This week on Top Chef: Chicago, we could not only be appalled by the cheftestants’ food choices, we could also smack our heads at their movie-viewing habits. Plus, the chefs start to get cranky!

You must use classical spoiler techniques.

The quickfire challenge was all about what separates a chef from a really good cook — skills. The guest judge, culinary superstar Daniel Boulud, announces that the cheftestants have to take the raw materials from a vegetable basket and use at least three classical cooking techniques to  come up with the sort of vegetable plate you could justify charging at least $30 for at a fine-dining restaurant.

That means we get to check out a lot of knife skills, and boy, some of these chefs can really wield a blade. There’s also some blanching and grilling and poaching, but it’s really all about who can shave the thinnest whisper of substance off of an otherwise stolid vegetable.

Boulud expected a well-thought out plate, and some folks failed. Nikki is faulted for thinking using a plain piece of endive as a boat would impress anyone — and yeah, if it’s something I could do for a cocktail party, it’s not that impressive. Plus, while the grill marks on her zucchini are lovely, she didn’t actually season the vegetable. Alas. Boulud also dislikes Lisa’s plate — it didn’t look thought out and the techniques don’t really go together. The worst criticism goes to Manuel, who Boulud said was using only level one techniques. Ouch.

Zoi was praised for her "perfect" poached egg, and Richard had an amazing, well-prepared presentation. But it’s Dale who takes the challenge — his vegetarian maki plate looks phenomenal, and I had no idea you could make avocado do that. His knife skills are proclaimed amazing.

Elimination challenge
The Cheftestants have to produce a dish inspired by a movie for film critic Richard Roeper. Immediately, you start to see who actually gets out (or has Netflix) and who hasn’t seen a movie since they were 12.

A couple of the choices make perfect sense. Dale, Richard and Andrew’s first course is inspired by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. They make something that sounds like it should be horrible — salmon with a white chocolate wasabi sauce and tapioca caviar? — but fits the movie well. Nikki and Jen, doing the third course, pick Il Postino, a romantic Italian drama that allows them to do simple, rustic homemade pasta. It plays to their strengths. Zoi and Antonia take Talk to Her,  a Pedro Almodovar film about strong women in Spain. You can have a lot of fun with Almodovar — he can revel in over-the-top drama — and I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Then there’s a more questionable choice: Spike and Manuel decide to do Good Morning Vietnam because, well, Spike likes cooking Vietnamese food. They’ll do a sea bass summer roll, and besides the setting, I’m not sure what the dish has to do with the actual content of the film. Spike is starting to bug me.

The last two dishes worry me. Ryan and Mark have absolutely no movies in common, and Ryan, who goes for seriously broad comedies, finally decides on a specific scene from A Christmas Story. Hey, great movie, and great scene, but it feels sort of out of left field, and not appropriate for the season. Stephanie and Lisa go even further afield — they’re doing the final course, but don’t want to do another dessert. They decide to use Top Secret — specifically the scene where Val Kilmer and associate are disguised as a cow — to do a beef course. Um, ok…

It turns out these chefs know a hell of a lot more than I do. The Willy Wonka white chocolate/wasabi combination is praised to the skies, not the least because it sounds like it should be hideous. We were looking for a reason to hate it, Tom Colicchio says, and we just couldn’t. Plus, Richard’s pitch that both the movie and the dish are about pure imagination really sells the course, and Richard wins the challenge.

The diners love Mark and Ryan’s quail and cranberry dish with spring rolls, and Roeper loves how they rooted it so well in the movie. They have a similar reaction to the Top Secret beef dish, even after the seemingly suspect addition of a second caramel sauce.

The judges split on the Il Postino tortellini — the regular judges think it’s just good, while the non-pro diners rave about it.

The bottom two dishes are the Talk to Her lamb course and Good Morning Vietnam summer rolls — and their main problem with Talk to Her was the way it was sold. Zoi and Antonia talked about the vibrancy, the passion, the bright colors and flavors of Spain, but the dish itself, while tasty, wasn’t as bright and passionate as they expected. Once again, a dish falls to bad marketing.

Spike and Manuel get spanked for obviously coming up with the dish first and the movie second, and then not making that great a dish. Spike refuses to acknowledge that it’s something you could find in any moderately good Vietnamese restaurant, and Manuel seems like he’s just along for the ride. In the end, Manuel gets the boot. Bye, Manuel!

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends:

  • Andrew, Andrew, Andrew. I’m starting to think they’re feeding that boy too much sugar or something. The Oompah-Loompah idea? Yikes. But then he gets all adorable and raises his hand triumphantly when the judges ask who came up with the mock caviar. He’s such a little boy!
  • Richard does a masterful job of sucking up to Boulud, who he used to work with. "Restraint is one of the things that Daniel taught me," he simpers as he reveals his quickfire dish. Oy.
  • That simplicity immediately goes out the window in the next dish, which is supposed to use some of Richard’s spiffy chef toys. The pocket smoker breaks down as they’re plating, so we’re spared another instance of the smoke escaping from the dish being integral.
  • Ryan makes me a little crazy when he and Mark are comparing movies: "This guy’s from New Zealand, New England, where the hell’s Mark from?" You have GOT to be kidding me. No wonder Dumb and Dumber is one of Ryan’s favorite movies…
  • Folks start getting snippy when they hear Richard’s chocolate/wasabi dish is the winner. "That does NOT taste good, I promise you," Zoi pouts. Apparently, it did. You may not have thought of combining the flavors — hell, no sane person would have thought of that — but that doesn’t mean it didn’t.
  • The most devastating judging putdowns were aimed at Spike and Manuel. "Did you spend your entire budget?" asks Colicchio. He’s amazed when they say yes. Then there’s this: "It’s something you could find in a local Vietnamese restaurant for $8 an appetizer." Ouch.
  • My favorite judging comment came when Ted was considering the Top Secret course. "Does it say Val Kilmer in a cow suit? I don’t know." Hee!
Posted by:Sarah Jersild