishes first, so that Team Orange blows through their good stuff. Um, that works, unless Team Orange gets so far ahead they just plain win. I think Team Yellow is kind of screwed.
 
When the teams go to Whole Foods to buy ingredients, Carla reveals she’s making her peanut stew and her critics can blow. Okay, she doesn’t say that last part, but she’s standing by her dish. Finally! Go, Carla!
 
Some of the chefs talk about how they treat their bodies like temples (man, Tre looks TOTALLY different chubby), but I kind of love Antonia for admitting she just sat on her butt and smoked pot in high school instead of playing sports.
 
Fabio is making gnocchi. I love gnocchi. I do not want to eat gnocchi before playing tennis. However, I haven’t had Fabio’s gnocchi, and it may be little pillows of deliciousness. Or at least it better be if he wants to win this thing.
 
Angelo discovers that his mackerel are slimy, so he starts panhandling for fish. Tre won’t give up his salmon, even though he has immunity. Wha? Tiffany, however, does. I have to hand it to Tiffany. Yes, she’s on the same team with Angelo, but giving up a chunk of her key ingredient could, as she says, bite her in the butt.
 
Everything is going smoothly from an injury standpoint until Carla cuts half her fingernail off. Dale and Antonia are all kinds of impressed, as Carla just mans up and refuses to go to the hospital. I’m not sure, but I’m hoping Jamie feels like a wuss.
 
Wussiness aside, Jamie also feels her chickpeas are undercooked, and according to her team’s strategy, that means her incomplete dish should go up first. Jamie is not a fan of this idea. At all. And somehow she weasels her way out of going on the block.  
 
First up, Fabio’s whole wheat gnocchi with fennel, zucchini and pork loin versus Casey’s grilled pork tenderloin over farro, cherries and snap peas. Taylor loves the gnocchi, as do Tom and Padma. Huh, go figure, light gnocchi. Point to Team Orange.
 
Having lost a point, Team Yellow proceeds to freak out and throw their bad first, best last strategy out the window. Well, yeah, it was a stupid strategy anyway.
 
Dale informs Marcel he has to go next, because his edamame dumplings are dying. Given that he informs Marcel of this after the poor guy had already gotten halfway done plating, Marcel’s a little ticked. Anyway, Dale’s dumpling with spicy carrot froth and crispy soy nuts faces off against Tiffani’s black bass sashimi with avocado and ponzu vinaigrette. Tiffani’s dish seems a little too simple to me, but maybe that dumpling had already expired because even though Padma picks Dale, everyone else prefers Tiffani. It’s fifteen-all.
 
Angelo’s smoked tuna with yuzu gelee, red onion and capers faces off against Marcel’s cauliflower couscous with pomegranate seeds, golden raisins and yellowfin tuna. Marcel’s dish does not look that good to me, so I’m not surprised when Angelo wins and Team Yellow takes the lead.
 
Tiffany’s spiced tuna with fennel, peppercorns, coriander seeds and lentil salad is up against Antonia’s scallop with Indian lentil puree, mint, dandelion greens, cilantro and chives. The judges are split, but Antonia wins it. Thirty-all.
 
Richard goes up against Spike. This does not bode well for Spike, who’s already said he had to rush his shrimp as an initial batch failed. Worse, Angelo tries to be “helpful” by slopping some yuzu at the bottom of Spike’s soup bowl. Spike, don’t let anyone mess with your food! Aaargh! Angelo already has a bad rep for helping people on this show – helping them go home, that is.
 
So, Spike’s tomato tamarind soup with olive oil poached shrimp, pineapple, tomatoes and dill challenges Richard’s “thai-bouleh” with lamb, herbs and yogurt. I will say, Richard’s looks beautiful, and the judges pan Spike’s shrimp (and Richard’s lamb, for that matter, but love his tabouleh), so Richard wins it.
 
Match point! It’s Carla’s African groundnut soup with baked sweet potatoes, adzuki beans and peanuts versus Tre’s salmon with parsnip puree, olive oil sauce with citrus, tomatoes and olives. Tre appears to have been phoning it in, because the fish doesn’t look very interesting. We also discover that he lets Angelo cook it while he’s preparing the rest of the meal, and lo and behold, it comes out overcooked. Seriously, chefs, do NOT let Angelo near your food! In any case, Carla wins it and, given how much the judges enjoy it, she probably would have won even if Tre delivered perfect fish. Team Orange takes the challenge!
 
Fabio, Carla, Richard and Antonia are first to see the judges. One of them will win a trip to Italy. The winner is… Carla! She gets a five day, four night trip to Italy. I’m so glad she stuck to her guns and served up her nut stew. Although she’s got to stop with the ululations every time she’s happy, because it sounds like she’s a character on “Xena: The Warrior Princess” and is preparing to cut off someone’s head with a broad sword.
 
Spike, Tiffany, Tre and Casey are called back for judgment. In the back room, Richard calls out Jamie for dodging a bullet, which makes Jamie absolutely indignant. How dare anyone question why she didn’t put her food up! Jamie does not impress me this season. During her first season of “Top Chef,” she seemed like a real competitor (and she gamely put up with Stefan’s nonstop romantic overtures), but this time around she appears to be skating by.
 
When the judges criticize Spike’s soup, he points out that Angelo tossed in his yuzu against his wishes. But if he’s hoping for back-up from Tiffany, he doesn’t get it. When the judges ask her if Angelo is a saboteur, she says, well, yeah, but you’ve got to be responsible for your own dish. I will hand it to Tiffany, in that she calls ‘em like she sees ‘em. And she’s right. Spike should have told Angelo to get lost, honestly.
 
Gail and Tom tell Tiffany her dish was both overdressed and lacked something. Tony breaks it to Tre that his dish was the worst of all of them, but Tre couldn’t care too much, as he has immunity. The chefs all take their beatings, except for Casey. Casey stands by her heavy pork loin, dammit. At least she doesn’t pull a Jen.
 
The loser is… Spike. Wow. I really thought he was going to go further than he did. I also feel like I think that every week. I’m sorry to see him go, but by letting Angelo tinker with his food, he not only showed the judges he lacks the confidence and fight he used to have, but that he makes lousy shrimp.
 
Oh, the next episode looks good! Not only are they duking it out in Manhattan’s Chinatown, it appears that the chefs so thoroughly under deliver that customers threaten to walk out. Given how strong the chefs have been up to this point that comes as a surprise, but hey, it’s Chinatown, baby.
 
Do you think Angelo is sabotaging his teammates? Do you think Jamie is playing fair? Are you glad Carla won the challenge?