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Top Chef Ep. 12: One Fish, Two Fish, Win Fish, Lose Fish

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To thoroughly enjoy the glory that is Top Chef New Orleans, we welcome Alison Leiby, who will be here every week to take us through the season.

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Welcome to 2014. It's a new year, so hopefully everyone will be able to make good on their resolutions. For example, I've been inspired by the show, and this year I am going to learn how to cook something besides dishes that call for a half cup of wine forcing me to finish the bottle before I'm done prepping and ultimately order a pizza. I'm also going to start listening to voicemails, but that's a whole other issue.

My hope for Top Chef in the new year is that the chefs would finally stop being polite and start getting real. I mean, is this reality television or a sophisticated competition among professional chefs? Where are the screaming matches and the backstabbing and the casual hot tub sex?

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Thankfully, last episode's oven-stealing controversy between Nick Elmi and Carlos Gaytan at least started to have the feel of a Pinot Grigio fueled cat-fight that we're all used to on Bravo. Recovering from the whole fiasco there is still tension between Nick and Carlos, though it's hard to say if Carlos knows that or not. It feels like most of the fights I've had with my ex-boyfriends. Where he's all, "That restaurant we went to was pretty good," and I'm like, "Yes," but in my head am saying, "I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU TOOK AN HOUR TO RESPOND TO MY EMAIL EARLIER I AM GOING TO KILL YOU." There's a real storm brewing between those two.

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The chefs arrive in the kitchen and are greeted by giant bins of live crawfish, Padma Lakshmi, and guest judge John Besh. My swooning over Besh's flowing locks and oceanic blue eyes almost distracts me enough from the live crustaceans crawling around just inches from him. The camera pans back to the judges, I breathe a sigh of relief, then instantly become queasy again when I see Padma's outfit. The woman has a perfect body, why are they dressing her in what appears to be work separates from Express in 1997?

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The Quickfire Challenge is for the chefs to give their own twist to a traditional étouffée. Since Padma is a self-appointed étouffée expert, she explains that the word in French means "to smother." She then repeats the words étouffée and smother so many times that it's questionable whether she knows anything outside of those two terms anymore. With forty five minutes to cook and immunity from elimination on the line, the chefs race toward the crawfish and just start grabbing handfuls of them.

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Stephanie Cmar reveals she is allergic to shellfish, which includes crawfish. I've often wondered what would happen if any of the chefs had food allergies, but I always assumed that they didn't or they wouldn't go on the show. If you fainted at the sight of blood you wouldn't go on a show called Top Surgeon. Also that show should never exist. You hear me TLC? That show should never exists. Don't go getting any ideas. I know what you're all about over there.

Stephanie puts on gloves and starts prepping, with Nick offering to taste her food and Carrie Mashaney offering to stab her in the thigh with her epi pen if she needed it. Stephanie seems grateful for Carrie's offer, which is weird to me. I once offered to stab someone in the leg with an epi pen and he didn't appreciate it at all. To be fair though, when I say offered I mean threatened, and I when I say epi pen I mean fork from this restaurant.

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Carlos has no idea what the dish is, so he decides to make a soup he knows pretty well. Padma points out to him that his dish is neither étouffée nor smothered. He has no idea what she is saying, so she just repeats herself and pauses waiting for him to soak up her étouffée knowledge. Shirley Chung chooses a dish that she often makes for her husband. She notices she's the only person using the traditional rice and gets nervous. As the chefs are all cooking, Nick keeps bringing up his beef with Carlos and how he doesn't trust him and that if it was Carlos who was allergic to shellfish he wouldn't taste his dish for him. I mean, it's G-rated drama, but at least it's something.

The Quickfire favorites are Bryan Huskey's Korean take with crab meat and peppers, Nina Compton's Italian version with handmade pasta, and Shirley's Singapore chili crab étouffée. Shirley wins and she has immunity from elimination.

For the Elimination Challenge, Padma explains that the chefs will have to create a dish highlighting two different kinds of seafood for the Louisiana Seafood Festival. She then says that they will be cooking for 1,000 guests. The chefs freak out and then she says, "Just kidding, it's only 200 guests!" Wow, Padma, that is a great joke. You're hilarious. So now do you consider yourself a model/actress/host/cookbook author/comedian? You really do it all.

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Before the challenge, John Besh invites the chefs to his house on the bayou for a home cooked meal so they can have some simple Louisiana cooking. They arrive at his mansion and immediately everyone has an old fashioned in hand and now I know what heaven will be like.

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The next day on the way to the challenge, Carlos says he is going to do a crudo and Bryan tells him he better sharpen his knives. I know instantly that this is going to be an issue during preparation. Well, not just from this, but also because I saw the promo for this episode easily a dozen times during a marathon of the Millionaire Matchmaker I was watching the other day, but that's really neither here nor there.

Everyone rushes on to the seafood truck to grab their proteins. Shirley decides to make a cold dish for the first time in any of the challenges. While everyone is grabbing oysters and Amberjack, Nina is the only one to grab Wahoo, a fish she has cooked with quite a lot both in the islands and in Florida.

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Nick decides to do oysters, but then when he empties the bucket of oysters into a bowl they aren't as briny as he hoped. Maybe this is my New Year's Eve champagne hangover talking, but I can't look at a bowl of raw oysters and not get a little nauseous, and they are one of my favorite foods. Nick does notice some fresh oysters he can use, but he'll have to shuck and clean them, so he's a little worried about running out of time.

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Carlos starts cutting his fish for the crudo and his knife is not sharp enough to do a decent job. He asks Nick, who is stationed next to him, if he can borrow his knife. After all of Nick's trash talk about how he "doesn't trust Carlos" and "would never help him out" and "hopes he looks fat at the reunion" (okay wait, that last one doesn't sound like Nick, sounds more like me about someone else entirely, but let's not split hairs), he goes ahead and lends Carlos his prized knife which he got as a wedding present. Even though I know that kitchen tools are traditional wedding gifts, especially for a chef, I find a knife an odd choice of a present in that context. It's like, "Hey, congratulations! Have fun spending the rest of your lives together. Try not to use this to kill each other!"

Party guests start to arrive and most of the chefs are pressed for time to finish. Carlos can only finish cutting his fish if he starts cutting the pieces in half, but he's worried about serving too small of portions. If he were cooking for former Mayor Bloomberg that wouldn't be an issue, but this is a party in the South, so he's probably right.

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Judges Padma, John Besh, Tom Colicchio, and Hugh Acheson arrive in coordinating checked shirts and blazers that make them look like members of Brooks Brothers boy band. They visit Stephanie first to find a huge line of guests who have been waiting almost 25 minutes for her fried oyster with tuna and pickled beech mushroom. When they finally do get up to try it, they enjoy the dish noting her perfectly cooked oyster and excellent salad.

Next they visit Carrie with her flounder croquettes with oyster emulsion and pickled cucumber. While they like the dish, Tom thinks she didn't highlight the fish at all, and the fritter could be made of basically anything. I have a hard time hearing "flounder" and not thinking of the sidekick in The Little Mermaid and then wondering why I can't get my side bangs to ever sweep over as effortlessly as Ariel's. Maybe you have to live under water to make that work.

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Nick's oyster leek soup with champagne emulsion, green apple yogurt, and cured amberjack is well executed, but as Hugh says, there's nothing exciting about it. One guest says that he loves the foam, though the woman he is with has a negative reaction just short of a sassy "oh no he didn't" three snaps, so it's really anyone's guess how the rest of the crowd likes it.

Tom and the Louisiana Seafood guys have a heated trash talking session about what region has better seafood, the Gulf or the East Coast. I guess they are basically the bloods and crips of the shellfish world. Meanwhile, Hugh and Padma are talking with a guest who says she hasn't tried anything because she's allergic to seafood. Well why the hell is she even there? I'm allergic to Penicillin and you wouldn't catch me at an Antibiotics Festival, though it does seem like a good place to meet a nice doctor.

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After everyone was served, Nick goes to get his knife from Carlos and finds it just sitting at his station uncleaned, as if he wasn't even going to give it back. Nick is furious, or he's as furious as I guess he gets. He rages out to the camera yet still keeps his cool when asking Carlos about it. This would be where I would lose my shit and start making a scene. I don't care if I'm at a seafood festival or the fitting area of the Barneys Warehouse Sale: if you take something that's mine I will start yelling until security arrives asking me to calm down.

Back at Judges' Table they all seem to agree that there were lots of ceviches and that many chefs didn't highlight the seafood, which was the point of the challenge. The top three are Bryan, Stephanie, and Nina. The judges loved Bryan's grilled swordfish with shrimp and daikon relish and Tom says he could have eaten a whole bowl of just the sauce he made. Nina's choice of the Wahoo as well as her preparation with the salsa verde were huge successes.

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Stephanie wins the challenge, though, for her perfectly cooked fried oyster. She said she wanted to win this one for John Besh and I totally understand. I want to show him all of my straight A report cards just to make him proud of me.

Since Shirley had immunity as well as a decent ceviche dish, the bottom three are Carrie, Carlos, and Nick. Carrie has never been in the bottom three of an elimination, so this was her first foray into being in front of Tom, Padma, and the gang and not receiving praise. They all found Nick's dish too complicated and too soft in both texture and flavor. Though the judges liked the flavor of Carlos's peach salsa, they could barely taste the fish or the shrimp at all.

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Ultimately, Carrie's choice of making a fritter with that fresh, delicate flounder sends her home. Padma says she's going to miss her in the kitchen and I agree. Carrie was one of the few chefs who seemed to have a sense of humor and actually smiled in the kitchen.

Well, I think my hangover is finally wearing off and I could really go for something that isn't a bacon egg and cheese sandwich. Maybe I'll make some mussels in white wine and garlic. May as well open up that bottle. One glass won't hurt, right?

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