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'Top Chef' recap, 'Campfires, Cream Cheese and Countryside'

This week the chefs are greeted at their house by renowned chef John Besh. The one-on-one camera interviews play one after another with the contestants gushing over John. I know the feeling, John.

Padma announces that for today’s QuickFire challenge, everyone needs to go pack an overnight bag. Queue the Toyota Rav-4 commercial as all the chefs hops into their SUVs and head off to a secret destination. “It’s like a Chef-y field trip!” notes Sara.

We end up in the country and on a farm that supplies many top New Orleans restaurants with their produce.  Here they learn that the QuickFire Challenge this week will be to highlight one of New Orleans’s most distinct ingredients.  They chefs must highlight a Creole tomato, which has a thin skin and high acidity level. I think I know a few people who could be described that way too.

The chefs get to work cooking outside at the farm and quickly discover that the heat is having an effect on the food.  A couple chefs are both attempting chilled soups while others want to create refreshing salads but the high temperatures are not making this an easy task.

Bene has apparently been given the nickname “Bene Tomato”. This will now be his third tomato dish in a row.  Stephanie comments that she eats tomatoes nearly every day, yet is completely struggling to come up with a dish.  Nicholas notes that any chef who cannot come up with a tomato dish should just go home.

After the 20-minute cooking time, Padma and John sample dishes like; Seared Creole Tomato with Steak, Feta and Wilted Arugula, "Toad in the Hole" Creole Tomato with Andouille Sausage and  Chilled Watermelon Tomato Soup with Jalapeno, Fresh Basil & Shaved Zucchini.

The judge’s least favorite dishes were Patty’s Roasted tomatoes, Travis’ steaks and big surprise… Stephanie’s tomato salad, which was basically a few slices of tomato, olive oil and chunks of avocado.  I could have easily made a better dish than that one! I would have started by not using tomatoes at all because they are disgusting. OK on second thought, I would totally have lost that QuickFire.

The chefs with the best dishes were Nina and her watermelon and tomato soup, Carlos’ olive-oil poached tomato and Louis’ tomato seed bouillon. In the end, it was Nina’s dish that impressed John and Padma the most. She won immunity for the next challenge.

The Elimination Challenge this week has a “Farm-to-Table” theme.  The chef’s will be cooking at John Besh’s restaurant, La Provence ,and will have 90 minutes to create a single family-style dish using seasonal ingredients and…second commercial of the night…Philadelphia Cream Cheese. My first thought on this were: 1) Wow, that seems like such a blah ingredients for this caliber of chefs and 2) Man, I really want a bagel.  The other caveat is that the only dairy they can use in addition to the cream cheese is fresh milk, and cream - NO butter. Paula Dean would not be able to handle this challenge.

The chefs draw knives to see what style of dish they will be cooking; appetizer, entrée or dessert and then get to spend the night at the farm.

The next day everyone heads to La Provence to begin the Elimination Challenge.  The pantry there is pretty small and the chefs are scrambling to get their hands on the best ingredients. Travis says that is a lot like Black Friday. “Chef trampled over baby squash.”

In addition to cooking for John, Padma, Tom and Gail, the chefs will also be serving John’s executive chef team.  So as if they weren’t nervous enough, the stress factor just went up ten-fold.

Dinner starts with the appetizer round. Patty serves up a snapper crudo, Brian makes summer squash and zucchini with cream cheese, Carlos made poached beets, Nina made a zucchini blossom stuffed with eggplant and cream cheese and Sara created a lamb chop.

There were a few hits and misses in that round. Everyone enjoyed Nina’s squash blossom and agreed that Sara’s lamb was not just undercooked, but practically raw.

For the appetizer service, the judges taste Bene’s roasted chicken with onions and cream cheese, Justin’s roasted duck and eggplant, Carrie’s vinegar-braised chicken in cream cheese sauce and Travis’ seared lamb chop.  Justin’s dish was the standout for the entrees.

Lastly the desserts. Louis decided to get creative and make a graham cracker bar with berries, Nicholas went with a funnel cake and a carrot cake cream cheese, Shirley served up an egg custard and Stephanie made a cream cheese mouse.

You would think that the dessert round for this challenge would be the easiest and most enjoyed. Dessert, good. Cream cheese, good. Dessert with cream cheese, the best! However, only Nicholas’ dish won any accolades from the judges.

After some deliberation at the Judge’s Table, Padma comes into the Stew Room and asks to see Nina, Nicholas and Justin.  So, who best incorporated cream cheese with farm fresh food? You guessed it – it’s Nina again.  This girl is on fire with 4 wins and another $10,000 in the bank!

The chefs on the bottom this week were Sara, Bene and Travis. All three chefs lacked time management at La Provence.  Sara was not able to cook her lamb on time and served it not even red, but blue as Gail commented. Bene was having issues getting his vegetable cooked on time, so chose to cover them.  This lead to the veggies steaming which was no way to impress the talent of judge’s at the dinner table.  Travis attempted to highlight his vegetable by cutting them in different ways.  This led to mushy food and sloppy plating.

Nina at this point is having mixed feelings.  Earlier in the episode when the chefs were staying on the farm, Nina mentioned how close she had become with both Travis and Bene. They are like three peas in a pod – one who just won, and two who are up for elimination.

The judges decided that this week Bene must pack his knives. And then there were two peas in the pod.

This week’s episode was pretty straightforward…and boring. A tomato challenge (eww!) and a cream cheese challenge.  All the chefs got along this week, most of the food was good and the judge’s were not super critical. The best part of the show was Gail’s weird beet –printed dress. Where does one even get a veggie-themed dress? I’ll let you know if I find one, right after I find myself a bagel!

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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