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'Top Chef': Too close for comfort, Stefan edges past Fabio

February 18, 2009 | 11:04 pm

Fabio_vivianiIt's been a good run, Fabio. I know you're out there somewhere, rooting the remaining member of Team Europe into the finals. But it was close. Really, really close.

Let's trace how both "Top Chef" competitors from abroad found themselves on tonight's chopping block.

The episode started with the arrival of our Final Four into New Orleans. Hosea has been studying Cajun and Creole cooking -- there is a difference -- ready to bite at the ankles of Stefan. He’s feeling good. Fabio’s got a Mohawk, a pink scarf and a mission to win. Carla has also restyled her 'do into something a little more sophisticated and styled. I like it. She wants to remind you she's from the South and she gets the area's soul cuisine.

And then there’s Stefan. "I’m a great chef and I know that," he tells the camera. The guy speaks the truth. When he greets the other three contestants, he ribs Hosea: "Did you learn how to cook?"

Oh Hosea, this is going to hurt.

Today's guest judge is none other than Emeril Lagasse. Emeril? I’m not a hater. In fact, the other day I was watching early "Essence of Emeril" episodes -- well before "Bam!" made Anthony Bourdain’s blood boil -- and the guy straight-up knows and loves the classics. He's no Ripert, but he's most appropriate in New Orleans.

Seriously, Carla looks adorable in her pink coat and new hair. I can’t get over it!

The judges unleash a surprise on the contestants. They won't be competing at all. Instead, Leah, Jamie and Jeff will compete. Wow. They just had to bring back Leah, didn't they. But wait! They’re getting a chance to get back in to the competition? Jamie! Jamie! Jamie!

Fabio is pissed. "Gimme a break. Please!" Hosea, of course, whines about how bummed he is and how unfair this surprise is. "Not really the math I want right now," he says. Methinks a better idea would be to swap the winner of the quickfire with Hosea.

Speaking of which, the quickfire is Battle Crawfish. Leah, per usual, starts in about how she’s never worked with it before. Jeff is all determination. Leah's doing a gumbo (and says, wait for it, she’s never made one). Jeff is doing crawfish and grits. And Jamie ... what have you got for us, Jamie? Grilled corn cake with poached eggs, andouille sausage and a tasso hollandaise with crawfish. I think we all know who should win this challenge.

Leah’s crawfish soup -- guess she changed her mind -- doesn’t look like it impressed Tom, thank goodness. No feedback on Jeff’s dish. Ditto Jamie, but Emeril looked pleased. And the winner is ... Jeff. Dang. All right, that still works. After all, he proved he can do restrained cooking. He gets, wait for it, a copy of Emeril’s new book. If they're going to hawk their books as "prizes," they need to come with a car or a new kitchen. Come on, step up people.

Time to feast before the slaughter. The contestants dine out at Emeril’s Delmonico and share with the viewing audience why they need to win. Jeff is feeling the pressure, but has something to prove, having been cut. Fabio wants the money to help his ailing mother. Carla is doing it for her husband and stepson. Hosea wants the money and the title. Stefan, well, he's feeling pretty entitled, having racked up eight wins, possibly the most in "Top Chef" history.

The day's elimination challenge is pretty straightforward: Cater a masquerade ball for 100 and present at least one creole dish. For Jeff, the challenge is twofold. He needs to come in first to stay in the running, in which case two of the other contestants will be eliminated.

Looks like everyone's attempting an entirely creole menu: Hosea is whipping up gumbo and pecan-crusted catfish. Carla’s doing both an oyster stew -- even while she has to shuck 100 oysters -- and a shrimp and andouille beignet. Stefan’s doing gumbo too, only with duck and rabbit, and an apple beignet. Jeff, who seems to have thrown that restraint I mentioned out the window, is making his own sausage for his fried oyster with sausage and a crawfish pot de crème. Fabio is doing a sausage and rabbit maque choux with grits and a crawfish and crab stew.

Because the producers are intent on making viewers hate Hosea -- they've admittedly succeeded in my case -- he now explains the process for cooking roux, a thickner used in gumbo, as a way to point out the fact that Stefan doesn't seem to be following procedure. In fact, Stefan is taking a smoke break because he's not nearly as freaked out as the rest of them.

In comes Tom, who is just full of funny condescending looks tonight. Here's why: He’s not sure how any of Fabio’s dishes are creole. Jeff’s from the South, but may be verging on overcomplicating matters again. Carla should have steamed the oysters to get them to quickly open -- and Tom's amused. Stefan's cocky. (Yeah, thanks for the news flash, Tom. It's because he's that much better than the folks you cast against him. And guess what? Hosea is just as full of himself.) And after Hosea’s explanation of what to do with a roux, Tom thinks his roux ain’t there yet. I wonder if it means anything that Hosea is dressed in a black hoodie for his interviews this whole time.

The gang heads to the event and Carla’s only got a third of her oysters shucked. This, I'm willing to bet, is a red herring. I've got money on her winning the night's challenge. Gail is back and I’m mixed. I wasn’t a big fan of Toby Young's heavy-handed quips, but Gail is still no Ted Allen. I’ll get over it, eventually. Did you know mardi gras reminds Fabio of old pornos, only with fancy masks? Now you do.

The judges get down to the tasting. Jeff’s cucumber mojito is yummy and Emeril thinks he's one smart cook. One guest says Stefan’s roux isn’t dark enough and is thus a stew. Emeril still dubs it a success, but Tom's really not liking the light color. A guest likes Fabio's pasta dish and another says it’s a parade in his mouth, but Tom and Emeril agree that heat is missing. Carla's turn -- and I called it! She's the clear winner. Bam! for her stew and bam! for her beignet. Emeril likes Hosea’s stuff too. Both, he says, were filled with the spirit of New Orleans. Wait, then Stefan looks prime for elimination....

At the judges' table, Jeff is awarded the prize for the night’s winning cocktail. They applaud both his dishes -- pointing out that he made his own sausage. Oh. My. God. Is Stefan going home? Fabio takes a few lumps for the lack of heat and his cocktail. Emeril dubs Stefan the king of grits but complains about both his cocktail and the beignet. Tom complains about his cockiness. OH. MY. GOD.

I can’t take this. Fine, judges. Send Stefan home. Give the crown to one of these other guys. Make sure that winning "Top Chef" means that you cooked two good dishes instead of 10 during the competition. I can barely watch the judges discuss who should go home.

Carla wins. She gets the car. See ya, Jeff. Let’s get down to business.

But let me first say this: Did Stefan rest on his laurels? Probably. But this is the problem with the show. You judge someone on their last dish and their track record goes out the door. Unfair. And why dump on Stefan’s attitude? Since when is that part of the competition? I remember Marcel getting into the final two in Season 2 because his food merited it. Lame.

Fabio is eliminated. Sad. But thank goodness it wasn’t Stefan.

He'll go head to head with Carla and Hosea in the finale. May Hosea be squashed like a little bug.

Check back Thursday to read my interview with Fabio. Any burning questions? Leave them in the comments below before 1 p.m. PST and I'll make sure to try to get them in.

-- Denise Martin

Complete coverage of 'Top Chef.'

Photo: Fabio Viviani. Credit: NBC Universal