Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Websites of Mystery and the Great Pastry Wars

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 3

Greetings! Though we've edged into April, I'd like to ask you to cast your mind back. Back, back, back. All the way to... March. Done that? Good. Now that you're in the proper frame of mind, why not give Episode 3 a listen? It's posted at fourcoursespodcast.com, so go check it out.

Topics include "Table", garnishes and mixers for your favorite cocktails, the March eatin' holidays of Pi(e) Day and St. Patrick's Day, the basics of what goes into the failure or success of a restaurant, and finally, some righteous anger about a food festival that's making all the wrong moves. Literally.

I hope you enjoy it, and please consider joining the Four Courses community!

Friday, April 04, 2014

Crown of Thorns

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 17

Previously on Top Chef: The whole season. A certain person got ultra-busy with his other food project and unforgivably left the finale recap to rot on the shelf. That was also partially due to the loss of both Louis and Shirley - it's always a bummer to see your favorites go. But onward! Tonight, a winner will be named! If by "tonight", you mean "months ago", but incomplete series bug me. Let's knock it out.

Here we are at the end of an overly-lengthy season. I think it's time to go back to the days when we began with fewer chefs; there's no need for Top Chef to be longer than I, Claudius. It's down to Nina and Nicholas, and thankfully, the finale challenge is one of those give-us-all-you-got four course menus. I'm still a little bitter about that finale where the proteins were chosen for the chefs. There will be two services, and in a strange twist, the finalists will not only be serving the judges, but doing a full-on restaurant shift, serving a bunch of other diners as well, managing a waitstaff, etc. I'm not necessarily against it figuring into the challenge, but it sure is weird.

Naturally, a task of this magnitude will require some help, and unsurprisingly, that help will come in the form of eliminated contestants. Not everyone is there to choose from, but I doubt we're all aching to spend more time with Michael anyway, so no big deal. Nicholas won the previous challenge, so he gets to pick first. He selects Jason (the hair-flipping model from way back when), Louis, and Brian. Nina picks up Shirley, Stephanie, and Travis. That settled, the chefs spring into prep work. Nicholas is going to focus on classical French technique, while Nina opts for more local flavors. She also decides to take a bit of a risk by including two optional dishes, trying to get as much of her work in front of the judges as possible. That risk almost immediately blows up in her face when the ice cream recipe she's shopped for is ruined by the lack of an ice cream machine at the restaurant she'll be working in. Nicholas hopes to redeem his terrible flan by making panna cotta.

After the day of prep is complete, the chefs are taken to dinner with the judges. As a fun surprise for them (and the better to get their emotions all whipped up into a lather), other guests have been invited, too: Nina's husband and brother, and Nicholas' wife and mother. Hearts swell. Nerves are excited. Tom indulges in some terrible wordplay. Par for the course, really. The next day, it's time for final prep. Nina worries that her goat dish is too chewy. Nicholas is having staff problems, and I can't tell if he's being overly demanding, or if his servers are as stupid and incompetent as he's making them out to be. Time runs down, and the two sets of judges (along with the usual Names) gather at the restaurants alongside the random diners.

First Course: Nina begins with an amuse bouche of crispy breadfruit, served with foie gras butter, and some curried salt. I've never had breadfruit, but it sounds good. She follows that up with tuna and escolar tartare with tomato water, jalapeno, and lemon. The judges find it nicely refreshing, and a good reflection of Hawaii. Nicholas' first course consists of a crudo of hamachi and tuna, with three preparations of green apple. He's already snapping at his servers and expediters, who to be fair, do seem to be screwing up left and right. His first course is - wait for it - underseasoned. I'll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the ground.

Second Course: Nicholas and Jason have prepared a sweet shrimp bisque, with scallops and "noodles" made of daikon, some shaved abalone, and Thai basil. This course goes over much better. It does sound pretty intriguing. Nina has worked out her goat problems (there's a sentence I'll never need again), and serves braised baby goat with orecchiette pasta, a cherry tomato confit, and whipped goat cheese. The judges are over the moon for it, and for good reason. It looks amazing.

Third Course: Nina and Travis have made a spice-rubbed swordfish with squash puree, braised kale, and smoked onion jus. This course is not as successful as her other ones. The fish isn't bright enough, the kale's flavors are intruding on the swordfish, and there may be too much spice rub involved. Nicholas brings his duck up to a medium doneness, which is unusual, but he's trying to work around some texture issues. The course is a seared kombu-cured duck breast, with compressed kabocha squash, hijiki, and ginger. The judges mostly love it, with two noticeable problems. Once is Emeril's flabby cut of duck, which he chews and chews without ever being able to break down. And speaking of "break down", Nicholas openly berates his serving staff right there at the table. And I mean, no matter how terrible they are, that's not a professional way to handle it.

Fourth Course: Nicholas has made a white chocolate panna cotta, with almond cocoa crumble, and some tropical fruit. It doesn't look or sound that great, but the judges seem to appreciate it. Before Nina's dessert comes out, she serves an intermezzo of compressed dragon fruit in a ginger simple syrup, with some frozen papaya. Sounds refreshing! Her dessert proper is chocolate zeppole with macadamia nuts, toasted coconut, and a passion fruit angalise. Stop ruining desserts, coconut.

Once the first service is over, the judges swap locations. There's not much difference in the reactions with this second crew, except that Nick's duck course goes over much better, and him screaming about the terrible waitstaff can be heard in the dining room. It's pretty understandable to be frazzled about coming so close to the win and feel like you're going down on a technicality, but pull your shit together, dude. Nobody's going to say "You would have won, but your servers didn't place the fish on the left, so forget it." Both menus are well-received by the judges, with Nicholas' being notably stronger than his usual fare. Service winds down.

Judges' Table. As expected, only a few brief comments are dedicated to Nicholas' problems with the serving staff. I just want to mention one last time that it's fine for this not to be a big deal on Top Chef, but that it's a very big deal in real life. I've seen a few chefs get off on terrorizing waiters, and it is not acceptable. Now, to the food. Nicholas' first dish lacked seasoning, which has been one of his most consistent problems. Tom and Padma disagree about his second course. Padma didn't get enough scallop flavor, but Tom loved it. He also really liked Nicholas' duck, which is Emeril's cue to mention how terrible his portion was. The panna cotta was fine, though it has some minor texture issues. Nina's crudo and goat dishes were wonderful, but her swordfish dish was a misstep. Also, her dessert felt too slight.

Deliberations begin. Normally, when they say the finale is close, I dismiss it as disingenuous. Nine times out of then, they obviously know who they're going to select as the winner. I do have to say, though, that this one appears to genuinely come down to the wire. Nina is generally accepted as "winning" the first and second courses, while Nicholas "won" the third and fourth. The judges argue back and forth for hours before a final choice is finally made. The winner of Top Chef is... Nicholas! And a million foghorn noises go off in a million brains. He, of course, is deliriously happy, and Nina is gracious in defeat. Everyone celebrates and toasts the champion, and the season comes to a close.

Plenty of internet ink has been spilled about this decision, but I can't whip myself into too much of a froth about it. Sure, I would have preferred that Nina have won. Well actually, I would have preferred that Shirley have won, but I can see where the groundswell of support for Nina is coming from. She's been leading the pack since the very first challenge, and it's very likely that overall, she's a much more talented chef. And there's a whiff of symbolic unfairness that despite her being more talented, the straight-white-dude judge turned it around so the straight-white-dude contestant could win. I'm not saying that Tom is prejudiced or that the season was rigged or anything. It just comes off as a disappointing shrug of a finale. Like I said, though, I'm not too bummed, because Top Chef is about a lot more than the final decision. Nicholas gets the title and the money, but Nina gets the word-of-mouth career boost. It's obvious that no matter where she's cooking, people will flock to taste her food now. And I don't even dislike Nicholas. He seems like a decent guy, and I don't begrudge him the win. If nothing else, maybe this experience will teach him a few valuable lessons. Not least of which about how much salt to put in his dishes.

Overall Grade: C
Overall Season Grade: B

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Fruit-Wrapped Genitals and the Buffet of Shame

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 2

Hey there, food fans. The second episode of Four Courses just went live at fourcoursespodcast.com. Topics include "The Crossing", Old Man Drinks, reliable food "go-to's", the odd intersection of food and sex, and when it's okay to whip the phone out at the dinner table.

Go give it a listen, and I hope you become part of the Four Courses community!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Facebook Fury and the Naan of Tears

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 1

Does it seem like I've fallen behind on getting the last episodes of Top Chef recapped? I have! Know why? Because I've been throwing all my spare time into launching a new venture! If you're a big food fan, I invite you to check out my new podcast, "Four Courses". We'll be exploring all sorts of food- and drink-related topics, from local eats to broader social trends. We just uploaded our first episode, which can be found at our website: FourCoursesPodcast.com

Stop by and give it a listen! Food is much more interesting to me as a conversation than as a presentation, so please feel free to leave a comment with food opinions, suggestions for future topics, and general feedback. I promise I'll get the Top Chef finale recap up relatively soon, but while you wait, why not join the Four Courses community, and let us know what you think?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Spam Alert

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 16

Previously on Top Chef: Our time in New Orleans came to an end, but not before Carlos snagged a car, Nicholas snagged a Quickfire win, Shirley snagged an Elimination Challenge win, and Nina snagged... Well, some nice compliments and a spot in the finals. The final four was close, but ultimately, Carlos' lukewarm tamale sent him packing. Three chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

The chefs reunite with the judges (along with guest judge Sam Choy) at a luau in Maui. Sigh. What I wouldn't give to be bobbing in the Hawaiian waves right about now. Seriously, winter. We get it. Before the challenges begin, there's a little business to tend to. As you probably know, all of the eliminated chefs get a crack at returning to the competition by winning Last Chance Kitchen. I don't watch those challenges, though I generally kept up-to-date on who was clinging to the win. I'll have to delve into the "fairness" of LCK sometime; a lot could be said about someone getting to go to the finals by besting someone else in a glorified Quickfire.

In any event, the final two competitors in LCK were Louis and Carlos, and each of them made a dish for the final three to taste and vote on. Thankfully, it was a blind tasting, so we don't have to worry about any personality conflicts entering into the equation. The winner of the challenge, and the chef returning to the competition is... Louis! That's nice. I've always enjoyed him, though there's definitely a shallow component of that. I'm only human!

Quickfire. It's a deceptively simple one. Since we're in Hawaii, the Quickfire challenge today is to make a dish that incorporates and features Spam. Here's another small confession: I've never tasted Spam in my entire life. I keep meaning to buy some just to see what it's like, but keep forgetting or procrastinating. I've heard it's not too bad, so I'm not sure why I haven't followed through. I'll put it on my list of Food Resolutions. Immunity obviously is no longer up for grabs (or perhaps not-so-obviously, given how long they held onto it this season), but the winner does get a big ol' check for $10,000. There's incentive for you. Ready? Go!

Louis makes a torchon, and is under siege by the guests at the luau, who annoyingly pepper him with questions while he's trying to cook. Back off, bitches! Although, really...I can't blame them. Nina doesn't have to worry about groupies, and sets about making Spam croquettes with breadfruit, which is a wise incorporation of island ingredients. Shirley is making a sort of deconstructed musubi to approximate the fried rice dish she makes for her husband all the time. Nicholas, who has been criticized over and over for underseasoning his food, promises to aggressively salt his Spam broth with pancetta and ponzu.

When the dust settles, all four dishes are praised, though Louis could have featured the Spam flavor better, and Nicholas ONCE AGAIN has a seasoning issue. I'm thinking it's genetic at this point. He just has heightened salt receptors, which cause him to underseason everything. That or he's just terrible at this aspect of cooking, but that's cool. Who cares about seasoning level in their food? I'm being snarky because Nicholas actually wins the challenge and the money, and flunking Salt 101 should have disqualified him. I can understand people getting eliminated because they couldn't nail a technical aspect of their cooking in this atmosphere of intense competition and brutal time limits. But when someone is told over and over that they can't salt their food properly and sails into the finals? I don't get it.

Elimination Challenge. The judges point out the outrigger canoes that several Hawaiians are paddling to shore. The boats are laden with the ingredients available for the chefs to make a dish of their choosing. These ingredients are "canoe crops", which include the meats, fish, and plants that Polynesian settles sailed to Hawaii long ago. The chefs become markedly less interested in this fascinating history lesson when they're told that this will be a double elimination. Only two chefs will proceed to the final showdown. This leads to a panicked run for the boats, during which Shirley once again face plants. Grace is not her defining quality.

Prep. Nina accidentally butchers Nicholas' fish instead of her own. Where he'd be furious if Carlos had done that, he's mostly just bemused now, since Nina doesn't usually make these kinds of mistakes. They manage to work it out so Nina can go fight with a food processor and Nicholas can go fight with a pressure cooker. During the final stages of the outdoor prep, it begins to rain, which doesn't do wonders for the cooking process. The chefs grimly attempt to protect as much of the food as they can. A portion of Shirley's potatoes gets waterlogged, and has to be thrown out. Damn it. Time runs out, and the chefs present their dishes to the judges.

Louis has grilled opah with sweet potato, burnt onion, coconut, and seaweed, topped with coconut sauce. A lot of island flavors are great, and I ate well in Hawaii, but cripes, did I have to remain ever-vigilant that no coconut seeped into my meals there. Nina has opah as well, and serves it with marinated aromatics and grilled taro root. She also has coconut puree (arrrrrgh!) and a breadfruit chip. Nicholas has made opakapaka fish, with jalapenos and crispy chicken skin. The whole thing is on a pork jus and garnished with seaweed. That sounds delicious, and not just because he avoided coconut. Shirley serves honey-glazed pork, with a sweet potato/tumeric puree. It's garnished with boiled egg, chili, and pickled onion. Yes, please.

Fret 'n sweat. The meal is given general praise, but there are always things to nitpick. Louis' fish were cooked inconsistently. Nicholas' jalapenos may have taken over the flavor of his dish too much. Yeah, that's why I tend to not use them very much. Nina's fish was somewhat over-spiced, and Shirley's pork was way too sweet. These critiques are rehashed when the chefs come out to Judges' Table, and then it's time for the big chop. First, we must have a winner, and that winner is... Nicholas. Man, he has really been resurgent lately. The judges inform him that he'll have an advantage in the final challenge, but we'll leave that for another day. Who will be joining him in the finals? I dearly wish this could be more suspenseful, but we all know already, right? Who's been dominating this competition from Day One? Yes, it's Nina, so we must bid goodbye to Louis and Shirley, both of whom I really like, so this is a tough one.

Both of them are disappointed, of course, but needn't feel bad about sharing the news of their loss with their families, which both of them worry about. I never got a real sense of Louis' style of cooking, but I would eat at a Shirley restaurant in a heartbeat, and not having the winning title doesn't matter to me a bit. She is glad that cooking in these challenges has guided her to finally discovering her individual voice. Louis wishes he could have won for his son, and while the money would have been nice, I'm sure his kid loves his dad nonetheless. So, it's down to Nicholas and Nina! Who will win? Who will lose? Who will tell the producers of this show that I'd be more invested in the outcome if this season hadn't been dragging on for what seems like six years? Find out next week!

Overall Grade: B-

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Gulf Shore Leave

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 15

Previously on Top Chef: The King of the Food Truck stopped by to remind the peasants who rules the roost, and to intimate that he knows more about Mexican food preparation than Mexicans. I can't wait for him to come tell me I'm making my great-great-grandmother's matzo ball soup incorrectly. Shirley eked out a Quickfire win and immunity. In the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were tasked with creating a dish that represented a turning point in their career. Shirley picked up the double-win, while Brian found a new turning point in his career: The time that using boneless, skinless chicken breast got him chopped. Four chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

Quickfire. The chefs are met in the Kitchen by Padma, Tom, and Gail. We haven't had enough Gail this season. Immunity is finally not being offered any longer, but the winner does get a prize. It turns out to be another car, so if Shirley wins, she can practically start her own rental service. The Quickfire will be judged in two parts today. Gail explains that for the first part, the chefs are to make a single-bite dish (to be served on a cocktail fork) that incorporates something sweet, salty, spicy, and textured. Sounds tough. When the clock starts, the chefs immediately leap into hysterical prep. Nicholas tries to start some tiff with Shirley about the temperature the fryer is set to, but she has no time for his sack of bullshit.

When the dust settles, the judges go down the line. Carlos has grilled some mango and shrimp, and serves it with a spicy chili glaze. Sounds good. Nicholas serves beef deckle with balsamic vinegar and potato chips that are a vibrant shade of purple. There's also a cayenne yogurt. Shirley has flank steak with crispy onions and black pepper cherry. The cocktail fork is her undoing, and a good portion of the bite falls over before Gail can eat it. Nina serves shrimp escabeche with a potato aioli and pickled shallots. Only two of the four chefs will move on to the second round, and those two are... Nicholas and Carlos. Ooh, this is shaping up to be a little West Side Story kind of face-off. You know, without the murder.

In the second round, the finalists will cook something using bell pepper or eggplant. The trick is, one chef must use pepper, and one must use eggplant. So whoever gets to the ingredients first gets to select their veggie of choice. Nicholas smokes Carlos in the footrace, and snags the eggplant, much to Carlos' disappointment. I wouldn't be sad to get bell pepper; it's the most versatile vegetable I know. Anyhow, Nicholas winds up making roasted eggplant with sesame seeds, Sriracha, and chili threads. Maybe it's just because I'm obsessed with Sriracha right now, but that looks incredible. Carlos makes fried pepper soup with fennel, basil, and onion. As much as I am into Sriracha right now, that's how much I'm over fennel. Ease up, people. The winner of the challenge and the car is... Carlos! Nicholas takes a moment to sad-sack into the camera about how he's the only person left who hasn't won a prize. Sorry, man. Maybe you can take comfort in the fact that your career is getting a shortcut to fame by appearing on this show? Kthxbai.

Elimination Challenge. Emeril enters to explain that this will be the last challenge in New Orleans before the final three move on to the finale in Maui. A year ago on this exact date, I was kicking back on a Maui beach. I'll try to remember that as I trudge home through the six inches of predicted snow tonight. In order to say goodbye to the Big Easy in style, today's Elimination Challenge will be to create a dish that signifies the chefs' individual stamp on the city's cuisine. That's a bit vague, but I like the idea. Incorporating the city's style of cuisine into each chef's personal technique sounds challenging, but fascinating. Emeril and a bunch of Names will be hosting the final meal, and the winning chef will have their dish featured in all of Emeril's New Orleans restaurants. I can't decide if that's actually an impressive prize or not. I've been buying some of those Top Chef Healthy Choice meals (I'm trying to cut calories lately, and have to admit they're pretty tasty), and I remember that a lot of said meals were a prize for winning chefs. Except those chefs' names are nowhere on the packages. So while it'd be nice to have today's winner have their dish on several menus, it doesn't do the winner much good if the only name attached to it is Emeril's.

The only thing of note to happen during the shopping segment is that Nina buys enough ingredients to make two dishes. She's not sure what direction she'll be going in yet, and says she'll figure it out later. That night, the chefs sit in the kitchen at Emeril's restaurant while he pretends to direct service. Aw, that's not nice of me; I'm sure he still knows how to be a head chef. I just don't want us to pretend that's how he generally spends his days. The meal the chefs enjoy does look quite tasty. The next day, the chefs get started on their prep. Nina has decided to make little dumplings called malfatti to serve with her dish. Nicholas works on shrimp dumplings and butter-roasted bass. He pledges to not overcomplicate his dish this time. Shirley is braising some celery. Carlos has the most interesting idea, which is to make a tamale with seafood mousse instead of masa.

Plating. As the dishes go out to the dining room, Nina realizes that she has completely forgotten to put the malfatti on her plates. Ouch. This is not the time in the competition to be making mistakes like these. Fortunately for her, the judges still really enjoy her speckled trout with vegetables. Nicholas serves shrimp consommé with the shrimp dumplings, the bass, some charred cobia, and tuna confit with crispy rice. Not that any of that sounds bad (it actually sounds lovely), but remember that pledge a couple of minutes ago not to overcomplicate this thing? Apparently, Nicholas doesn't. Shirley has made seared black drum, with vinegar butter sauce, celery, and mushrooms. She has incorporated the New Orleans "holy trinity" (celery, onion, pepper) into her sauce, and the judges love it, saying it represents Chinese cuisine and New Orleans cuisine equally well. Carlos' seafood mousse tamale is served with saffron cream sauce and pickled okra. There is crab in the mousse, and shrimp and mussels on top. It sounds great to me, but the judges look very suspicious. They wonder why it wasn't served wrapped in a banana leaf to retain heat.

Judges' Table. All four chefs are called in. Nina is asked about the missing malfatti, and she explains that in the rush to get her dish ready for service, she simply forgot to get it on the plate. Normally, the judges would crawl up a contestant's ass for something like this, but Nina's dish was so great, they let it slide. I'm sensing a tiny bit of producer oversight here, because Nina doesn't get one-eighth the criticism someone else would, tasty dish or not. I'm not mad or anything, it's just...odd. Shirley's sauce completely bowled the judges over, and they can't find enough good things to say about it. Nicholas' dish was a big step up from what he's done lately, but he's still drawing some criticism for under-seasoning. Carlos' mousse was great, but the lack of a banana leaf meant the tamale was too cold. The winner of the challenge and the honor of having their idea co-opted by Emeril is... Shirley! See you in Maui, girl! Nina is also safe, so we're back to the West Side Story rivalry between Nicholas and Carlos. Who will survive to compete in Hawaii? Tom throws it over to Padma for the chop. Carlos. Please pack your knives and go. It seems like the correct choice, though it should be mentioned that Nicholas has staged more comebacks than Elvis by this point. He's disappointed, of course, but is looking forward to triumphing in Last Chance Kitchen. Speaking of which, we'll find out next week who will be returning for another shot at the title. It's time to bring this lumbering season down the home stretch. Au revoir, New Orleans!

Overall Grade: B

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 14

Previously on Top Chef: Jacques Pepin tasked the chefs with emulating one of his signature dishes, but didn't mention that he generally gets more than thirty-five minutes to pull it off. Nicholas took the Quickfire win and immunity. AND IMMUNITY, I SAID. In the Elimination Challenge, the chefs split into French and Spanish teams, but nobody wedged themselves in the middle while waving the flag of Andorra. Nina led the Spanish team to a win, while Nicholas' poor dishes sank the French. His immunity shielded him from elimination, so the chop fell on poor Stephanie, instead. Five chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

Quickfire. The chefs are joined in the Kitchen by Padma and guest judge Roy Choi. Roy helped kick off the food truck craze in Los Angeles with his innovative taco ideas. Innovative Taco Ideas will be the title of my autobiography, by the way. Putting a creative spin on tacos is understandable in L.A., but since we're in New Orleans, today's challenge will be to put a creative spin on something much more regionally appropriate: The Po'Boy Sandwich. Mmmm, I could go for one of those right now. Damned post-new-year diets. The chefs only have twenty minutes to throw something together, and unbelievably, immunity is still up for grabs. Seriously? Someone gets to coast into the final four on a twenty-minute sandwich? Whatever. Padma starts the clock.

Unsurprisingly, with such a tight time limit, the chefs immediately back into their comfort zones. Nina goes for an island feel, Shirley opts for Asian style, Carlos makes al pastor, and so on. When time runs out, Padma and Roy go down the line. Nicholas has a cornmeal-encrusted shrimp po'boy with spicy mayo, fennel, and pancetta. Shirley's Asian po'boy involves catfish in a soy/garlic glaze. Nina has fried Mahi Mahi with pickled onions. Brian makes a po'boy with lobster and gochujang aioli. It also involves pickled cabbage. Carlos has made an al pastor po'boy of marinated pork with chili, pineapple, onion, and roasted garlic. When it comes time for the final decision, Roy basically blasts all five chefs for being boring, uncreative, and too "chefy".

I can't taste the food, of course, so I have no idea if these sandwiches were truly disappointing or not. What I can tell you, though, is that this is not the first time a guest judge who considers themselves a creative genius is an arrogant douche about other people's efforts. I think there's a direct correlation between ego and criticism with some of these judges. It's not attractive. The worst of it is when Roy scoffs about Carlos' dish not being "real" al pastor. Sure, I'll go ahead and buy that from the South Korean American, rather than the Mexican chef from Mexico. Anyhow, though nobody impresses King Roy, the award for the least disastrous po'boy goes to... Shirley! Yay! I'm still a bit gobsmacked that someone just earned final four placement on what was deemed a boring sandwich, but I adore Shirley, so I'm fine with it.

Elimination Challenge. Actor/Director/Unfortunate Beard Haver Jon Favreau enters the Kitchen. His new film, Chef, is briefly described, and I've got to say, it looks pretty intriguing. He tells the contestants that for today's challenge, they'll have to make their dishes using only what can be found in dumpsters all around New Orleans. There's a beat before he tells them that he's totally kidding. Ha! Nice burn. Shirley, in particular, looked like she was about to have a massive coronary. The real Elimination Challenge will be to create a dish that represents a turning point in the chefs' careers. That's vague to the point of pointless. It's not a complaint; I like challenges where the chefs have a degree of freedom. It's just that they can basically make whatever they want and claim it figures into their past in a significant way. The chefs play fair, though, because you can actively see the wheels spinning in their brains. The meals will be presented at a restaurant that serves as a charity to teach culinary skills to at-risk youth. There's an idea I can get behind. I think everyone should would a service job for a couple of years when they're young - it teaches invaluable lessons.

Shopping. Nicholas buys a metric ton of carrots. In the prep kitchen, he sets up some pots, and snaps at Carlos when he moves them to another burner. So yeah, on the one hand, who cares which burner your pot is on as long as they're all functional? On the other, I can't fault Nicholas for not wanting Carlos to interact with his stuff in any way, shape, or form. Nina attempts to make stuffed pasta. She quickly runs into trouble when the heat of the kitchen ruins the dough. She scraps the filled-pasta idea, and goes for fettuccine instead. Brian is working with boneless, skinless chicken breast. Cue the needle scratch on the record. Boneless, skinless chicken breast may be a staple in most American home kitchens, thanks to its affordability, versatility, and health benefits. But to a chef, there's apparently nothing more flavorless or unwelcome. Nina treats Brian's use of it as if he were throwing together a dish made out of goat poop. Towards the end of prep time, Nicholas finds that his quinoa is burnt. It's totally ruined, so he won't be able to use it as the textural element he hoped. He doesn't know if he set the oven temperature incorrectly, or if someone (hint, hint) is sabotaging him. Come on, dude. Carlos is a bit thoughtless, but he's not manipulative or villainous. Sack up and take responsibility for your mistakes. Time runs out.

Service. Shirley has made crispy-skinned snapper with crustacean broth, tofu, and Napa cabbage with melted leek. Yuuuuum. She says that her dish is inspired by the "turning point" of her being on the show (and the Vietnamese shrimp challenge in particular). I'm happy to see that the servers are allowed to have a plate of all the chefs' dishes as well as the diners. Nina brings out her fettuccine with charred calamari, crab, and pine nut gremolata. Does everything sound so great today because the chefs are stepping it up, or because I'm so hungry? Brian has a chicken anticucho with twice-cooked potatoes and a feta walnut pesto. Emeril finds the potato severely undercooked, and the judges are as aghast as Nina was about the boneless, skinless chicken breast. Execute him! Carlos presents braised pork belly with sweet potato puree and a chipotle tamarind glaze. It looks pretty damned tasty. Nicholas brings out his carrots-a-million-ways dish, and explains his problem with the ruined quinoa. The judges agree that there's a real textural problem with the dish, but also that the fish is under-seasoned, which seems to be Nicholas' curse ever since Justin left.

Judges' Table. All five chefs are called in for feedback. Shirley's dish is roundly praised, and her sauces get better by the week. Carlos' dish was thought-out and bursting with flavor. Nina's dish was well-balanced, and the pasta came out perfect. The winner by a hair is... Shirley! Hooray! That leaves Brian and Nicholas in the bottom. Brian is excoriated for his protein choice, and I mean, come on, guys. We get it. Chicken skin is yummy. He didn't murder a prostitute. His underdone potatoes are also a big source of consternation. Nicholas should have just skipped serving fish altogether and focused on his carrots. The lack of quinoa hurt his plan, but not all of the blame for his misfire can be pinned on that. Tom throws it over to Padma for the chop. Brian. Please pack your knives and go. Brian is classy and mature in his final interview, but is visibly surprised by his ouster. Yeah, we thought Nicholas was going, too. I guess we can all take a lesson from this: Using skinless, boneless chicken breast is worse than fifteen Hiroshimas.

Overall Grade: C+