'Top Chef: Las Vegas': Natalie Portman's vegetarian steakhouse

Hey gang, Liz and Justine here again for another week of Top Chef recapping.

We're getting down to the wire. Only seven cheftestants remain after last week's much-anticipated Restaurant Wars episode. Everyone seems pretty nervous in the previews for this episode, and there's always the chance someone we hate will go home, so we're excited. There was also a cameo by actress Natalie Portman (does anyone remember anything else she's been in besides Star Wars and Garden State?). Celebrity guests usually bring a curveball with them, so let's hope Natalie delivers.


Enough with the swooning over Natalie Portman. On to the cooking!

Poor Jen. She did terribly last week (who cooks that much seafood to order?) and is trying to psych herself up for this week's challenges. Good luck, honey. You're coming unraveled, and we can all see it. On the other side of the delusion spectrum, Robin was thrilled with how her team prevailed during Restaurant Wars, mostly due to the Voltaggio brothers' leadership in the kitchen. Robin knows how to ride a mean coattail. But how long can it last?



Paul Bartolotta, an accomplished Italian chef, is the guest judge. The quickfire is one of the more creative and humorous challenges of the season. They have to give a gourmet makeover to a TV dinner. They draw knives to pick a show to inspire their dish -- Gilligan's Island, The Flintstones, Sesame Street, Seinfeld, Cheers, The Sopranos and M.A.S.H.). The cheftestants even serve their meals in little TV dinners. If knives weren't an issue, Justine would cook a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT for those in the know) because she loves pizza. Liz would cook a meal inspired by Full House -- basically, there would be huge portions and she'd invite John Stamos to dinner and only refer to him as Uncle Jesse. (We lost about 5 minutes getting sidetracked by John Stamos photos on the Google while spellchecking his name. Oops.


Robin was raised on health food and wasn't allowed to watch TV. The only things she knows about Sesame Street are that the characters had big eyeballs and lots of colors were involved. What kind of terrible parents don't allow their kids to watch Sesame Street?

Michael V. was flirting with Jen at the fridge! Jen compares herself to Pebbles and she goes on about Bamm-Bamm ... is Michael her Bamm-Bamm?!

Eli didn't eat TV dinners, and he pulled Gilligan's Island and has little idea what it's about. He went the tropical route, remarking "It smells like a Jimmy Buffet concert over here."

And Jerkface Mike said he's NEVER SEEN SEINFELD. Was he asleep during the '90s? That's just un-American. (Liz: "What a jerkface! That's enough for him to get sent home.")

Bryan V.'s M.A.S.H. meatloaf and mashed potatoes gets a MMM! From Padma (Cue celebration from Justine.)

On the bottom: Jen, Robin

On the top: The phenom that is Bearded Kevin, Bryan. And Kevin wins! He doesn't get immunity, but a version of his dish will be featured as a Schwan's frozen foods meal in their Top Chef line! (During the commercial break, Liz wanted to order 17,934 of his meals, but 1. They wouldn't fit in her normal-sized fridge and 2. The Web site was slow and underwhelming and features dishes from non-winning chefs. What a letdown, Bravo and Schwan's.)

Elimination challenge

We've reached the point in the competition where they skip the gimmicks and just let the cheftestants cook good food. They're going to Tom's Craftsteak restaurant at MGM Grand. They have to serve about 10 guests. Robin's worried that she isn't much of a steakeater. That shouldn't be all she's worried about.

(Did you notice that when the cheftestants were getting ready that Jen had a white sweatshirt that made it look like she had a neck brace?)

Back at the homestead, the boys have a strategy session about what kind of meat they're making (well, the boys minus the Voltaggio brothers). They're excited about making steak. How manly of them.

Off to the kitchen! Tom's beside himself as he introduces Natalie Portman. JFM's eyes shine as he checks her out. Eli introduces her by saying the most important thing she's done is Star Wars. But here's the rub -- she's a vegetarian. So the cheftestants have access to all sorts of meat, but they can't use meat of any sort. DUN DUN DUN!

Robin helpfully points out that "Vegetarians are people, too."

Eli and Jen flip a dehydrated slice of fruit or vegetable they found in the walk-in to decide who gets to cook with the bigger eggplants, and Eli wins. How cute and consistent with the challenge.

JFM is confident that he can please a vegetarian. We're skeptical that he can please anyone. He says his mom was a vegan. Let's hope (or not) he picked up some pointers from her.

Kevin's married! (Liz cried.) And he eats vegetarian during Lent, so it sounds like he's Catholic. He's worried that he won't have a dish to satiate the diner without a meat protein.

Eli would joke that vegetarians are lower human beings, but he's going to try to give them more than a vegetable medly.

They don't focus much on Bryan this episode, so we're optimistic that he's safe for the time being.

(Justine wonders why no one has decided to make pasta. Can vegetarians eat eggs? Does Craftsteak have no flour?) 

JFM decides to play off scallops in his preparation of leeks. He's having some trouble with the leeks, but he gives us a smarmy smile all the while.

Robin runs out of time before she finishes plating her stuff, so three plates don't get the fresh garbanzo beans. She makes some dramatic statement like that singular screw-up could send her home. If so, that'll be about three episodes too late.

They're serving Natalie Portman's friends. They look like normal people, not supermodels or actors.

Robin serves first, and the dish has too much salt. Tom didn't get any garbanzo beans, but the dish lacked balance in the seasoning. Padma said she could feel her ankles swelling. Was that because she's pregnant in this episode?

Eli serves next. His eggplant looks kind of like sushi. The texture is good and the salad is good, but the guest judge said he got some lavender flavor that was too strong and made him feel like he was sucking on a bar of soap in Provence.

Michael V. is stressed, but his dish is beautiful and very colorful. Natalie Portman was confused by the polenta with banana (Liz wants to try to make it) but the guests liked the taste. The larger chunks of banana are a little off-putting. It was a daring plate, and they recognized that. Michael was called Picasso … for the second time. Tom thought that was HI-larious.

Jen takes a chance and sauces her charred eggplant with braised fennel at the table and her hands are shaking. We totally expected her to dribble sauce on Natalie Portman's head or Padma's outfit. Gail loves the sauce. Natalie suggests it added a little danger to the presentation because of her shaking. They agree the dish was a beautiful side dish, but not an entree.

JMF's leeks are supposed to give a feeling of protein, but it smells like cabbage. They like the presentation, but he didn't execute the food well. The leeks were undercooked.

Bryan's plating isn't as professional as he would've wanted. There are some things that didn't make it onto the plate. The food seems like it's missing from the plate. (Did you catch the That's What She Said moment between Padma and Natalie? "We went from a little prick to big in your mouth," Tom said. Natalie: "That's what usually happens." Is this why the show is on at 10 p.m.?)

Bearded Kevin's dish isn't as pretty as he'd like. He makes a duo of mushrooms. The food feels more like an entree because it's meaty. Kevin's dish proves vegetarian food can be substantial.

There's a little intracommercial moment where the cheftestants are enjoying food from the guest judge's restaurant. Bearded Kevin seems to enjoy the food so much, it's rather charming.

Judges' Table

On the top: Kevin, Michael V. and Eli (Eli jokes as he's walking out of the stew room: "Did you guys call my name by accident?")

Michael V.'s dish reminded Tom about why you need to keep an open mind about food. Natalie was beaming like a school girl, Tom said.

Gail thought Eli's eggplant and lentils was great.

Kevin's smoked kale impressed Natalie. It was a mouthful of flavor and you didn't miss the meat, the judges said.

And Kevin wins! He gets a suite of GE appliances, but we didn't get a TA-DA! It's better than an autographed cookbook.

Michael V. is bitter and said he could've made Kevin's dish in 20 min. It looks like Michael V. isn't just catty and competitive when it comes to criticizing his brother's cooking.

On the bottom: Robin, Jennifer and Mike. (Weird: Bryan was totally left out of the judging. It's risky to not stand out this late in the game.)

JFM's didn't have a protein. He wanted the leeks to look like protein … but they don't have protein.

Robin throws JFM under the bus by saying she ALWAYS thinks of a protein and it's VERY IMPORTANT to have a protein. The dish had a protein, but since not everybody got them, it barely count. Does a few chick peas on a plate really count as protein? If we were vegetarians, we'd feel cheated.

Jen was so nervous that some of the guests might've worn the sauce. And sounds like she asks to leave by saying she'll try hard if she gets another chance but thanks them for the opportunity to be on the show. Tom says at this point in the competition the cheftestants get worn out, but the defeatist behavior is bad news.

Gail points out that JFM is arrogant. THANK YOU. Finally, someone's on our side. Tom wasn't impressed that he couldn't cook leeks in two hours.

Robin was not focused on the entire dish. Two parts of her dish were things she hadn't done before, and the judges agreed with Natalie that using them was a bad idea.


(Liz's neighbors must've heard our celebration. We scared the dog. And Liz's eyes were shining brilliantly while we wrote this.)

His little goodbye speech was still optimistic and cocky as always. We're glad to see losing Top Chef wasn't a humbling experience or anything. Hilariously, Robin lasted longer than JFM. That must have been the part that stung the most for him.


Who's going home next: Justine thinks Jen's going to lose it. She's burnt out and nervous, but she hasn't been able to get over it and cook her own food. Liz doesn't think Robin can fool anyone anymore, unless next week is a team challenge.

Favorites: Justine sticks by Bryan; maybe her loyalty will pay off with an invitation to eat at Volt. Liz backs Bearded Kevin; she doesn't think he'll invite her to his restaurant in Atlanta, but a girl can dream. Maybe he can get her Eli's phone number.  

If you could cook a meal inspired by a TV show, what show would it be? What's your favorite Natalie Portman movie? What would you make for the Vegetarians?

Also, will you be watching the Top Chef Reunion Dinner Special we saw previewed during the commercial breaks? Liz is excited to see what Marcel's been up to. We'll be watching and recapping all of the drama for you next week, since it's pre-empting our regular Top Chef viewing.