Darren Franich
August 19, 2010 AT 01:52 PM EDT

Like most people, I tend to assume that Padma Lakshmi’s job hosting Top Chef is just a cover for her real work as an international mercenary superspy. These suspicions were confirmed on last night’s episode, in which the remaining contestants cooked a top-secret meal at Langley while Padma delivered coded messages to CIA Director Leon Panetta. Befitting the setting, it was an evening of disguises and deceit – in Angelo’s case, self-deceit. Culinary meta-chemist Wylie Dufresne was on hand, although the only real espionage he participated in was the theft of Elvis’ sideburns.

Quickfire Challenge: The Mystery Box

“I am totally mentally exhausted,” said Angelo. Poor timing: the Quickfire had the contestants thinking fast. They started off with one mystery box filled with random ingredients – fish, fava beans, and a “no-label can” (a riddle wrapped in an enigma!). Every few minutes, a Secret Service agent brought in another box, filled with necessary ingredients.

Some of the contestants grooved onto the challenge immediately – Tiffany relished the improvy thrill of not quite knowing what was coming next. Angelo disintegrated into a tiny ball in the corner, dithering over whether to make his dish hot or cold. Box 2 came out: squid and black garlic. (Kelly: “I don’t know anything about black garlic.”) Box 3: ramps and passion fruit. Box 4: jicama. Am I the only person who really, really likes jicama? I think it’s my favorite vegetable, even though I had to check the spelling five times before writing it.

Alex delivered a rockfish with fava bean puree, with ramp fondue and sautéed squid. Dufresne asked if it was raw. “It’s not raw,” she protested, “It’s been slowly melted.” (That’s my new alibi when my girlfriend asks me why dinner is so undercooked.) When I saw Kevin’s dish – Pan-seared rockfish set atop hominy puree, jicama, and passion fruit salad – I drooled. I actually kinda liked the look of Angelo’s smoky hominy pot-au-feu, but to judge by Dufresne’s reaction, it tasted like sweat-stained desperation. (Angelo seemed to think that the Quickfire’s $10,000 reward would help him bring his fiancée from Russia to America. Silly Angelo. As we all know, it takes at least six figures to bribe immigration control.)

In the end, it was Tiffany’s fish stew that won the day. “That’s $20,000!” she rejoiced, making plans to spend the money on her fiancé. Sorry, Anonymous Russian Girl.

Elimination Challenge: We disavow all knowledge of what we are saying right now.

“Your challenge tonight is a case of national security,” said Padma, doing her best Judi Dench impression. Since the chefs would be serving food to the CIA uppity-ups, the theme was secrecy: they had to create a new identity for a classic dish. Amanda, for one, thought she could make a good spy: “I could seduce some secrets out of the KGB.” We really have to do something about our education system.

Kelly was assigned Kung Pao Shrimp. Problem: she’s never cooked Chinese food. In a nifty move which I would describe as vaguely Bourne-esque, she found some Kung Pao seasoning and reverse-engineered the ingredients. Smart move, Kelly. But why reverse-engineer, when you can just…non-engineer? Angelo had what I thought sounded like a clever plot – turn Beef Wellington into a pizza – but he committed a cardinal sin by purchasing puff pastries straight out of the freezer. This was exactly what got John kicked off way back in episode one.

It seems like Angelo is caught in a bizarre tailspin right now: he’s clearly talented, and he knows it, but he keeps on forgetting the basics. Anxiously considering the food’s temperature, taking the easy road to a high-concept dish… he’s trying to wow the judges, without necessarily planning any (or all) of the steps along the way.

Meanwhile, over in Bizarro World, Alex informed us that he used to work as a professional videographer, that he filmed over 500 weddings and bar mitzvahs, and that he considered it a huge advantage that he was vastly less experienced than the other contestants. We also learned some of the contestant’s spy names. Ed is Muffin Winthrop. Alex: “Dr. Zhivago. My mom always wanted a doctor in the family.” Tiffany: “Brigitte.” (Tiffany loves La Femme Nikita. I’m not sure if she means the French movie or the Peta Wilson TV show, but either way, she’s my favorite forever.)

The chefs processed into CIA HQ, the place where “major s— goes down,” according to Ed. In the kitchen, anxiety reigned. Kelly’s rice cooker mysteriously backfired. She explained that she’s used to cooking in higher altitudes, which is my new alibi when my girlfriend asks me why dinner is so overcooked. Tiffany offered to help her out, which is another piece of good karma on the road to (I’m betting) ultimate victory. Amanda worried that she hadn’t disguised her dish enough: “Helen Keller would be able to guess what this dish is.” Angelo was anxious that his dish wasn’t deep enough: “Normally, I would deconstruct the living daylights out of it.” (Speaking of The Living Daylights, I have a funny feeling that we’re right around the corner from a serious reconsideration of Timothy Dalton, just as soon as the Roger Moore apologists age into obsolescence.)

Enough preparation! Panetta hungry!

Angelo: Tartlette Topped with Slivers of Beef

Chief Panetta summed up Angelo’s disguised dish thusly: if it were a secret agent, “they would have captured this individual and hung him.” Cue awkward laughter from around the table.

Kelly: Spicy Shrimp Broth with Rice and Szechuan Shrimp Tempura

Panetta couldn’t sense this dish’s true identity. Tom Colicchio Wylie Dufresne: “For once, I know something you don’t.” Cue awkward laughter from around the table. Panetta smiled, then whispered to an aide: “Get me his tax records.”

Tiffany: Roasted Leg of Lamb with Smokey Eggplant, Tomatoes, and Pickled Onions

Eric said, “This is the most elegant gyro I ever ate in my life.” Never has his Bond-villain accent felt so appropriate.

Kevin: Romaine Lettuce, Tomato, Bacon, Roquefort, Avocado, Cucumber, Turkey

Now that’s what I call a Cobb salad! Panetta was surprised: “I thought it was something Mexican,” which are words you never want to hear in CIA headquarters. At this point, Chief Panetta pretended to get a mysterious phone call and stepped out, perhaps suddenly fearful of the fact that, no matter where history takes us, he will forever  be known as the first CIA Director to appear on a reality show.

The unflappable Ms. Lakshmi asked the attending bureaucrats, “Are you used to Director Panetta having to dine and dish?” “It happens often,” said a lady who looks just like Liz Lemon.

Amanda: Consomme with Oxtail Marmalade, Caramelized Onions, Shaved Gruyere

“This tastes like honey and lemon cough syrup,” said a handsome, faceless G-man. Quick, call Helen Keller!

Alex: Veal and Parmigiano Cheese Tortellini with Tomato Sauce and Tempura Cheese

Mmmmm, cheese on cheese, with some cheese mixed in! Liz Lemon-bot was not amused. She said, “The execution was poor,” which are words you never want to hear in CIA headquarters. Eric that the food was suitably disguised, but that he would have preferred “less disguise and better dish.” Viewers, let’s debate: was this competition just inherently flawed, since at a certain level it seemed to demand that the chefs not make their dishes?

Ed: Roasted Chicken Breast, Ham and Cheese Croquette

Maybe not: Ed managed totally own the concept by presenting an inside-out Chicken Cordon Bleu, with ham wrapped around a braised leg. Hiding in plain sight: vintage spy maneuver.

Judges’ Table

Tiffany, Kelly, and Ed took the top three. (A good day for Kelly, considering that she knew next to nothing about what she was cooking.) But Tiffany won the trip to the Paris Hilton. Hooray! I feel like she had a slightly easier dish than some of the other chefs, but she clearly deserves the victory.

On the other hand, I’m a little bit disappointed with the elimination. Not that I don’t think Alex is a semi-talentless gonzo spaceman – he is. But at least he wasn’t boring, like Amanda. (One of the judges said of Amanda’s consomme, “You took a long time to just make dishwater,” which is my favorite zinger of the season.) Still, you had to love the joie de vivre Alex showed after being told to pack his knives and his oversized spoon. “I’m going back to Cali!” he proclaimed. Cali: you can have him.

What did you think of the episode, viewers? Are you jumping on the Tiffany train with me? Was this the best thing the CIA has done since [FILE DELETED] or the worst thing they’ve done since [FILE DELETED]?

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