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Shot with His Own Gun aka The Best Laid Plans

Anthony Bourdain thought this episode would suck, but as he admits, he was wrong.

Anyone for tennis?

I was watching from home this week and I'll tell you straight off: I thought this episode was going to suck. Early on, as I got the idea that somehow "tennis" and "Swanson" were going to be involved, I reached blindly for the bong. Tennis is about as interesting to me as golf. And I find golf as deeply fascinating as what a Kardashian might say next. Coming up bong-less, a Louboutin Barbie (those spike heels hurt if you don't pick up em just right) snapped me back to reality. Wrapping my wound, I dug in for what I assumed would be an hour of painfully obtrusive corporate tie-ins and silly themes: "Using only a hot plate and the thawed contents of these Hungry Man Dinners, you have 20 minutes to feed 200 drunk-ass tennis fans -- and special guest, Bindi Irwin!"

How wrong I was!

Instead, it was classic Top Chef! A slaughterfest! A high pressure face-off in which the tennis theme served as model in only the best possible way: chef against chef. And in the end, only skill, ability and endurance --not strategy, not guile, not luck --prevailed. The best food won.

Instead of the worst -- this was in fact the best kind of Top Chef: Skill-based, gimmick-free, requiring the cheftestants to draw on all their talents at cooking, work under pressure, and at end of day, (hopefully) make smart, delicious food that tasted right for the situation.

What we got to see -- as we do in only the best challenges -- is who these chefs really are. We got to lift their skull-tops and peer inside for a second, examine their true natures (and how deep their skills). This was a very revealing episode. There was heroism, drama, cowardice, bloodshed, suspense, and conspiracy. And at end of day, an unexpected victor emerged from the carnage, clambered out of the rubble with a knife between her teeth to claim victory.Was Marcel wearing a "Members Only" jacket in the confessional? Are they coming back? I'm confused.

Casey made what can only be described as a "deconstructed" stuffing, a decision that would have worked only if Santa Claus was a communist.

Carla's "Un Done-tay" quinoia was certainly an inauspicious beginning to the day. But she managed to bounce back (big time) from this hilarious mea culpa in Elimination Round.
Fabio improvised a polenta and cheese stuffing by grating cheese on a wire rack shelf, congratulating himself while doing it by commenting "That is genius!!" No, Fabio. Actually, that is "clostridium perfringens," the third most common cause of food poisoning.

Tre's Southwestern, cornbread stuffing won the QF -- immunity and $20K. I, of course, (as the father of a little girl) was rooting for him from afar. Two girls? He'll be needing that money.

Things started to get really interesting after the Elimination Challenge was announced. Spike suddenly reverted to Sneaky Spike of years past, enlisting his team on a High Security Secret Mission to outwit, outflank and out-strategize the opposing team. Of tantamount importance to his Master Plan, however, was that Jamie -- who it was assumed would make a crappy dish -- would go first, putting her presumably lame-o offering up against one of the opposing team's stronger efforts, thereby causing them to "waste" it. One would think that Jamie would feel slighted by the near instananeous assumption by her teammates that she was incapable of coming up with anything worthwhile. But no.

"Whatever," says our hero. "If I can avoid fighting, I'm going to avoid fighting."

Jamie might actually be the most brilliant of all the contestants. At the end of this episode she will have survived THREE weeks without cooking anything other than a quick tomato soup. Her strategy seems to actually be: "If I can avoid cooking, I'm going to avoid cooking." And it appears to be working. As the tension mounted, The Artist Formerly Known as Angry Dale doubted Carla's spicy peanut soup. But she persisted. Then she neatly whacked off half her fingernail. Let me tell you, I've had the same injury on any number of occasions. And that f---ing HURTS. But Carla, unlike the previous patient, tells the medic to shove off, wraps her finger up and soldiers on -- referring to her wound as "an inconvenience." I need not pursue this subject, I think. Res Ipsa Loquitor. The thing Speaks For Itself. Carla? Rottweiler. Jamie? Malingerer.

First match-up and suddenly, Jamie refuses to even go in the tank for her team. Her chickpeas aren't cooked. As anticipated, she has nothing to serve. According to Spike's master plan, she was supposed to take a dive, but now, she doesn't even manage to make it into the ring to take one for the team. It doesn't matter. Fabio triumphantly beats Casey with his gnocchi -- taking what looks like a victory leap over the net. Nice to see Fabio so unabashedly happy for a change.

Tiffany F. whupps No-Longer-Angry Dale by a mile.

Marcel, dutifully doing the producer's bidding by jacking up the drama quotient in confessional, describes walking out on the tennis court by saying he "felt like a gladiator entering an arena." To which I'd suggest, "Not in that jacket."

Angelo, whose mackerel has gone mysteriously slimy, tries to beg some salmon off of Tre, who wisely rebuffs him. He then edges Marcel with some borrowed tuna -- possibly because Marcel has chosen to put cream in his tuna dish.... Other than vitello tonnato, I'm having a hard time thinking of a tuna preparation that is improved by the addition of cream. But I guess anything is possible.

Tiffany Derry falls to Antonia -- who I like more than ever since her remark early in the show that her chosen sport in high school was "smoking a lot of pot." At which point we arrived at one of the more epic, nay -- Shakespearean -- moments in the history of Top Chef: The moment where Spike was defeated by himself, where the dark prince and conniver fell victim to his own web of deceit, the puppetmaster overwhelmed by his presumed puppets.

I underestimated Spike after his first appearances on the show. I applauded his guile, his stealth, his craftiness. He seemed -- then -- to make up for what he lacked in cooking skills with shrewdness, cleverness, and tactics. But I have since come to learn that he is also a very, very talented cook (and businessman). So far this season, he's been straight up cooking -- and doing mostly very well. He outwitted himself this week in the confusion of battle. Too busy looking at the big picture, he allowed the hyperactive Angelo to roll right over him. Suddenly, Angelo was lovingly inserting some unwanted "yuzu gelee" into Spike's dish -- and Spike, preoccupied managing the Eastern Front, perhaps -- or blinded by the Fog of War -- let it happen! In the end, he outsmarted himself. How did this happen?

I'm sure Spike will be asking the same question of himself for some time. God knows the warning signs were there. When Angelo starts talking about putting something "in" your food, it pays to be wary. He's always going on about putting "love" in his food -- and I've never been entirely convinced there's not actual penetration involved. The fault, dear Spike, lies not in the stars -- but in ourselves. Forget about strategy. You should have just cooked. You're good. Not that that's gonna make you feel any better. You will have to console yourself, I guess, with a wildly successful and rapidly expanding business empire.

What made ME feel good this week was the seeing chronically underestimated Carla walk away with the Big Win. Against all odds. Against the advice of those who doubted her choice of dish, who doubted her, she stuck with her plan. Never wavered. While sporting a painful finger wound that would have sent lesser mortals running off to the hospital, she showed us all what a professional is. Nicely done!

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