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'Top Chef' recap: The final food frontier

September 2, 2010 |  6:10 am

When this season started, Angelo was the cheftestant most likely to succeed:  he came to the competition with a Michelin star under his apron and a toque full of arrogance.  It almost seemed unfair, to throw this star in with the other less celebrated chefs.

But somewhere along the way, Angelo seemed to lose his confidence.  He nearly went home for his beef wellington a few weeks ago, and last week he bummed out the judges by turning out pork on a soggy bun in the baseball concession battle.  Where he once seemed to be some kind of master manipulator playing mind games with his fellow competitors -- many of those that he "advised" (including Amanda last week) ended up being sent home-- he now appeared to be psyching himself out. Could Angelo pull it together in this last D.C. challenge, the one that would decide the final four?

Padma quickly made it clear that the stakes had been raised:  not only would the winner of the quickfire challenge go to London, but the final four would cook their final meals in Singapore.  The quickfire was a familiar one to "top Chef" viewers -- creating a dish to go with a chosen wine--and with minimal drama, Angelo snagged the London trip with his foie gras.

"Maybe he's gotten his mojo back," Kevin said nervously. But Angelo wouldn't just need mojo, he'd need celestial mojo, since this week's bake-off was taking place at NASA and involved cooking food that could be freeze-dried for "dining at zero-gravity." The NASA scientist gave a few specifications -- keep the dish low in sugar, high in spice -- and they were off.  There was no interpersonal friction, and no real disasters (other than Tiffany's mussels freezing).

When they were served their space suppers, the table of foodies and NASA folks seemed pleased with all of the dishes, though there was some question of what astronauts would do with the bones from Ed's lamb, and whether Angelo's ginger-laquered ribs might be a tad sweet for space food.

But when it came time for judging, all that talk of freeze-drying went out the window. The judges (which included Anthony Bourdain rather than the NASA scientist) mainly discussed flavor -- which is fair enough, but why bother with the whole extraterrestrial premise in that case? 

Ripert seemed besotted with Kelly's very classic pan-roasted halibut and pleased with Kevin's steak and onion rings. Bourdain complained that Kevin played it too safe: "It's 'Top Chef.' Sirloin, for gods sake!" And Angelo's candied ginger totally baffled Colicchio  --though Angelo told the panel he paid the ribs so much attention "I felt like I made love to them."

Obviously either Kevin and his simpleton steak or Angelo and his sweet, well-romanced ribs would be going home in their own personal space shuttle. Right?   Well, er,  no. Instead, Tiffany -- who I was sure would be in the top 3 -- was sent to pack her knives, tears flowing at the knowledge that she was one challenge away from Singapore.

And the winner? Angelo. He and his mojo will drive home a new car, get to watch the launch of one of the two remaining space shuttles. And compete in the final four, with Ed, Kevin and Kelly.

[John Horn will be back next week for the Singapore showdown.]

-- Joy Press

Photo: Judges Anthony Bourdain and Padma Lakshmi. Credit: Bravo