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'Top Chef': Push the panic button

August 26, 2010 |  6:30 am

Everyone does it. Law school graduates the night before the bar exam. Golfers standing over a winning putt. A couple about to have their first child.

There’s no reason why the remaining six cooks on “Top Chef” shouldn’t panic, either.

But as past seasons of the cooking show have proved — and as Wednesday night’s episode dramatized — a little adrenaline might be good when you’re poised to win a stage in the Tour de France but can be fatal when you’ve got a spatula in your hands. Chefs use pressure cookers to accelerate cooking times, but that same stress on the contestants themselves can reveal hairline cracks that can turn into outright fractures.

Two years ago, the previously levelheaded Carla Hall panicked and in the finals decided to cook a New York strip steak sous-vide, having never used the warm-water cooking bath before. She lost. The year before, the usually steady Richard Blais lost his confidence at just the wrong time, losing in the final for an uninspired pork belly with pickled radish.

In other words, the show’s most successful chefs are always the ones who remain as cool as gelato, particularly when the judging burners are cranked from simmer to hard boil. Contestants who trust their instincts and work within their range usually prosper, while those who overreach and overthink don’t.

That survival-of-the-coolest bodes well for the fortunes of Tiffany Derry and Ed Cotton but makes us wonder about Angelo Sosa, who is starting to fray like an old hot pad.

With one episode left before the “Top Chef” finals are cast, Ed in Wednesday’s baseball-concession-stand elimination challenge was as unflappable as ever, winning not only the elimination round with his shrimp and corn fritters but also the opening quickfire test with some tasty potato gnocchi. Tiffany was shortlisted for her meatball sub in the elimination challenge, staying unruffled amid all the drama in the crowded kitchen. Ed may sweat like Shaquille O’Neal trapped in a sauna, but he always keeps his composure.

Angelo, on the other hand, turned out a sweet-glazed pork on a soggy bun that the judges really didn’t like — a bad offering given that he has his own acclaimed New York sandwich shop. (Amanda Baumgarten was sent back to Los Angeles for a tuna tartare that might have tasted OK but actually looked spoiled.)

Yet it wasn’t Angelo’s cooking that suggested he’s losing it. Instead, it was his vacillations — first offering to expedite everyone else’s dishes, then deciding it was a bad idea, then doing it anyway. He looked like a baseball relief pitcher who wasn’t sure he wanted to face the heart of the opposing team’s lineup with the game on the line.

Panicky, in other words.

But if Ed was enjoying the double victory, he didn’t have long to savor it. His new Manhattan restaurant,  Plein Sud, was savaged in Wednesday’s New York Times, which gave the chef a derisory “fair” rating.

Let’s hope he doesn’t lose his cool.

-- John Horn

Photo: Tiffany Derry and Ed Cotton in "Top Chef." Credit: David Giesbrecht / Bravo