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'Top Chef: Las Vegas': Thomas Keller descends, scares the bejesus out of the chefs

November 19, 2009 |  9:28 am

The teasers for Wednesday night's episode of "Top Chef" revealed a nervous Kevin and a flustered Brian -- competitors that never seem to be fazed -- and then there was that (we now know erroneous) report from E! Online, swearing up and down that "a front-runner" would be booted.

But all's well in the "Top Chef" universe: The Final Four is intact, just as I (and everyone else with eyes) predicted so long ago. So congrats to Jennifer, Kevin and the Brothers Voltaggio.

Still, it could have gone very wrong. And it would have been Thomas Keller's fault.

The elimination challenge -- a mock version of the Bocuse d'Or, the culinary world's Olympic games -- was not, in my humble opinion, the most difficult challenge this group has faced. The chefs were instructed to make a protein and two fancy "garnishes" or sides. Their only restrictions were budget and a choice between either lamb or salmon as their protein.

But seeing Keller, America's most decorated chef, pop up in the kitchen to announce he'd be judging, well, everyone blanched. Indeed, each of the final five seemed to be crippled by visions of Keller waiting at the dinner table dancing in their heads. I think I actually saw Kevin blinking away tears when he revealed that Keller's "The French Laundry Cookbook" changed his life.

So how did they do? Not too well.

Kevin won the night with a lamb loin and seasonal sides (asparagus and Swiss chard) but played it safe, according to the judges, whose duty it was to be as harsh as possible. So his victory wasn't all that thrilling. In fact, he was the only chef to have executed every part of his meal correctly. (And that's even though he had never sous-vide anything before then. I'm telling you, Kevin just has the right instincts, every time.) While I love that this season's Final Four have been among the best chefs the show has seen, all were seriously underwhelming Wednesday night, tripped up by their own fears of cooking food not up to Keller's high standards. It made for one of the least exciting episodes this season (though I was concerned which of the remaining four would be chosen the worst of four evils).

It was nice, however, to see Jennifer get some of her mojo back. She won the quickfire with her seafood ballantine, and at least some (sadly, not all) of the judges got perfectly cooked salmon. With a break between now and the finale, here's hoping she can really get her head back in the game.

Mike V. swings big -- bigger than all the other contestants, and cocky or not, I give him props for that. He goes for a trio of dishes with all sorts of elements to them. Unfortunately, he calls it a "Mediterranean" spread, and the judges harp on cauliflower not being very Mediterranean. Also, for all his ambitious concepts, it seemed he forgot to season some of his food. He gets through to the finals for his past oeuvre.

Bryan also tries to swing big, albeit in a less showy style than his younger brother. But it's too much for Bryan, who winds up undercooking his lamb. Luckily for him, the judges like the thinking behind his three dishes and say conceptually it's harmonious.

So Eli goes home. His lamb was way more undercooked than Bryan's -- and we all remember what happened to chef Art Smith in "Top Chef Masters" when he served up a giant undercooked lamb ball...chop!

What did everyone else think? I didn't find it that dramatic, because none of the chefs seemed to bring their A game to the challenge. Again, I was concerned for awhile that Eli would sneak into the finals. Whew! Who do you think will be the final two? Who do you want to see as the final two? Sound off, please!

-- Denise Martin

Caption: Jennifer Carroll, Kevin Gillespie, and Bryan and Michael Voltaggio. Credit: NBC Universal