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April 24, 2014

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Top Chef Episode 3: Preeti takes the plunge

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BravoTV / Kelsey McNeal

Ashley, Hector, Eli, Mattin and Michael set up service stations to feed 300 Nellis airmen on “Top Chef: Las Vegas.”

Is it me, or did Preeti and Laurine go off the deep end last night on the third installment of "Top Chef: Las Vegas?" Charged with cooking for airmen at Nellis Air Force Base, the team paired up to create one epically mediocre dish that not only earned the judges’ wrath for being bland, but also seemed downright boring.

Episode three was all about creating meals for the masses – a mission that was somewhat in conflict with the show’s general operating orders of cooking high-end cuisine with couture flavors. To start, guest judge Mark Peel of Campanile restaurant in L.A., a recent "Top Chef Masters" competitor, revealed his humble roots as the veggie boy for recent guest judge Wolfgang Puck.

Top Chef Episode 3: Feeding Nellis

Mattin and Bryan teamed up to make a NY strip steak during the elimination challenge. Launch slideshow »

“I spent a long time with a potato in one hand and a vegetable peeler in the other,” Peel told the 15 remaining chef’testants. For the “Quickfire,” the chefs would be asked to do the same – whipping up an “out of this world” dish from a potato buffet including, sweet potatoes, Yukon golds, French fingerlings, Russian banana fingerlings and blue potatoes. The lowly potato, usually smashed, fried and teased into a shadow of its potential, found glory in the "Top Chef" kitchen.

Taters were transformed into gnocchi, sauces, crusts and soups. Mike Isabella brunoised (a fine dice producing small cubes) his potatoes and cooked them risotto-style. Ashley rolled out gnocchi with a homemade ricotta, and Ash saved a botched attempt at sweet potato ice cream, serving it as a custard instead and earning praise from Peel. But it was Jennifer who once again came out on top with steamed mussels in a potato and lemongrass sauce – a dish that Peel complimented on the trifecta of flavor, texture and color and called “classically French.”

From mass ingredients to the masses themselves, the elimination challenge mission, which they had to accept, was to report to Nellis Air Force Base and prepare a meal for 300 airmen and their families. The catch: They could only use what was in stock on base to prepare the meal.

Anyone who has ever mass-produced food knows that it is nothing like turning out carefully prepared individual plates in a restaurant. The ingredients are different; the tools are different; and the dishes that will hold up to buffet-style service well after they’ve left the kitchen are different than plates that work well straight out of the oven.

The base kitchen was not only chock full of canned foods and giant woks, but in true mass cooking style, there were no burners, pots or pans.

“Sort of on the worst fears kitchen,” described Ash dramatically.

The hardest part of the challenge proved negotiating the kitchen’s limited workspace and sharing time on the industrial-sized cooking apparatus. Under Jennifer’s direction as executive chef, the competitors responded well, offering up comforting simple dishes to satisfy military appetites without sacrificing flavor.

“I wish they had stuff like this in Iraq,” commented one Nellis airman.

Mission accomplished.

The judges were equally impressed by the hearty, well-prepared food and, once again, Michael Voltaggio emerged at the front of the pack with a dish of slab bacon braised in soy mustard and served on lettuce.

“That’s really cool,” Tom Colicchio said in a rare gush as he marveled at the idea of cooking bacon as if it were pork belly.

Preeti and Laurine, however, earned no such praise. Putting out a pasta salad that relied heavily on canned goods and seemingly minimal effort, the pair had little ammunition in front of the judges’ table. While Laurine acknowledged the dish was lacking, Preeti stood behind her dish, calling her instincts into question.

In the end it was Preeti, consistently at the bottom so far this season, who was sent home. However, the episode was, overall, a positive one, with the same reliable chefs – Michael, Kevin, Jennifer and Eli – standing out again. Breaking into the top tier looks like it’s going to be tricky for the chef’testants currently coasting in the middle. But as the episodes tick by, it’s perform or pack.

Suck It Up: Mike Isabella - Mike’s reaction to Jennifer’s “Quickfire” win was to call favoritism. Um, no. On Mark Peel’s first day in the "Top Chef" kitchen he probably hasn’t had time to pick out a favorite and give her the win for an under-developed dish. Stop making excuses; listen to the man; and use less salt.

Step It Up: Ash, Robin, Mattin, Hector, Ron - Hiding out in the middle on "Top Chef" may see you through the grace period when the weaker palates and talents are getting picked off, but sooner or later you’ll have to stand out or say goodbye. While a few chefs this season are providing the “wow” factor, these five haven’t been pulling their weight. Go big or go home already.

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