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April 16, 2014

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Top Chef Episode 6: Parts > Whole

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Trae Patton / BravoTV

Kevin's elimination challenge winning dish: deconstructed chicken “mole negro.”

When is the whole not greater than the sum of its parts? When those parts, purposefully parsed into an array of ingredients, recombine into a single deceptively delicious bite. It may seem counterintuitive for "Top Chef: Las Vegas" to ask the chef’testants to take comforting dishes like meat lasagna, the Reuben, fish and chips and Caesar salad and break them down and build them back up, but that’s exactly what guest judge Michelle Bernstein did on the sixth episode. Only she used one big and, apparently, somewhat confusing word: deconstruction.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, let’s turn to the last word in online explanations, Dictionary.com.

Top Chef Episode 6: The breakdown

Toby thought Eli's sweet and sour pork deconstruction starring pork rillettes looked like bull's testicles. No, explained Padma, they're smaller. Launch slideshow »

Deconstruct (verb) – to break down into constituent parts; dissect; dismantle

Basically, Bernie wanted the remaining competitors (and man, it suddenly seems like the herd is dwindling in a hurry) to pull apart their dishes into individual flavors, mix up their forms and presentations and put them back together. If done well, the results would look nothing like the original, but would taste powerfully of the dish that inspired it.

To provide additional inspiration for the chef’testants – who were all looking and sounding a bit ragged during this episode -- "Top Chef" brought in a pair of Vegas gentlemen who know a thing or two about sums, parts and deception – Penn and Teller.

The magicians started their appearance the same way they start their show at the Rio, with the classic cups-and-balls trick. You know the one – balls appear and disappear under three different cups, and even if you cross your eyes trying to track their movement, eventually a glass will rise and a ball will be sitting where it has no right to be. Maybe it will even have turned into a giant ball or a lime. After completing the trick, P & T like to really show off. They do it again, a deconstructed version with clear plastic cups that ends with the audience just as impressed and still completely clueless as to how that damn ball got from here to there.

The chefs didn’t make it look quite so easy. As often happens around this time in a season of "Top Chef," the competition seems to be wearing on people. There’s less patience in the kitchen, and the competitors are quicker to criticize each other and doubt themselves. Jennifer spent most of the episode in a stressed-out blur, and Laurine seems ready to take a knife to Robin if she doesn’t quit yapping in the kitchen. Jennifer even called out Robin as being weaker than some of the chefs already sent packing, and you could just tell that Mike Isabella didn’t want to give her one of those tres chic Mattin tribute scarves. (What are the odds that red hankies turn into the new hipster accessory of choice?) Glad we’re not the only ones who think Robin should’ve packed her knives a while back, and sorry that a Quickfire win let her skate through yet another episode unscathed.

To make matters worse for the chef’testants, British food critic Toby Young was back for his first episode on the show. The man isn’t exactly known for pulling punches. He even made fun of the other judges for pronouncing “paella” correctly. C’mon, Toby. You don’t need to be Spanish to know it’s pa-YAY-uh, not pa-el-uh.

And Toby had plenty to criticize. While some of the chefs managed to conceptualize and craft admirably deconstructed dishes, others just self-destructed. Michael Voltaggio turned in a Caesar salad that looked like a model for an avant-garde office building, but tasted spot on, thanks to a Parmesan jelly, homemade brioche and a spherical capsule of dressing. Kevin redeemed a previous mole disaster by breaking down the complicated Mexican concoction into separate flavors – fig jam, cocoa power, coffee, chili and chicken. Apart they were just a bunch of ingredients, but grouped into a single bite they were chicken mole, and the winning deconstructed dish.

That concept was lost on Ron, who was sent home for the controversial paella that was not only poorly executed but also barely deconstructed.

“It doesn’t need to be genius, it just needs to taste really good,” commented Bernstein. Ron’s dish accomplished neither.

And with that the "Top Chef: Las Vegas" lineup was minus one oversized Haitian chef. By the time we get to the finale it will be deconstructed altogether. Hopefully, the parts left over will justify trimming the whole.

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