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'Top Chef' recap: And then there were two

March 24, 2011 |  8:26 am

Chef So, is the unpleasant Mike really going to take this thing?

Among the final trio of Richard Blais, Antonia Lafaso and Mike Isabella, Richard is the neurotic talent, Antonia is the amiable professional and Mike is, increasingly, arrogant and nasty. Which can serve one well in reality TV.

The quickfire challenge is to be judged by Wolfgang Puck. They have to revisit a previous quickfire, each competitor assigning one challenge to another.

Mike assigns Antonia canned foods.
Antonia assigns Richard hot dogs.
Richard assigns Mike a one-pot dish.

Richard explains that Mike had once said he needs lots of skillets to work. Antonia, however, says the one-pot challenge will allow Mike to use any ingredient in the entire kitchen. Antonia: “Richard, not the sharpest one in the drawer.” Cut to: Richard, furrowed brow.

And then there’s a twist. Each competitor will have an additional previous challenge loaded on top of what they’re already doing.

Richard makes Mike use no knives or utensils.
Antonia makes Richard use just one hand.
Antonia is left with a “double-apron” she’s sewed together with Carla, who is here and gone in a jiffy.

Antonia thinks Mike is trying to rattle her. Mike wanders around the kitchen with a high-pitched giggle. Richard says he’s not entirely confident with his dish, echoing the confidence deficit he's been exhibiting over the last few episodes. Richard! Hang in there! And eat a sandwich, will you? You look peckish.

It’s hard to imagine Wolfgang Puck eating any of the odd, motley dishes they make. Antonia’s curry soup with canned shrimp, andouille sausage and curry spice is, he says, too concentrated. Mike’s spiced pork shoulder with black beans over salad is balanced, but the pork could have been more cooked (don’t people get sent home for that?  And Richard’s hot dog on handmade roti bread with curry ketchup, mayo and mint leaves was too ketchupy. The $5,000 goes to Mike.

Richard: “The kid’s just on fire.”

If they award Top Chef to the person who’s handling the stress the best, Antonia should win. Even though they cut to her getting weepy about her previous loss, even though she admits to having jags of nervous laughter, she’s still got a centeredness to her. Meanwhile, Richard is thinking of himself as an underdog, fearing “one tiny mistake,” noting “I’ve choked once before,” and repeating how a win would be the most important moment of his professional career. JUST A LITTLE PRESSURE.

And Mike, who may well be a nice guy in real life, seems to be the most determined to think about gameplay more than food, and be the most ready to turn positive feedback from the judges into inappropriate ego fuel. “I’m here to win! I’m not here for second place,” he says, coining his own version of not-here-to-make-friends. In the land of a lot reality TV, Antonia’s affability would mean she’s slated for extinction, but this is why Bravo’s shows are better than most: They often reward talent instead of drama, and upend reality TV cliches. So what if she’s talking to the camera a lot this episode? It doesn’t mean she’s not going to make it.

At the Ocean Club at the Cloisters the chefs meet Michelle Bernstein, Masaharu Morimoto and Wolfgang Puck. They have to prepare and serve each one their chosen last supper.

Mike will make fried chicken and biscuits for Bernstein.
Antonia will make miso soup, pickles and sashimi for Morimoto.
Richard will make goulash, struedel and spaetzel for Puck.

Everyone -- competitors and judges alike -- acknowledge that Antonia’s got the biggest challenge. But both Mike and Richard say they’re going to switch up the meals they’ve been given by the bigtime chefs and give them their own twists. Um, haven’t they seen the show before?

Antonia’s meal is up first. The judges’ take: The miso’s too salty, but not bad. Gail’s tuna had a bit of scotch bonnet on it (too much). Her rice is delicious. Rice? Delicious? This can’t be good.

Mike’s fried chicken comes with an empanada stuffed with egg yolk plus mustard gravy. The chicken: too dry, the skin not crispy enough, and sliding off. The empanada is unusual but works. Tom: Nice meal. Wolfgang: Too creative.

Richard’s goulash is “so right-on,” Wolfgang says, but Tom says its onion is underdone. The strudel, which he’d never made before, is outstanding. Overall, Wolfgang says, “Even my mother would have approved of it,” raising his hands to the sky.

Richard: He’s done it! His balance of his own sensibility and Wolfgang’s request has pleased everyone. He’s going to be in the finale.

As for the other spot, it’ll be determined by one more contest between Antonia and Mike. The judges are going to decide based on a three-question personality quiz –- oh, I wish. No, they have 45 minutes to make one bite.

Mike: “I want to do something bold, with some textures, but I don’t want to do anything someone else would do.” He makes a kind of high-end surf-and-turf with lobster and steak tartar, with an olive caramel sauce. Antonia makes a seared grouper in spicy coconut curry, which she describes as “a very aggressive dish to show the judges who I am and what I’m capable of.” Which seems to show: Mike’s playing the game, Antonia’s cooking her food.

Everyone agrees that Antonia’s bite is powerful, and it’s a 3-3 split, with Wolfgang casting the tiebreaking vote -- in favor of Mike.

Powerful can’t compete with olive caramel sauce. Obnoxious rules over pleasant. And, according to reality TV tradition, the person who gets the most screen time is the one who’s going home.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Mike, Antonia and Richard. Credit: Bravo.

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