Nothing says Christmas dinner in my house like quince and bacon! Actually, the holidays are all about food and one-upmanship, so a one-off cooking competition for the season isn't all that far-fetched. A mixed bag of colorful contestants from seasons one through three arrive in Chicago with their knives in tow, from the sacrificial lambs (Josie and Sandee) to the ringers (Marcel and Stephen) to the top tier (C.J. and Tiffani). $20,000 is on the line, and although the show keeps cutting to them talking about how much they need the money (and I'm sure they do), I think this group was chosen for their competitive personalities. I feel confident that it was never about the money for Trey, who looks like he should be upending wide receivers and signing them with a Sharpie.

The quickfire confronts the chefs with a game of Dirty Santa: pick a mystery ingredient out of the gift pile, but risk having it stolen by the people who pick after you. Santa, in this case, is Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert, who poses awkwardly during the obligatory montage of chefs fawning over him in their confessionals, his elegant French head sticking out of a Santa suit with a pillow down the front.

While Marcel plans to "pursue excellence basically" with his tuna dish, Stephen deliberately steals the ingredient I'd avoid at all costs: yams. It's probably the legacy of many cafeteria steam tables of orange glop covered with marshmallow goo, but even at its best, I can't think of anything I'd less like to put in my mouth than a yam and lavender soup. Ripert agrees, apologetically noting that lavender "has the tendency to taste like a soap bar." Most of the drama comes from Josie's unsuccessful search for a can opener for her truffles, leading to an embarrassing sequence where she gingerly perforates the lid with the heel of her knife. Whack the top off and get on with your life, Josie. In the end, she doesn't manage to get any truffles out or any sauce on her scallops.

C.J. wins limited immunity in the elimination challenge, which is a three-course holiday meal with two chefs axed after each course, leaving two chefs standing at the end. (If you can see what's coming with two contestants still in the running after the meal, why couldn't the chefs?) This was one of the better conceived challenges in Top Chef history, I must say. Usually when the chefs are given plenty of money, ample time, and no gimmicky restrictions, they respond by making safe food rather than pulling out all the stops. But the caliber of the competition and the interesting strategy required by the escalating pressure of the course structure produced cuisine that was as innovative as it was luxurious.

The meal is served family style, the serving dishes handed around the table of four judges and five guest judges from seasons past. (Marcel's deer-in-the-headlights stare upon being confronted with this panel of culinary celebrities belied his usual arrogance.) Somewhat surprisingly, Stephen is eliminated after one course (gnocchi, often a landmine for would-be Top Chefs), along with Sandee and her watery mushroom soup.

And then the real challenge of the meal emerges: during the perhaps 10 minutes that the chefs are down in the dining room delivering and explaining their dishes, their next courses are sitting in the oven ticking past their expiry dates. Betty explains the problem with a maxim for the ages — "you can't uncook lamb" — and then goes home along with Josie and her overdone turkey.

Marcel seemed to get a free pass on talent alone (or maybe his probably-second-place quickfire entry) to get to the third round; his "weird" chicken liver cakes were much maligned in course 2, but he survived to produce a gastrique (at last) in course 3. Alas, his unappetizing gray lamb pales next to Trey's, and he and C.J. are out.

Now the big surprise that we all foresaw but that nevertheless gobsmacked Tiffani and Trey, our formidable finalists: an extra course! On our couch, we were pretty sure from the editing setup of the whole episode that Tiffani was destined for victory, so we were able to appreciate her inspired midnight-snack sandwich of leftover veal ossobuco on puff pastry without being distracted by suspense. Tiffani is probably one of the most compelling personalities the show's ever produced — not a "character," but someone whose all-consuming drive created fascinating friction with her more well-rounded fellow contestants. Now that we've all had plenty of time to get over her prickliness and refocus on her evident talent, we can be perfectly happy she won.

On to the next big questions: What Chicago landmarks and regional specialties will surface in Season Four? Wrigley dogs? Deep dish pizza? Da Bears? The mind reels. Bring on the cuisine de la Illinois, mwah!

Grade: A

Stray observations:


- Top Chef has always tried to acknowledge the world outside its "reality" bubble — one thinks of Padma explaining her scar from the car crash last season — so it's not that surprising that Josie is encouraged to mention being victimized in a "bias crime" a few months ago.

- On the other hand, the painful product placement aspect was evident in the laurels contestants lobbed at Whole Foods, their shopping destination: "We can see this vast seafood and meat selection" … "Their produce selection was absolutely amazing" … and typically understated C.J.: "And they had quince, which was exciting."

- Did the show subscribe to the Bacon Of The Month club between seasons? I haven't seen this much flesh wrapped in bacon since the last Policeman's Ball. (Hey-o!)

- Marcel doesn't bring the molecular gastronomy so much, but he rocks the Wolverine hairdo as always. And when did he become a people person? The way he was gladhanding Tom, you'd think he'd been hanging out with Dale Carnegie instead of "commercial salmon fishing in Alaska" (not really my idea of "living the dream," by the way).

- My favorite dish that didn't get eaten: Betty's Plan B big cookie. How were the judges going to sample that? Was everyone going to break off a piece like monkey bread, or take a neat half-moon bite out of the rim?

- Tiffani: "Top Chef puts asses in the seats" of her soon-to-open restaurant. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!