So, we’re down to just eight master chefs, and now that the kitchen is less congested the show’s producers are getting their crazy on with the challenges. Hey, let’s make ‘em cook at a fast food restaurant! And not tell them that’s the challenge until after they’ve bought their food! And let’s line the floor of the kitchen with hot coals and make them cook barefoot while we blast them with firehoses! Okay, not that last part, but I guess that they’ve realized they can’t count on highly paid executive chefs to melt down and scream at one another the way struggling chefs would, so they’ve got to up the ante somehow. Of course, I think they have to be cautious of pushing too hard, as I think there will be a mass walk-off if the challenge involves cooking pets or waiting tables naked. Actually, I bet Hugh would do the latter, but that’s not something I need to TiVo, honestly. So let’s get to it!

[Recap of Wednesday's (May 4) "Top Chef Masters" after the break...]
 
Quickfire Challenge! Curtis informs the chefs that they must make an appetizer for one buck or less. Brendan Newnam and Rico Gagliano from American Public Radio’s “The Dinner Party Download” will be judging. Floyd seems to have a leg up here, since he came to America with $100 in his pocket and couldn’t get work until the day before he was planning to return to India. Celina seems pretty confident, too, as she decides to make carrot soup, then spring for a lime and a shrimp as garnish. Crafty!
 
Not surprisingly, budget cooking does not come easily to these guys. Hugh breaks one of his eggs and has to change his recipe to accommodate his screw-up. But at least he’s working within his budget. Mary Sue can’t seem to figure out what to make that isn’t at least a buck fifty. I’m also astounded at how many chefs are adding as they cook. You’d think they’d buy their ingredients, then cook them up, but now I’m starting to understand why most restaurants go belly up in the first two years.
 
Celina: Spicy carrot soup with lime-pickled shrimp
Brendan/Rico (we haven’t been properly introduced, so God knows which one’s Brendan and which one’s Rico) like the amount of flavor that developed. They’d expect to pay $15, $20 for it, and now they’re starting to think they’re getting screwed at nice restaurants.
 
Mary Sue: bacon, lettuce & tomato salad with celery seed vinaigrette
Our judges think it’s clever to have a BLT in a salad form but agree that it’s way too salty. Mary Sue wasn’t able to sample the bacon after she cooked it because she couldn’t afford it. Celina’s carrot soup is looking better all the time.  
 
Naomi: asparagus & bread salad with cherry tomato & lemon vinaigrette
They dig the buttery bread and lemon. This dish is a big hit.
 
Hugh: Lyonnaise salad with bacon, frisee, radicchio & poached egg
Brendan/Rico agree that the bitter radicchio is perfect with the egg. The guys pointedly say that this challenge is putting fast food to shame. I see an Elimination Challenge coming!
 
Alex: spiced squid with garlic, olives & almonds
Verdict: it’s a skillful dish. Curtis can’t believe it was made for under a buck. He just can’t believe it! Well, food prices are going up, Curtis, so don’t worry. It’s probably worth three-fifty by now.
 
George: grilled calamari salad with cucumber, tomatoes & almonds
This one is deemed underwhelming. It lacks a kick of super awesome. I think Rico said that.
 
Traci: chicken paillard with asparagus, lemon & brown butter
Everyone thinks this one is quite good. In other words, not a winner but not a loser.
 
Floyd: fricassee of shrimp & asparagus with beef & tomatoes
Brendan/Rico notes that this dish is heavily spiced and moist. I guess that’s a good thing, though with the wrong appetizer that could be pretty disgusting.
 
So, time for the official verdict. On the losing side, Rico (finally, we can sort out which one’s Brendan and which one’s Rico! Thanks, Curtis, you do know we can’t see public radio, right?) thought George’s calamari was bland, Brendan was not a fan of Mary Sue’s salty salad. On the positive side, Rico liked Alex’s squid, Brendan loved Celina’s soup and Rico loved Naomi’s bread salad. The winner is… Naomi’s bread and asparagus salad! Naomi is doing pretty damn well in this competition. What I have to admire about her is she tends to win with stuff that seems deceptively simple, like celery soup and bread salad, which makes me think she must be damn good. Well, that or the judges are so used to incredibly complex foo-foo dishes that they get all worked up over things they can easily identify.  
 
Curtis is already moving on to the Elimination Challenge! Each chef must cook a main dish and a side for 100 people who will not have utensils. Traci is thinking amusement park. She isn’t far off. This seems too simple to be trusted, and that scares the poop out of Hugh. Seriously, he said it scares the poop out of him, I’m not being cutesy paraphrasing here.
 
At Whole Foods, everyone scurries around, trying to think utensil-free food. Hugh can’t think of anything. Alex feels ready. Traci is making a burrito. George is making a pork loin. I think George is going to be sorry.
 
Finally, the big reveal – their cars pull up to the parking lot of a Farmer Boys fast food restaurant. They’ll take two shifts, one group working the front of the house (which in this case involves the counter and the drive-thru) and the other group cooking. Some of our chefs aren’t exactly bothered by the challenge. Celina worked at Bennigan’s, Mary Sue at a donut shop and Floyd is making Indian street food. Maybe this challenge wasn’t so tough after all.
 
First shift – front of house: Naomi, Floyd, George, Traci
Second shift – front of house: Alex, Hugh, Celina, Mary Sue
 
First Shift
Traci informs us that Naomi will do the drive-thru because she’s bubbly and entertaining, but she says it in such a way that those qualities seem like very, very bad things.  
 
Everything starts melting down with impressive speed. George is sucking at expediting. Naomi takes off her headphones for a moment and accidentally blows off Curtis and Danyelle, who are sitting in the drive-thru. Traci realizes the chefs in the back are getting overwhelmed and decides to head back there to lend a hand. But then, Mary Sue snaps at Traci. If I were Traci, I’d tell her to suck it and go back to my post, but Traci is a better person than I am. Meanwhile, judges James and Alan are cooling their heels in line. All of the chefs look panicked in both the front and the back of the house, but there’s a minimum of snapping. I think it also helps that everyone’s playing for charity.
 
Hugh: banh mi of pork & liver pate, chili watermelon with Serrano & feta
Danyelle says it’s a little messy but she likes the banh mi. James is underwhelmed and so is Curtis. Uh-oh.
 
Mary Sue: skirt steak quesadilla Diablo, quinoa fritters & sweet pepper garlic mayo
James thinks it’s a tasty mouthful. Curtis loves the fritters. Danyelle says they’re healthy hush puppies. Curtis thinks she’s a healthy hush puppy. Rarr! There’s some very flirty action going on between these two. Maybe they need to take their food to the backseat.
 
Alex: salmon fish taco with fennel & apple slaw, butternut squash fritters
James thinks the taco, which is really a burrito, is weirdly petite, but Alan likes it and Danyelle likes the fritters.
 
Celina: lamb, pork & garbanzo wrap with pickled cauliflower
Curtis doesn’t like the way it’s an unwrap, more of a flat, messy thing than an actual wrap. James says it’s having an existential dilemma, because it’s a pancake that wants to be a wrap. Honestly, it does look pretty disgusting.
 
Second shift! The judges switch places, so Danyelle and Curtis have to hose off the backseat of the car. Okay, not really. They have a production assistant do it, I’m sure.
Alex is annoyed by Hugh, who seems to enjoy clowning around with the customers and not helping anyone else. But service seems to be moving a little more smoothly this time around, though not by much.
 
George: pork & chorizo skewer with clam, cucumber & olive side
James says it’s the ugliest food he’s ever seen, and I can’t disagree with that. It looks like something a little kid would put together for a teddy bear tea party. Curtis says he should have adapted his dish to the fast food concept. Bye, George.
 
Traci: chicken chili verde burrito, jicama sticks & tortilla chips
Curtis loves the flavor. James does, too. Alan thinks it’s great eating and driving food. I don’t ever want to be in a car behind Alan. He probably texts behind the wheel, too.
 
Floyd: chicken frankie with cucumber, daikon & grape slaw
James says this is great compared to Celina’s crap pancake. Hmm, maybe Celina is going home, as hers is so bad it’s now a benchmark of awfulness for other, better dishes.
 
Naomi: rib eye steak sandwich on ciabatta, Caesar salad with herbed croutons
Curtis doesn’t think it’s special. Alan thinks it’s not cool to give people salad without utensils. Danyelle notes that even Curtis doesn’t look sexy eating Caesar with his fingers. They giggle with one another. Meanwhile, Naomi has immunity, so there.
 
Judging time! Alex, George & Celina are called back. Rur-roh. The other chefs are completely put out, because they assume these three must be the winners. Traci can’t believe it. Don’t worry, Traci!
 
Curtis introduces our chefs to the judges again (which is probably for our benefit, as I don’t think the chefs have Alzheimer’s or serious brain injuries), then reveals that they are the least favorites. Celina is shocked. James tells her that he thought her cauliflower was a tasty mouthful (that’s his catch phrase for today), but thought it was weird with the wrap. The judges give George a smack on the wrist for not making fast food, but George says he did make fast food. He had a skewer! Alex, on the other hand, just apologizes. I think they should keep Alex around just for that reason alone.
 
Time for the winners! Mary Sue, Traci and Floyd get called back. Traci is so thrilled! Which on her is just less of a grimace. James declares Floyd’s Frankie a delight. Curtis was in love with Traci’s burrito. Mary Sue modestly says she gambled that she’d have a fryer, because otherwise she would have lost the challenge. Humble and honest. I almost forgive her for snapping at Traci now.
 
The winner is… Mary Sue. She must be thrilled, considering that she’s been in the bottom so many times.
 
Time to decide the loser. I’m thinking Celina’s getting the boot. But she’s not. They kick George to the curb for his ugly clam/cuke debacle. It did look pretty vile, to be honest. But was it really worse than Celina’s pancake?
 
It’s fine, though, because George doesn’t mind. He stood behind his food. He’s going out happy, because he took a risk. I’m not sure if he should be really happy with pork loin skewers and clam-cuke whatsits, but I will say that’s risky. Probably for the person eating it, but still, risky.
 
Next week, the chefs cook for Maroon 5 and Gail Simmons. And apparently eat something that looks like poop rolled in bird seed. That’s not my description, by the way. So, yay?
 
Do you think George deserved to go? What did you think of the fast food challenge? And did the one buck challenge make you rethink fine dining prices at all?