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Top Chef Boston Episode 4: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

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

Bravo

This week's Top Chef featured two of my favorite things: contestants being forced to work together, and bars. Sadly for me, the two were not combined in the same challenge, but I guess beggars can't be choosers. At least we didn't have to suffer through another Boston history lesson being jammed into a cooking challenge.

Before anyone even picks up a knife, we see an emotional Keriann Von Raesfeld on the phone with her husband, missing her kids. As I predicted, her storyline for the season — regardless of her cooking talents — is centered on being a mother forced to choose between job and family. Her position as a working mother is the most fascinating and real one on Bravo, mostly because the other "working moms" on the channel are professional Pinot Grigio screamers first, mothers second (and Botox patients third). Whatever purpose this glimpse into her struggle with being away from her family serves, I know that she's either going to do very well this week or be sent home. The producers are about as transparent as cellophane.

The chefs get a letter asking them to meet at Cheers. Boston native (feels unnecessary to remind you since she brings it up every time she's on camera) Stacy Cogswell is psyched, if not a bit concerned, to be heading to the bar that she "may or may not have been asked to leave" before. Girl, I get it. The reason I live in New York is that there are 6,000 bars here, so if I burn a few bridges on account of stealing glassware or ordering from the bartender "the largest cup of gin you can legally serve me," I still have plenty of options.

Padma Lakshmi welcomes the chefs and introduces them to George Wendt. He needs no introduction, really, as they all yell, "George!" as if doing so will transport us all back to a time when Cheers was still on the air and the only time we saw the words "pumpkin spice" was on cans of pie filling.

Apparently, by law, all bars in Boston must serve food. Why was this issue not up for a vote during the midterms in other cities this week? I've never stood behind a platform so strongly in my life. For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs must make a bar snack using what's in the pantry at Cheers, with the winner receiving immunity from elimination.

Aaron Grissom is up first, and I have a ton of faith in him because if anyone is going to know bar food, it's this bro. He serves a hamburger on white toast with peanut butter, mayo, egg, and bacon on top. It sounds like the kind of thing that you eat drunk, but you only know you made it because you see the evidence the next morning when you wake up from a black out. Oddly enough, Padma and George love it, despite the mess.

Other highlights of the challenge are Katsuji Tanabe's mahi mahi ceviche on a tostada, Keriann's beer battered onion ring with crab salad and Stacy's BLT of prosciutto, burrata, and tomato jam.

When rushing through plating, Gregory Gourdet drops the bun, as well as the caramelized onion and jalapeño off of his burger and winds up serving Padma just a bottom bun and an undressed patty. Even his charming anecdote about having a crush on Woody Harrelson can't save him. I was always more of Ted Danson girl myself, but I get it.

George announces the winner of this Quickfire (a challenge I have never felt more equipped to judge in my life, by the way) is Katsuji. Not only did he make a tasty bar snack, but he is safe from elimination.

Now that we've gotten the bar element out of the way, we're onto my other favorite thing: chefs being forced to work in teams. Normally, it feels like there is supposed to be some connection between the Quickfire and the Elimination challenge, but not today. They're farther apart from each other than a bride and the girl her husband invited that he used to date "but now is totally just good friends with" at a wedding.

Padma introduces guest judge, Boston restaurant owner, and Top Chef Masters alum Michael Schlow. He explains that the chefs will be split into teams of three and each team must create a classic, three course Italian menu, which they will prepare at his restaurant Via Matta. Each menu must consist of an antipasti, pasta, and secondi course. Diners at the restaurant that evening will choose which menu they want to order, and the team whose menu is ordered the most wins the challenge. Chefs from the remaining teams are all up for elimination. And here's the twist: two chefs will be sent home. Dun dun duuuuuun!

The double elimination comes as a shock, but I was far more shocked that the chefs could choose their own teams. I was ready for some schoolyard-style team picking where there's one chef left and the teams are like, "Well, maybe just the two of us could do the challenge? Or maybe Padma will let us pick a random person off the street? Does a food processor count as a teammate?"

Oddly, the chefs team up pretty easily, with the least appealing person in the group being Aaron. No one really doubts his talent, but also no one really wants to be in the kitchen and have someone yell, "I could cook you under the table, bro!" He ends up with Gregory and Katsuji, who immediately says to him, "Don't piss me off," which feels like a recipe for success right away.

Melissa King, James Rigato and Keriann are all on one team. When they are planning the menu, Melissa and Keriann want to do all seafood, though James is hesitant. Wanting to go with the flow, he obliges and decides to do a chilled seafood salad.

The teams and their menus arrive at Via Matta and tension is super high. There's some yelling, shoving, and a lot of "no this is mine and that is yours and you need to stay there with your stuff and I'll stay here with my stuff" early on. Chef Michael Schlow and Tom Colicchio take a peek into the kitchen to see how things are going, but when Tom goes out to enjoy his meal, Michael announces he'll be in the kitchen to expedite, aka nanny-cam for the judges.

The celebrity guest judge is actress Emmy Rossum. I always get her confused with Rose Byrne until one of them talks and has an Australian accent and then I'm like, "Wait, which one is Australian again? Is she in Shameless or Damages? Is one of them older? Are they older than me and look great or younger than me and more successful ugh who cares I need more wine." She joins Padma, Tom, and Richard Blais in the dining room.

While this challenge obviously aims to test the chefs' Italian cooking abilities, it is also a challenge in menu planning. A lot more goes into writing a menu beyond not using Comic Sans font. Diners look for certain things on menus, like appealing descriptions of items and detail about preparation. Oh, and the word "gratis."

The purple team is slammed from the start of service with lots of orders, and are also the first menu the judges taste. They all love Aaron's seared scallop with macerated peaches. Honestly, it looked unbelievable. I haven't wanted to lick my TV that badly since Bridesmaids was on the other day and and a shirtless Jon Hamm appeared on my screen.

Before Katsuji's pasta goes out, there's another twist. Emmy is gluten-free and will need another option that fits her dietary restrictions for each of the pasta dishes. Katsuji alters his ricotta and pea puree ravioli by just sending out the filling. Boom, no gluten.

The orange team of Doug Adams, Adam Harvey, and Mei Lin is clearly a culinary powerhouse, though diners order their menu far less than the other teams. One reason could be that the first course is Doug's raddichio, pancetta, and strawberry salad. The salad itself is actually tasty, but when it comes out looking a bit like cole slaw and has to compete against seared scallops as other antipasti dishes, I could see diners skipping over their menu. No matter how good it is, no one ever looks at a menu and is like, "Oooh, salad!" At least not sincerely.

The gray team, or the fish team as it were, is up next. The judges hate the chilled seafood salad James prepares, though they love both Melissa's spring pea ravioli with bacon broth and Keriann's pan-seared halibut with olive oil potato. Phew, Keriann's tears from the beginning were not a harbinger of elimination.

Another team getting slammed with orders is the blue team of Rebecca LaMalfa, Katie Weinner, and Stacy. While the judges love Katie's pappardelle with basil walnut pesto and its gluten-free sister, the zucchini pasta, they're less than pleased with Rebecca's scallops with orange and fennel and Stacy's ribeye with mushrooms and asparagus. During service, Stacy noticed that her vegetables were starting to crisp up and get dark and overcooked, but she served them anyway.

The challenge ends and the chefs uncharacteristically don't yell at each other for mistakes that were made during service. Michael joins the judges out in the dining room to chat about the best and the worst of the evening. I'm mostly upset there wasn't a bigger blow-up between Katsuji and Aaron, but I guess they have to ration this stuff so they don't get all of the excitement out in the first few episodes and then have to manufacture drama from whoever is left standing.

Padma asks Emmy to come to the kitchen and meet the chefs, and they get up from the table like two ladies on a double date rushing off to the bathroom together to gush about how handsome the men are and then strategically plan how to make it look like they didn't eat very much because, well, they're women.

At Judges' Table, Padma announces that the purple team narrowly beat out the blue team in number of orders, so Aaron, Gregory, and Katsuji won the challenge. The orange team, though with far less orders, served an excellent meal, so they are also safe.

Elimination comes down to Stacy and her overcooked vegetables, James and his lackluster seafood salad, and Rebecca and her unimaginative scallop. When the judges question Stacy about her vegetables she doesn't budge. She stands behind them being not burned, even though she knew they were, the judges knew they were, we all knew they were. I get it, you're from Boston, this is your turf, you don't want to back down, but burnt is burnt.

Ultimately, Rebecca and James are sent home, partly because I think Stacy's steak saved her dish, and partly because they need someone to have an opinion on the aggressively Boston-centered challenges for the rest of the season.

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