Trae Patton/Bravo
Archana Ram
November 19, 2009 AT 02:44 PM EST

Just in time for the winter Olympics, Top Chefhosted its own Olympics of sorts in last night’s episode. (A mere coincidence considering Bravo is owned by NBC, which is airing the Vancouver games? Yeah, probably. We entertainment writers may be too cynical sometimes.) The cheftestants participated in their own version of the Bocuse d’Or, which are basically the Olympics of the culinary world. I’ve seen my fair share of Top Chef challenges and this week’s took the cake in my book for the hardest challenge to date. And appropriately so, pretty much everyone’s dish bombed.

Starting from the top: For their last quickfire in Las Vegas, the chefs had to create a version of a ballantine, the dish that 2007 Bocuse d’Or participant Gavin Kaysen created at the competition. A ballantine is the Matryoshka doll of cooking, meaning it’s a protein within a protein within a protein. It took Gavin four months to figure out this dish, and the cheftestants? Well, they had 90 minutes to crank it out, natch.

Michael V. finally got booted from his innovative high horse, and I loved it. Instead of following the parameters of the challenge, he created a poultry terrine. Gavin didn’t specifically say ”make a ballantine” and Padma did say to make a ”version,” but this late in the race, with this tricky of a meal, why on earth would Michael V. make a terrine instead? Terrine does not equal ballantine!

On the up side of things was Jen, who pulled herself out of the quagmire she’d been stuck in thanks to a beautiful calamari steak. At first I thought Gavin didn’t approve of her choice to use seafood, but I guess he was just setting up Padma’s ”Welcome back” line. Jen was practically giddy and Michael V. was visibly dismayed, his pout all the more wonderful for Jen fans considering how much he ragged on her earlier. Side note: When Michael V. said about Jen: ”It’s great that we’ve gotten to know each other and all that sort of stuff,” what ”stuff” was he referring to?

Bryan and Eli had pretty ho-hum dishes — the former a rack of lamb and merguez sausage and the latter a Cadbury egg — I mean, breakfast sausage — but the only thing worth noting was Bryan and his brother are more similar than I first thought. Bryan’s ballsy decision to cook such a time-consuming dish in 90 minutes sounded like something Michael V. would do. But thankfully, Bryan doesn’t have that arrogant snarl.

Kevin’s cornmeal-fried filet of catfish was just not all that it could’ve been. It was overcooked and dried-out, but Kevin disagreed — in his confessional anyway. But Gavin did love Jen’s seafood ballantine, and it was enough to give her the win, which earned her more than just an extra 30 minutes of cooking for the elimination challenge; it was also a much-needed confidence boost.

But that high didn’t last long for Jen — or anyone else for that matter — at the elimination challenge, where they all had to create a presentation platter with one protein (either lamb or salmon) and two garnishes for an all-star judging panel, which included chef and owner of The French Laundry, Thomas Keller.

There was something wrong with all five dishes, but to be fair, it was the duty of these faux Bocuse d’Or judges to be that nitpicky. Choosing the winner was more a matter of the least of five evils.

NEXT: Michael V. boned it

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