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'Top Chef: Masters' recap, Episode 9 -- 'Old School, New School'

It’s the final countdown. Do do doot do, do do doot doo doo. Lorena, Kerry, and Chris are still standing. I have no idea how the final finals will work, as they seem to change it every season (two finalists! three finalists! one finalist and a goat!), so who knows what will happen at the end of this episode.

The Quickfire is to test the chefs’ communication skills. There is a confessional-like whisper wall set up at each workstation which the chefs must communicate through to their unnamed partners. Each chef must dictate to their “mystery teammate” and instruct them on how to make a dish identical to their own. I think I speak for everyone when I say this is a really, really complicated set-up for what will likely be a not-that-entertaining payoff. The mystery teammates are (no surprise) our critics - Ruth Reichl, Francis Lam, and James Oseland (who is revising his Mister Rogers sweater look - huzzah!).

The critics are doing some really horrible accents to throw off the chefs. Ruth’s is like some kind of eastern European mish mash, James is trying to sound like Art Smith, and Francis is speaking in only one-syllable words and going slightly Creole?  It’s ridiculously stupid and painful to watch.

After their 20 minutes of cooking and yelling is up, three solemn but surprisingly muscular PA’s pull the walls back to reveal the partners. The chefs are of course just tickled pink they were cooking with their own critics. Hugs galore. 

Chris and James’ shrimp dishes look very similar - even down to the plating. Curtis tastes each and says “I actually can’t decide which I like more!” to which James responds, “Oh, just shut the f--- up.” Sassy Molassy! Lorena and Francis didn’t get their pasta cooked in time so they present a saute of swiss chard with chicken and stuff on top. Curtis likes the sauce but wants something to put it on. Kerry and Ruth created a sauteed chicken dish with bacon, rosemary and swiss chard cream. Their plating is quite different — Ruth used half a chicken while Kerry’s is just small pieces. Hilariously Curtis likes Ruth’s dish better.

Curtis judges based on the similarity of the dishes between partners and overall taste. The winning pair is Chris and James’ shrimp (or “prawns” if you’re gonna be all Australian about it). Chris takes home another $5K for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, bringing his total to $41,000 so far for the cause.

Elimination Challenge: Curtis explains that to battle its failing schools, Las Vegas’ Southwest Career and Technical Academy has created a culinary curriculum. Each chef will be paired with two of the Academy's culinary students to create a dish. These are high school kids.

The catch? The chefs don’t know what they will be preparing - they must use the students’ dishes as the basis for their creation. AND the chefs are only directing, not cooking the food. They are not allowed to touch any part of their dish, they must teach and explain to the students. This is so cool. Seriously, not to get all sappy here but this is what Top Chef Masters should be all about - testing these experienced chefs on their ability to pass on their skills to help up and coming wee chef-ettes.

The chefs meet their young apprentices. All the kids seem terrified to be on camera and are painfully intimidated by this whole situation.

Each pair of students has prepared a pretty pedestrian meal - pork tenderloin, stuffed chicken, lasagna. The masters must reinvent the students’ dish and get them up to master level.

There is a truly touching shot of Chris explaining to the kids how what a pig eats affects its flavor - how in an ideal environment, you want a pig eating fallen apples, hazelnuts, and watercress. The look on these kids’ eyes when he’s describing this is priceless. I honestly got wee butterflies in my tummy. There was magic in that moment.

The chefs take their teams to Whole Foods for ingredients. Chris definitely seems to be hitting it off with his guys the best. He opens up about how he struggled in school and wasn’t an ideal student in his high school days. His two protegees are clearly hanging on his every word and thrilled they’ve been paired with him.

Lorena is talking a bit too philosophically (“Money will come....if you have the passion”) and Kerry is dryly going over his team’s to do list (“We will roast the bones and then do the chicken.”) and all four of their kids look bored or slightly worried.

Quote #1 of the ep, from Kerry: “I can take a lot of time to explain technique, or I can push them; and I’m hoping that they are these little dry sponges that are just going to absorb this in short order.” Let me guess: Kerry has no children. He tries to high five his guys after shopping and I swear to god he makes Mitt Romney look hip.

Back in the kitchen, the teams have 2.5 hours to get their dishes ready. The chefs are not allowed to touch the food. Chris moves around this rule defly and demonstrates to the kids how to cut the pork tenderloin. That actual piece of meat he cut won’t be used, but he’s just shown them the right way to do it. Let it be known right here and now: I am officially in deep crush with Chris and I want him to win.

There, I said it. His way with these kids is absolutely inspiring. Everyone should be so lucky to have such a dedicated teacher. Lorena and Kerry aren’t embracing this visual learning style and are mostly just barking. Kerry in particular is really being harsh (“No no no, WAY too thick!”). At least Lorena is praising and encouraging them as they move along.

Chris’ protegee Emilio explains their dish to Curtis, that it’s the same pork concept but that they are working to “make the dish round, like Chef taught us,” and I almost want to cry. Seriously! Top Chef Heartstrings!

Lorena has a similarly touching moment, when she learns that her apprentice JoJo has Type 2 Diabetes. The charity she’s playing for, The Alliance for a Healthy Generation, works to prevent childhood obesity and improve children’s healthy eating habits so she’s really taken aback by this news and is motivated to win.

Quote #2 of ep, from Chris: I’m very proud of you guys.

Lacey (his apprentice): I’m very proud of you, too.

Along with the critics at the table are the students’ principal, their culinary instructors, and their families.

Chris’ team serves first, which is good as they plated their dishes really early. Chris didn’t expect the kids to be so efficient with their plating so his only worry is that the dish sat too long. They serve a pork loin with hazelnut brown butter, apples and watercress. Lacey and Emilio’s moms have tears in their eyes. So do I.

Lorena’s team serves up family style three meat lasagna and arugula salad. Jhane and JoJo’s parents are really proud and the dish wins high praise from the critics.

Kerry’s crew, Brittany and Erwin, admit that he was a little stressful to work with but they are excited to present their Florentine-inspired chicken with orzo and asparagus ragout. I hope the asparagus is good because it seems like Kerry spent half the prep time telling Brittany she was cutting it wrong. James Oseland declares it the best creamed spinach he has ever had. Wow.

The students come into the dining room and present their parents with flowers (seriously? I can’t cry anymore!). Curtis assures them each dish was amazing.

Judgement time. All three chefs head to the critics’ table.

Quote #3 of the ep, from Curtis: “For the first time I can honestly say that none of you cooked a good dish. But your students all cooked fantastic dishes.”

The judges don’t have that much criticism about the dishes, Ruth questions Lorena’s choice to stick to the strict interpretation of lasagna and James did notice that Chris’ salad seemed a bit wilty since they plated so quick. Francis merely gushed about Chris’ brown butter sauce at length.

The winner? Kerry. I am genuinely surprised. Ruth tells him that he really pushed his kids to a place they didn’t know they could go. Kerry wins $10K for City Harvest and a place in the finale.

Curtis excuses Lorena and Chris to the wine room (I love how in Masters it’s ‘the wine room’ and in every other show it’s ‘the stew room’). Chris is convinced he’s going home for his soggy salad. Lorena says it’s 50/50.

Back at the table, Ruth declares that Lorena’s dish was not restaurant quality, that it was merely a nice home cooked meal. James cranes his neck and snaps, “Ruth Reichl! Do you need an exorcist?” Granted, he meant “exorcism”, but it was still pretty hilarious.

Curtis likes the herbaceousness of Lorena’s salad (that’s twice!). James rags on Chris’ “sad, wilty” salad and then Ruth offers that HE needs an exorcist. Francis chimes in that he really disagrees with James. This is the most heated, interesting critics’ table ever! Or it’s more likely just really good editing. James offers up that he can’t pick one to go home and states, “I quit.” They laugh but we’re nonetheless moving on to decision time.

The chef who won’t be moving on to the finale is ... Lorena. “OK,” she states, gracefully. Chris exhales. Chris is quietly grateful and hugs Lorena. These guys are CLASS ACTS.

So it’s down to Kerry vs. Chris for the finale next week. Though I can’t guess who will win, my heart is firmly in Chris’ corner. The preview shows lots of sweating, yelling, and Chris making lots of apologies. I will bite my nails down to the quick until next Wednesday night.

Correction from last week’s recap: a terrine is not the same as a tureen. I know this. My spellcheck does not. Feel free to point out all my mistakes via Twitter: @operatornumber9.

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