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'Top Chef' Episode 3: A mess in the mess hall

September 3, 2009 |  1:33 pm

Top cheffinFor Wednesday night's quick-fire challenge, contestants were presented with a spread of spuds that would give Weiser Family Farms a run for its money.

The chefs were inspired by the blank canvas that the humble tuber provided, and no one seemed too riled by the challenge. But things quickly heated up when Preeti dropped her asparagus into Ashley's gnocchi water. It was a good thing that this happened before the chefs took a trip to Nellis Air Force Base, as I'm sure Ashley would have loved to bust into an artillery stockpile at that point.

Mark Peel, having paid his proper dues in the Masters series, was welcomed back as the guest judge, and ruled that Jen's steamed mussels with Yukon gold-and-blue potatoes with lemongrass potato puree was the winner.

For the elimination challenge, the chefs hopped in a Humvee and headed to Nellis AFB to cook for the troops, some of whom had recently returned from deployment.

Jen, winner of the spud challenge, was deemed commander of the kitchen for this round. She brazenly barked directions like a drill sergeant, keeping an orderly command over the other contestants. Her experience in Eric Ripert's kitchen became obvious in this episode, making it clear that she's one of the top guns this season.

Her organization was much-needed under the conditions. Kitchen equipment issues seem to be a common problem with "Top Chefs" this week: both Season 2 "Top Chef" winner Ilan Hall's new downtown venue, and the Season 6 contestants were faced with major hardware challenges. The Vegas chefs bumbled around for space and vied for time with the wok, but Jen kept things orderly by labeling items with masking tape and allotting time for each chef with the various cooking tools.

Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the issue of lack of stove space, Preeti and Laurie opted to make a pasta salad that looked like something I might whip up for lunch in about five minutes. Mike was on the chopping block too for his undercooked shrimp. But it seems that being partnered with the powerhouse Michael V. -- who won yet another challenge with his bacon slab-turned-braised pork belly -- pulled him into the safe zone. 

Maybe Ilan and Preeti can have a pity party together this weekend. Someone's going to have to find them a space to cook in though...

--Krista Simmons

Photo: Contestants serving at Nellis Air Force Base; credit: NBC UMV