Last week on TC:M, Art Smith got dissed and dismissed for failing to please Zooey Deschanel’s vegan palate with grainy and unpleasant rice cream. I hear that for his punishment, Zooey used her huge eyes to suck out his soul and replace it with a Smiths song.

So this week we’re left with a pretty formidable final four of Michael Chiarello, Rick Bayless, Anita Lo, and Hubert Keller.

As they stroll into the kitchen to meet Kelly, Hubert interviews that he knows the challenges are only going to get harder as more people get eliminated. He is a wise man. Kelly greets them with the news that this week’s final Quickfire contest will be the ever-popular blind taste test. Yes! This is one of my favorite things to watch on any food related competition, because it gives me an almost unbounded sense of superiority. (How could you not know butter?) Although, surely these professional chefs with their elevated palates and extensive knowledge of flavor profiles should come out of this relatively unscathed, right? Ha.

The chefs will have to name as many ingredients as they can out of 20. I would’ve liked to see a return of the identify-the-higher-quality-item version of this challenge that they did in the fourth season, but I’ll take what I can get.

Chiarello is up first. He’s already equivocating since he does “Italian, Italian, Italian,” and his stable of ingredients is narrow. To wit, he bombs Hoisin sauce. However, he does score peanut butter which has precious little to do with Italian cooking. I’m just saying. And he guesses mascarpone as sour cream, so Mario Batali just might be coming to revoke his “Italin, Italian, Italian” card anyway.

Hubert Keller is up next, and he says his favorite part is being blindfolded by Kelly Choi. Hubert, you silver tiger you. He goes on to correctly ID such familiar things as maple syrup, corn, and ketchup, but miss some of the more esoteric items like papadum.

Rick Bayless is quaking in his tube socks, but as he gets the blindfold treatment he tries to ease the tension by thinking of the challenge as a party game. Well then that’s a pretty neat parlor trick you’ve got there, identifying Hoisin as ranch dressing and mango as plum. He does nail smoked paprika, ketchup, and papadum, but that’s not nearly as entertaining at a party.

Anita admits that she doesn’t do well in high pressure evaluation circumstances like this, which is a pretty effective pre-emptive strike against ridiculing her for missing Hoisin sauce. Being put on the spot does suck. But we mainly see a row of Anita’s successes: she nails almonds, ketchup, papadum, and dashi.

Everyone reconvenes and talks about how horrible and difficult the challenge was. Kelly returns to dole out final tallies: Hubert only identified 5 ingredients correctly, Anita and Rick both got 6, and Michael Chiarello carried the day with 7 correctly guessed. Out of 20. If this were on a different network, Gordon Ramsay would immediately shut the kitchen down. But this is Top Chef Masters, so in a spirit of respect and loving-kindness, we just get scores:

Michael earns 5 stars for the win, Rick and Anita both earn 4 for their second-place tie, and Hubert brings up the rear with 3.5 for coming in last. Technically I feel HK should’ve only scored 3 stars, but personally I feel I don’t care.

That’s Not My Name

On to Elimination! The chefs find they’ll be catering a buffet lunch for 200 “Hollywood insiders” while running a team of sous chefs. And in file the potential sous chefs, a bunch of previous contestants from TC: Original Recipe. Yes, our producers are again indulging their pleasure of bringing back the hugest toolbags they can find, including Spike (two weeks in a row! It’s a crime!), Ilan and Betty of Season 2, and Dale of Season 4. But at least this time they sprinkled some good people among the jerks, including Fabio of the fifth season, Antonia and Blais of Season 4, and C.J. and Malarkey(!) of Season 3. Everyone smiles and looks either excited or defensive, and then each chef gets two minutes to decide which sous chefs to work with.

Rick approaches the “interview” process by acknowledging that “these are people who consider themselves chefs.” LOL, unintentionally backhanded compliments are my favorite. They mix and mingle and try to get to know skill sets and whatnot, but I’m finding Chiarello hilarious as he asks everyone to pronounce his name, and to run to the store room for two carrots, and then to finely dice them to show their prep skills. Everyone seems a little put off by this iron fist approach – Spike refuses to do the carrot chopping, and Ilan applauds him from the sidelines because it’s in the douchewaffle union bylaws – but I’ve seen worse. Here’s looking at you, Gordon Ramsay.

Rick is kind of feeling out their individual senses for flavors and their experiences with Mexican food. C.J. says “I’ve been to Cozumel,” and they laugh as Rick says “that doesn’t count.” Zing! Blais during his time with Rick says point blank that he’d like to be on the Bayless team, even though he knows squat about Mexican cuisine. Hubert seems to be concentrating on pastry skills and looking for a team that can best complement what he’s already great at doing. Anita, for her part, is instantly drawn to Jamie because Jamie used to work her line ages ago. They hug like old friends, and I’m kind of sympathizing with Anita because it seems like there’s more stress in the game than she bargained for. She grills Jamie for advice on who to choose, and Jamie suggests Dale for some reason. And Blais.

Team finally get chosen, draft style. First round: Michael chooses his blood brother Fabio, Rick picks Blais, Anita, Jamie, and Hubert chooses Antonia first. Second round: Michael chooses Malarkey (!), Rick goes for some guy named Alex, Anita chooses Dale, and Hubert picks Elia. Final round: Chiarello chooses C.J. Ilan, Spike, and Betty are the last three losers standing, and that is as it should be. Ilan goes to Team Lo; Rick picks Betty, and Hubert is “stuck with” Spike. “That was a cruel move,” Hubert says, chuckling. I just love his guts.

Spike thinks that he was picked last because the MCs didn’t want his input outshining their work. Of course Spike. And also they’re really threatened by your utter adequacivity. Your formidable adequatulence.

The teams get started planning menus and distributing tasks; Rick and Hubert each take very democratic tacks, asking for input about what kinds of dishes they think would work best. Anita too offers her broad plan of Asian inspired dishes and her team works from there. Chiarello kind of dictates the flavors and menu, and Malarkey (!) completely approves because it is Chiarello’s name on the line and Chiarello’s place in the competition to lose, so he’ll do whatever he can to help. (That’s part of the reason his name is followed by an exclamation point, in case it wasn’t clear.)

Shopping looks like even more of a clusterbum than usual. They have to stock both serving tools and groceries, and there wasn’t really time to plan lists and split duties. This guy named Alex steers Rick toward the seafood counter right away so they get first choice; Rick marvels at the level of strategery with which these Original Recipe contestants approach challenges. I do something other than marvel.

Back in the kitchens everyone’s putting away product and claiming workspaces etc. in utter confusion. Chiarello claims a fridge but Anita’s team loads it up with their stuff; Chiarello says something about how much that sucks and in the process calls Dale “young man.”

Dale, predictably, reverts to his grade school self and hallucinates Chiarello trying to steal his marbles. The result is an explosion of machismo including, honestly, many repetitions of “What’re you gonna do about it?” from Dale. Dale, you arrogant dip. He didn’t call you “young man” to be disrespectful. He did it because he doesn’t even know who you are. He could’ve just as easily called you, “Hey, d-bag.” I think he went the more polite, if less accurate, route.

They’re each a “yo mama” away from challenging the other to a game of Chicken, but then Chiarello says he heard his wife in his ear telling him not to be an idiot and he turns his back on Dale. Maybe you should’ve tuned to her station a few minutes earlier, Michael. Now you both look foolish.

The situation resolves itself somehow, and we get back to prep. Hubert declares that his is the best team, and if Spike weren’t there I’d wholeheartedly agree. Rick and Blais have some kind of soul-bonding meeting of the minds and decide that Rick’s love of avocado sorbet, and Blais’s love of using liquid nitrogen in the kitchen means they must make avocado ice cream. Team Lo is cleaning and prepping a ton of seafood for Anita’s vision of a raw food bar, but Jamie in particular seems clueless as to the actual dishes they’re going to serve on it. When the 3 and half hours for prep are up, Team Lo is pretty clearly swamped.

Hot Stakes

Day Two: we meet everyone again some sunny day. The teams have 2.5 hours to get everything ready for service; they’re all doing final simmers and seasoning meats when Kelly Choi strolls in and tells them the venue has been changed from some dining room to some hotel terrace and they only have 30 minutes to pack up their kit. This … seems stupid and dangerous. And pointless. Faces fall, games are upped, and the packing frenzy begins. Although it’s not so much a frenzy for Bayless, who is Zen like it doesn’t even matter that he has to stop his pork stew in the middle of the cooking process and move it out into a hot car. “It’s a Top Chef world, and we’ve just gotta make the best of it,” he says. They regroup in the hotel kitchen and Anita’s team is working on short ribs and Jamie is still shucking oysters and clams when Kelly Choi again strolls in with a wrench behind her back. She smiles and leads the chefs to the outdoor terrace, where they’ll be serving all of the food in the blazing California sun. I repeat … stupid and dangerous. Michael Chiarello immediately nixes all of the mayonnaise-based components he had planned and has to rethink them. And Anita’s raw bar is screwed.

Also, each team will now have to drop one member, for some ungiven and incomprehensible reason. Fabio, on this development: “I’m standing here sweating like a mountain goat at the beach, and she’s telling us that we have to get rid of one chef.” Oh, Fabio. You’re almost my very favorite. (Below Carla, but sitting pretty slightly above Blais, Antonia, and Tre.) So, Chiarello cuts Malarkey (!) since he’s already finished his mise en place; Hubert cuts Spike with no hesitation, Rick cuts Betty, and Anita slices Jamie since she’s been dragging anyway, and the workload goes up 25%. Also, I still have no idea really what anyone is preparing.

Sunshine Smorgasbord

But, they’re getting ready to serve something, because here come 200 scenesters to eat free food and look hip on TV. The chefs start ladling out the food; people seem to be particularly loving Bayless’s guacamole canapè. Blais takes time to snipe that Chiarello’s station looks like a wedding in 1987. That’s a bit uncalled for. Also funny. I think Chiarello is taking some flak with the former contestants because of his television history. Which is ridic; his being on TV does not take away his chef credits. And he’s already beaten a good number of chefs who could also likely beat you handily, Blais, so you might shut it. Your standings on my very favorite scale just got shaken up.

Meanwhile, food. The critics come in and hit Anita’s table; Kelly introduces them one by one like this is the first time they’ve ever seen each other. Anita talks up her noodle salad and stuffed sparerib, and she kind of glosses over the raw bar. James Oseland smarmily says it’s more of a “half-cooked by the sun” bar, and some of the guests express trepidation about eating the seafood as well. Jay and Gael love the sparerib, although Jay doesn’t get the knockout from Anita’s dishes that he expects.

Michael put out antipasti, three varieties of risotto, swordfish, braised lamb shank, and dessert, which looks to be some sort of olive oil cake. Gael isn’t too keen on the flavors of the risotto, but thinks it’s wonderfully cooked. James is put off by the cut of the swordfish, and Gael thinks the texture is grainy and old.

Hubert has a bevy of buffet items going, including a Vietnamese spiced gazpacho, a beet and cheese salad, lamb chops, and like fifteen other things I didn’t see. The critics are clearly impressed by the enormity of his output; he credits his strong team for making it possible. Aw. Jay applauds the strategy of serving a bunch of tiny dishes that each deliver compact bites of good flavors.

Over at Rick’s they sample his guacamole bar, tortilla stew with roasted pork, and sautéed shrimp with figs, but the critics look particularly impressed by the avocado ice cream process; Rick raves very sweetly about Blais teaching him all about liquid nitrogen. Aw. At table the critics go “Mmm,” a whole lot, and rave over the flavors in the stew. Jay also loves the richness of the ice cream. My head is spinning at the thought of how quickly I would devour that entire menu.

A Lo Ebb

Well, we bid the sous chefs goodbye and the Masters file in for the judging. Rick is up to panel first; he says some sweet things about how much his sous chefs rocked, and then Jame congratulates him on putting out a very lavish feeling spread. Rick says he stuck with things he’s comfortable with since the planning time was nil. He also totally credits Blais for the nitrogen ice cream, because all Michelle Rick did was say “What about making it avocado?” Jay thinks placing such responsibility in hands of a sous chef takes big “cojones.” Rick blushes.

Jay also praises Hubert’s “staggering array” of dishes, and Hubert was all “it was supposed to be a buffet.” James Oseland says the spread tasted like he had a million bucks to spend, and he loved the progression involved from one dish to another. Then they all praise Anita’s spareribs and wonder what the heck she was thinking with the raw bar. James asks if she considered changing things around when she found out the serving and dining would be done outside. Anita says there wasn’t really time to change the game plan, nor was there much she could do with a bunch of cut, raw, seasoned seafood. Although … cevichè?

Michael’s buffet was also kind of unsuccessful for the critics. The risottos were each very good, but James didn’t think the shrimp served with them was tasty. Jay lays in on the swordfish, which was pretty universally disdained. Michael says there was no way he could’ve cut it properly given the outdoor constraints. Kelly remarks that her olive oil cake was a bit soggy and oily, and Michael is disappointed because he tried to make sure the sous chefs gave the critics the best pieces of that from the edge of the cake. Michael admits that he didn’t leave much of anything up to his sous chefs, saying Hubert and Rick “had more guts” than he, and that he wouldn’t have taken any chances with their ideas.

The chefs go back to the stew room and Hubert makes drinks. Chiarello grouses just a bit about the cake, and talks to Hubert about his wacky tobbacky inspiration of using nutmeg to flavor the beet salad. And then the time comes for final scores. Rick and Hubert are tonight’s top scorers.

Rick: earned a whopping 4.5 stars from the scenester diners; he also 4.5 from James and Jay, and 4 stars from Gael. His 4 stars from the Quickfire make for a total of 21.5.

Hubert: had a ways to make up with his 3.5 star showing in the Quickfire round. The diners only rated him 3.5 as well, but the judges come through with sweeping support and each award him the full 5 stars. His total score is 22. Poor Rick Bayless. Always the bridesmaid. Another $10,000 is going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation though, so I’m sure no one’s too cut up about it.

Hubert and Rick depart to celebrate making it to the final challenge, while Anita and Michael line up to hear their fates.

Anita: the diners rated her 3 stars, and she earned 3.5 from Jay and Gael, and 3 from James Oseland; that plus her Quickfire score makes 17.

Michael: earned 3.5 from the diners, only 3 stars from James, but 4 from Gael and Jay for some reason. I hadn’t expected that, the way they discussed his food. I guess that risotto was better than I thought. His total is 19.5, which well fixes Anita’s place and sends Michael through to the final challenge. Truth be told, Anita looks a bit relieved at the news of her elimination. I can understand. She hugs Michael and wishes him good luck, and that’s that.

Next week brings the be-all, end-all, and they’ve even brought back all of TC Original Recipe’s winners to mark the occasion! Will I be able to stomach two weeks in a row of Ilan’s presence, with added Hosea on top? Will Rick break out of his second place rut just in time to nab the real money? Tune in next week; all the answers shall be revealed, along with the crowning of Top Chef Master.