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August 29, 2014

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Top Chef Episode 5: Countrified competition

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Trae Patton / BravoTV

Mattin and Michael make themselves at home on the range on the fifth episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas.

Like kiddie pools and foot-long hot dogs, cacti are one of those things that are better in theory. They’re low maintenance plants, yes, but once the novelty of having something green that requires almost no water wears off, you’re left with a prickly bush that isn’t conducive to having picnics, playing football or, apparently, making lunch.

On this week’s episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas, guest judge Tim Love of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth, Texas brought the culinary competition a little country flavor in the form of a Quickfire challenge starring the almighty cactus.

Top Chef Episode 5: Home on the range

Laurine picks out potatoes on Top Chef: Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

The problem with cactus, as the chef’testants revealed, is that few people really know how to cook it. In fact, the joke seemed to be on Chef Love, whose face got stonier with each dish he tasted. By the time he got to Ash’s grilled cheese sope, I was worried Love would rip off his country button down and run screaming from the kitchen.

The cactus challenge did have one upside, however. It finally gave Mike Isabella a chance to shine. The chef was one of the few who had worked with the succulent before, and Mike took the cacti in stride, submerging it in salt, curing it like salmon, serving it raw and pocketing a $15,000 chip in the process.

I’d vote Ashley’s cactus take as the most creative, though: cactus jelly donuts. They weren’t Krispy Kreme, but at least they were deep-fried.

The country cooking continued during the elimination challenge, during which the chefs were asked to cook a high-end lunch for a bunch of cowboys. And, of course, there was a catch. The chefs would have to prep, cook and serve outside on a, shall we say, rustic kitchen set up – fire pits dug into the ground.

Much grumbling and griping aside, many fabulous meals have been prepared over open flames, far from the bastions of stainless steel that most chefs on the show are accustomed to. This challenge demanded that the competitors think creatively, not just on their flavor profiles but also on cooking techniques and preparations. Rather than thinking outside the box, they had to think outside the kitchen.

As usual, some rose to the occasion and others fell flat. Laurine, who had up until this week coasted around the middle of the pack, made the top three in both challenges, rightly comparing her performance to everyone’s favorite ’80s handyman, MacGyver. The Voltaggio pair shone once again, and Ashley managed to free herself from the judges’ bad graces and land in the top four.

Eventually, Bryan took another elimination challenge, further asserting himself as one of, if not the, chef to beat this season. Not so fortunate was Mattin, seemingly so out of touch with the taste of his food that he stood by a trio of ceviches so bad that Tom Colicchio spit one of them out and Love claimed to have been made sick from them. As a rule, if Tom can’t swallow your dish, you probably won’t be cooking for him again, and Mattin was no exception. Sweet but clueless, the man in the red handkerchief had better stick to his native Basque cuisine in the future. Apparently, trying to diversify didn’t serve him well on Top Chef.

Next week’s episode will feature longtime Las Vegas favorites Penn & Teller and, undoubtedly, some molecular trickeration on the part of the chef’testants. Do I smell another Voltaggio vs. Voltaggio battle? You don’t need a Magic 8-Ball to guess that the brothers will be butting heads. May the best use of liquid nitrogen win!

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