Top Chef Masters Recap: Season 3, Episode 9

It's contrary to expectations, but as Top Chef Masters boils down to the finale, the pressure seems to have actually lessened: The final four cheftestants were downright collegial in this penultimate episode. So no, the drama still hasn't ramped up enough to make the series particularly engaging.

QUICKFIRE
The cheftestants needed to work with guest chefs hidden by sound-dampening screens to create a dish that their mystery partners had to basically duplicate in real time. There was a lot of frustrated yelling, particularly on the part of Naomi, who kind of lost it.

Most of the duplicate dishes came pretty close to the originals, although Floyd failed to convey to his mystery partner that she needed to cut her asparagus down in size, so there was that absolutely riveting TV moment that we could all collectively savor.

The mystery chefs turned out to be family members of the chefs, which was kind of expected, but also kind of sweet.

CHALLENGE
Four servicemen were to be honored by a special homecoming banquet cooked up by the chefs, and each chef was paired with someone from a different branch of the armed forces. The challenge was twofold: Make large volumes of consistently good food, and balance your own chef instincts with the sentimental preferences of the returning servicemen.

It turned out numbingly dull, with the biggest point of drama coming when Floyd realized that the serviceman he was honoring wasn't terribly fond of spicy food.

To compound the situation: A solid 10 minutes of the program consisted of the various cheftestants mouthing admirable and true but incredibly boring identical platitudes about what an honor it is to serve food to those who risk their lives for their country. This point was banged like a drum without variation close to a dozen times over the course of the episode. Don't base a drinking game on this unless you like it when the room spins.

JUDGMENT
Mary Sue won according to a vote of the military families present, and her homey-but-elevated dishes (including ribs with a spicy tomatillo sauce, potatoes rajas, and apple bread pudding) seemed like plausible winners.

The problem with the episode: Everyone else's dishes seemed like plausible winners, too. In a shocking and not particularly pleasant upset, the judges sent home Naomi (my odds-on favorite for overall winner), citing some undercooked shrimp. Worth noting: She also cooked up a terrific pork with guava-coffee sauce and an ahi tuna poke salad that totally hit the spot for her serviceman, an Air Force colonel who is a native Hawaiian. Traci's tasty but boring meal of oversalted meatloaf, Caesar salad, and peach cobbler seemed to be fine and edible but considerably less interesting. What gives?

That said: Mary Sue, Floyd, and Traci are all damned credible chefs, so the last episode should, hopefully (maybe? possibly?), be a bit of a nail-biter.