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Richard Blais breaks down the competition at the halfway point.

Contestants aren’t allowed to bring music or iPods on Top Chef. Sometimes, parked in an unmarked white van, if a PA is nice enough while they wait for instruction, they will let you listen to a few tunes. But mostly, the chefs have a song or two stuck in their head that may help to inspire them.

For me, there were two:

"The Empirical Death March" from Star Wars and "Halftime" by Nas.

The death march, obviously, was my Quickfire anthem. It was my way of preparing to kill everything. Shoot on sight. Take no prisoners. Attack. Conquer the universe. Or die a romantic death ... of course.

And "Halftime," admittedly, was really just a B-boy anthem that gets me pumped up. It reminded me that the competition wasn’t over. No matter how far we were in it, it really was only halfway through.

And Top Chef: Las Vegas is halfway through. So as if on cue, we will take this time to breakdown the competition and analyze the performances to date.

Ash - Editing is a tough thing at Judges' Table. It’s the one part of the show that is really cut tight. Literally, hours of tape cut down to minutes and context is always difficult to grasp without actually being present. The questions don’t always match the answers and vice versa. That being said, Ash’s oral, um, encouragement of Michael is very telling. He’s certainly intelligent and entertaining. But it does seem that he has accomplished his personal goals and is ready to pack up.

Bryan - A model of consistency. His strength could be his only weakness. Last night, my wife used the word vanilla describing Bryan’s dish.  Yet people often don’t appreciate the fact that vanilla happens to be one of the most exotic flavors in the world. Plus, people like vanilla. A lot of people, like me. Win or lose, Bryan is going to get a lot of interesting e-mails after the show concludes.

Eli - Another Nas song, called "Ain’t Hard to Tell," comes to mind. But it is hard to tell whether Eli has hit his stride, fallen off pace, or faded in with the middle of the pack. His creation of the food genre “fat kid food” is a great descriptor and very clever. However, his food seems to lean away from the heart of that definition. The prolonged focus on his relationship with Robin seems to be building, towards what I’m not sure.

Kevin - Confidence is a great thing to watch on Top Chef. It’s Jordan’s flick of the wrist after a pull-up jumper. It's a baseball player whipping his bat and admiring a long shot. Kevin is reaching a tipping point. His calm, intellectual approach in interviews complements his thoughtful, comforting food. He’s playing the game the best at this point. Slightly contouring his talents to fit each challenge, while still expressing an individual style.

Jennifer - Even with her slight unraveling last week and being sick this week, Jen is tough as cast iron and as polished as sterling silver. Her food is eloquent. Her character is blossoming. She’s amongst the best female chefs the show has ever featured. Which doesn’t mean anything to her, but a fact nonetheless. Baring fatigue or emotional distress, we should be seeing much more of her.

Laurine - She has been a pretty quiet mouse, playing a solid sous chef in this past challenge.  She’s the only true caterer on the cast, and you know my stance on caterers winning the whole contest.

Mike I. - An early villain edit. Or his unintentional consumption of his own feet in the beginning has quickly morphed into what, I think, is Mike’s true personality. He’s serious about his craft, not so much about anything else. And that makes him the biggest personality on this cast. Behind his good humor and wisecracks, is a serious chef making a good run and picking up momentum.

Michael V. - I obviously have a bias towards Michael’s genre of food. Creative. Precise. Exciting. Is it personal enough? Does everyone get it? In a cast of accomplished craftsmen, Michael, more than anyone, has to express his vision and inspiration crystal clear. If Bryan is vanilla, Michael is licorice.

Robin - Her quirkiness has earned her a little spot all by herself. Which isn’t a bad thing. Alliances and allegiance don’t mean much at the end. This isn’t Survivor. But there’s no bigger motivator in life than someone telling you that you can’t do it.

Follow me on Twitter @richardblais and check out my other food writings on Omnivore (

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