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There's something about seeing an actual deep fryer that makes eating fried food a little embarrassing—seeing that vat of oil. But this is what Padma reveals this week alongside Southern caricature Paula Deen, whom Top Chef trots out to judge the first of two Southern-themed challenges. They equate Southern food to fried food—an equivalent I somewhat resent as a Southerner but can't really deny. We do fry just about anything, and if you haven't tried fried bread-and-butter pickles, you're missing out. They're on the menu all over the South, including at Blais' gourmet burger joint Flip in Atlanta. He's also got fried zucchini, onion rings, fries, duck, and okra. They're in the "fry" section of the menu. He chose not to join the "I'm Southern and therefore must win this challenge or die of humiliation" din this evening, though, instead running straight for the liquid nitrogen.

His goal: Fry some mayonnaise. Not a bad idea, going for the very lifeblood of Paula Deen, who most definitely has Duke's mayonnaise clogging her arteries. But the thought of fried mayonnaise upsets me. I can't imagine eating a spoonful of the stuff on its own, and mixing it with flavoring and dropping it into a deep fryer does nothing for me. Even knowing it was prepared by Blais—I wouldn't be able to do it. This is akin to Homer wrapping a waffle around a stick of butter and biting in, the only time I think I've actually gagged while watching The Simpsons. Blais doesn't win Paula's favor, though. Instead, it's Mike, who wins with a recipe Blais "inspired."

Mike fries a chicken oyster and places it in an oyster shell—an idea Richard says came from his notebook, which we see Mike perusing at the beginning of the show. Stealing an idea that directly and so soon is ballsy and, to judge from the other chefs' reactions, clearly unethical. Tom Colichhio weighed in on Twitter tonight only to say it happens all the time, and that you can't claim intellectual property rights on menu items. Still, if Antonia's disqualifying herself for plating only a single plate, it seems appropriate for some comment from the judges on this. In Top Chef form, though, the chefs keep things to themselves. It's hard to take Mike's cockiness tonight, though, considering his quickfire dish wasn't his, and that the "genius" of his elimination-challenge dish we can credit to Tiffani. And watching Antonia disqualified over a technicality—the second time that's happened this season (first time was Blais)—seems stupid for a show judged on taste. Blais' error was one thing—continuing to plate after time was up—but Antonia's mistake didn't seem to afford her any advantage over her competitors.

On to the elimination challenge, which keeps Paula around as a guest judge and tacks on New Orleans chef John Besh as well, asking the chefs to "honor" Gulf seafood for a benefit for Gulf fishing businesses affected by the oil spill. Then come three big kickers: a.) not much time, b.) 300 people, and c.) help from the dreaded, previously eliminated chefs. This Top Chef trope usually comes a little later in the season, during the final challenge, and oftentimes hurts more than helps. One of the returning chefs is usually the wildcard, either in personality or in talent. In Marcel, we have both. I'd have assumed Angelo to be the natural choice—last one eliminated, clearly very talented—or Fabio, who's less technical but more reliably consistent. In a nice moment of candor, however, Antonia and Blais talk about the psychological dent of being eliminated from the show, and particularly for this season, coming twice and being eliminated twice. It seems all of the chefs feel this; Angelo's the last one picked and the partner of the eventual loser. It was nice to see a couple of these faces back in the kitchen, Tiffani and Fabio in particular. They step effortlessly into sous-chef status, as does Spike, helping without being pushy, generally supporting their chefs. Marcel, as expected, turns out to be every bit as idiotic as when he left, incapable of compromise or teamwork. Pair him with our other weakest link, Tiffany, and I'm stunned that she didn't go home today.

Judging by how soundly three of the chefs ended up in the bottom, the group overall had a really hard time with this one. Watching the chefs attempt to keep up with a crowd of 300 put forward some of the most palpable anxiety I've seen this season, with the stakes much higher than the Chinatown challenge. For that, there were many more people, and the kitchen was allowed to go a little berserk because it was removed from the diners. Here, everyone's got to keep the crowd happy, and the losing three all see it coming ahead of time. Dale's wreck happens slowly, but he's unable to right it. His amberjack stew comes served with undercooked potatoes and a mustard crouton that apparently blew out the sinuses of everyone who came across it. The only kind words he received from the judges were from Paula, who deemed the stew "not bad." Such a fall from last week's double win. The judges aren't kidding when they say they judge on the single dish—to see Dale go home over Tiffany was stunning, and to my mind, a bit of a shame. She's clearly the weakest remaining chef, and to see her stay over Dale weakens the finale possibilities. The winning dishes, though, at least from Antonia and Blais—have me excited for the final few episodes.

Stray observations:

  • "Please don't burp on me, fart on me, or flick a booger on me."
  • Enjoyed the Marcel/shrimp jokes.
  • Do the returning chefs tonight mean no returning chefs for the finale? That would be awesome.
  • Genevieve Koski sent me this link today—some images from Carla's modeling days.
  • As much as I railed on him last week, Dale's fall was tough to watch tonight. Him crying, and thinking back on how he actually had a chance. Angelo: "You got underneath. You're in his head." Dale: "Richie?" Angelo: "Yeah." …Looks like they both have him pegged for the finale, and I certainly would have expected Dale to be right there, too. Some real surprise eliminations this season: Fabio, Angelo, Dale.
  • I hope Fabio really does go to Barbados with Richard. Best vacation ever.

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