After last week's debacle, during which Tom actually took back the $10,000 prize because all of the food was so consistently lousy, I'm hoping the chefs can turn it around this week. If not, I predict food poisoning, intestinal distress and tears. 

For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs gather around Padma and a little old lady Dallas John thinks might be "Martha Stewart's mother." Alas, she's not. She's Marilyn Hagerty, the food writer for the Grand Forks Herald. She's been writing about middle-American restaurants in her area for 30 years! She recently wrote about the Olive Garden in her fair city, and it went viral (read her review here). She didn't even know what viral meant! Wow!

For the record, her review isn't badly written. It isn't well-written, either. The idea that this thing went viral is just beyond me. She reviewed an Olive Garden, and you'd think after 30 years she would have picked up some ideas about food writing. Anyway, she was at first roundly condemned for her review, then the tide turned and everyone and their dog came to her defense, and she got a book deal. Anthony Bourdain is working with her. While she isn't deserving of our contempt, I sure as heck don't want to read a book she's written, either. Next week, "Top Chef" will feature a challenge judged by the piano-playing cat and the toddler who's best friends with his dog. 

The Quickfire Challenge is simple: each chef must create a sweet and savory holiday dish reflecting his or her cultural heritage. And if it tastes like Olive Garden? Even better! 

And there's a twist! There's only one knife available for everyone. AND they have 30 minutes. I suspect a lot of these dishes will taste like they were made at Olive Garden just by default. I also suspect that Marilyn is far too nice to say anything negative to the chefs, so I expect a lot of encouragement even if she has to spit food into her sleeve between takes. 

Josh - Johnnycake with bacon, cheddar, chili compound butter & sous vide egg

This sounds amazing, but looks like a dog's breakfast. Marilyn thinks it's great!

Danyele  - Bread pudding with ham, raisins & pecans

If you told me this came from a can, I'd believe it. But Marilyn is impressed!

Lizzie - Bobotie with ground lamb, egg custard & roasted apricots

If Marilyn comments, we don't see it. I'm wondering if she's just trying to figure out what a bobotie is. Can't say I'm up on my South African food, either. 

Sheldon - Banana lumpia with peanut butter mousse, coconut & pineapple

I'm sure some of this stuff tastes great, but it's an endless sea of brown. But Marilyn thinks it's tasty!

Micah - Pineapple & pork tamale with charred tomato & tomatillo salsa

Micah isn't sure Marilyn will know what a tamale is. Marilyn thinks it's rather unusual! She's not seen it before! So, Micah's right, I suppose. 

Bart - Waffles with celery three ways, apple puree, chicken & prosciutto

Celery and waffles? Eww. No comment from Marilyn, by the way. 

Brooke - Apple crostata with cheddar cheese, candied pine nuts & apple salad

Padma thinks it's homey. Brooke isn't thrilled. I bet Marilyn likes it. I get the impression she's found of homey food. 

Stefan - Smoked salmon tartare, potate latkes with sour cream & chives

Stefan is inspired by his half-Finnish, half-German background, and his Jewish ex-wife, whom he married twice. Marilyn thinks Stefan did very well in the challenge, but thinks he lacks imagination in marrying the same woman twice. Good point, really. 

Josie - Tamale with habanero masa, mangos & papaya

Marilyn thinks it's a nice combination of tastes. Marilyn totally subscribes to the "if you can't say anything nice" dictum, don't you think? 

John - Bondino of Parmesan-Reggiano, figs & apricots in port wine and Truvia caramel

He's adopted, but he found out he's Italian and Irish. Marilyn's all for port wine!

Eliza - Hush puppies two ways: shrimp & sweet potato, sausage & corn

Eliza's family likes to dunk stuff in large quantities of boiling oil when things "get heated." This seems problematic. Marilyn thinks it tastes good!

Marilyn thought it was all an amazing display of creativity. But she thought Bart had too much going on, Micah's "taco" was dry. On the positive side, she thought Josh elevated his common dessert, she thought Stefan's was attractive and tasty, and she liked Brooke's basic-but-better meal. The best overall was... Brooke. She had thought her dish was totally embarrassing, but go figure!

Next, Anna Faris and Chris Pratt walk in. They're big stars AND they're actors. They're from Washington! And she's pregnant! The Elimination Challenge will have the chefs catering Chris & Anna's homecoming party. The winner gets a Toyota Prius C. Sweet!

Stefan thinks he has a lock on this, as Anna's German and Chris is Norwegian. Anna and Chris provide a helpful guide to their likes and dislikes for the chefs. They're adventurous, but Chris doesn't want hummus. They also eat what they kill, though I think that's just Chris. And he kills game, not people. Good to know. 

The challenge is held at the Chihuly Garden & Glass Cafe, which is a pretty nice place to have an outdoor party, though I wouldn't want to be there during a big storm or anything with all that glass. Rick Moonen of RM Seafood will be joining the party as a guest judge. This is a twist, in that Dallas John used to work for him. Eeek! Also joining the judges' table will be the usual suspects and invited guests: Anna Faris and Chris Pratt, Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio.

Bart - Loin of elk with cherry beer sauce & mushroom couscous

Brooke - Lamb-stuffed squid on black rice with coconut milk

Sheldon - Braised Okinawan pork belly with seared scallop & rice congee

Stefan - German gulasch with marjoram bread dumplings & sour cream

Anna loves Sheldon's dish. She thinks every bite was a surprise. Padma thinks Bart's elk is beautifully done. Rick thinks it needed salt, but was good otherwise. Anna declares Stefan's gulasch what pregnant women crave. Padma thinks it's rich and delicious. Tom thinks Brooke's meal is good and ballsy. He's thrilled that she pushed the envelope while she has immunity instead of skating by. 

On to the next batch!

Kristen - Delice de bourgogne tortelloni

Micah - Braised pork ribs with celery root puree, grilled apples & celery leaf salad

Lizzie - Crusted wild king salmon with radish & beet salad

Eliza - Elk ribeye with elk sausage polenta, spiced carrots & huckleberry port sauce

Rick thinks Kristen's tortelloni dish is the perfect bite. Everyone thinks Micah used too much cream. Gail thinks Lizzie's fish isn't seared enough. Tom thinks Eliza's dish is really bland. So sad. The first batch of meals were so strong, it's a shame everything fell apart so quickly. 

Onward!

Danyele - Pan-roasted wild boar, hoppin' john & tomato-bacon marmalade

Josh - Roasted pork shoulder & grilled corn puree with succotash & fennel apple salad

Josie - Malbec braised short ribs, pork belly, polenta with cippolini onions & figs

John - Seafood chowder with cockles, Manila clams, crab, mussels & sockeye salmon

Tom thinks Danyele is sliced so thin you can't chew it. Gail thinks it's totally bland and cooked unevenly. Tom thinks Josh didn't season his pork. Chris admits it's not great, but there's a lot of it. Rick says Josie's dish sounded great but didn't taste great. Rick thinks John's chowder was a hug from the ocean. Padma thinks every component is perfectly cooked. 

The least successful: Micah delivered an unfocused mess. Eliza's meat was grainy. Josie's dish needed more brightness. Josh's pork was unseasoned, and Danyele's dish was weak. 

Dallas John, Kristen, Brooke and Sheldon are called back first. The judges gush over them. Brooke needs to keep cooking this way, and stop being shy. I agree! Stand tall, Brooke! Rick tells Dallas John he did an amazing job. Everyone loves Kristen's use of dried apricots with cheese. This is considered wildly adventurous, but hello, Trader Joe's even sells a block of apricot-embedded stilton. It's not that crazy of an idea. Sheldon, also well-loved. But the winner? Brooke! She's so thrilled. She's doing so well today! Good for her. Although, I'm sure Dallas John would have liked to win, and I thought he might, given how the judges raved about his chowder. 

So, the bottom dwellers are next. Eliza, Danyele, Josh and Micah. Danyele gets weepy. Gail asks her why she's scared. Somehow this turns into a mini-therapy session. Tom tells her she has to do her own thing and stop second-guessing herself. Danyele thinks she may not be cut out for a cooking competition, and she's not wrong. I get the impression this is just becoming too hard on her -- not the cooking, just the competition. Poor thing.

But it's Eliza who gets the boot. She won't shake the judges' hands because she's fighting a cold, but has no problem hugging a few fellow chefs as she heads out the door.  Huh. Anyway, she has no regrets and she thinks everyone should live large and blah blah blah. I can't say I felt Eliza ever emerged from the middle of the pack, so I don't feel a great chef is being sent home. But with the field getting narrower each week, and the food clearly wowing most of the time, I can't even predict the winner this season. What about you?

Do you think Eliza needed to go? Do you think Danyele should quit? Is there anyone you're rooting for?