Top Chef: Chicago confirms the cardinal rule of cheffery — you can’t go wrong with bacon. Filet mignon? Wrap it in bacon. Shrimp dish? Better with bacon. Tasty salad? Needs bacon. A friend is working on bacon-infused vodka. If anyone can point me to a bacon-flavored ice cream, I’ll be in heaven.

Earth, air, water, spoiler.

The quickfire challenge is the palate test — can you tell high-quality ingredients from cheaper fare? How about when you’re blindfolded? It’s an important test, but it’s not terribly telegenic, so we’ll skip to the end — Stephanie got the worst score, correctly picking only 6 out of 15 ingredients. Ryan and Jen tied for second place, identifying 11 of 15, and Antonia took the prize, picking 12 of 15. She gets immunity.

It’s absolutely true that a chef has to have a good palate, but the results of this particular challenge suggest that maybe what you do with your ingredients is more important that the exquisite nature thereof. After all, Stephanie has won the elimination challenge twice, and been in the top team once. When her team was in the bottom, her dessert was declared her team’s saving grace. Whereas Antonia, Ryan and Jen haven’t won a single challenge between the three of them.

Elimination Challenge
The cheftestants must create a first course inspired by one of the four elements — earth, air, water and fire. Guest judge Ming Tsai gives two instructions: Keep it simple, and execute your dish perfectly. Each team has a $500 budget, and since the quickfire was all about high-quality ingredients, it stands to reason that they should use the good stuff, right?

Team Water (Richard, Andrew and Mark) decide on a poached salmon — a water creature cooked in water, get it? Richard is hugely proud of himself for this concept, and appoints himself head chef. He’s prepping and cooking the fish. Andrew is on salad duty, and he throws in the tapioca caviar he’s so fond of. Dude, it’s cool, but you’ve got to branch out. Mark makes a seemingly superfluous aioli. Hey, it’s something to do.

Team Air (Jen, Nikki and Ryan) go with poultry, since birds fly. It’s not particularly inspired — I would have done something really light and, well, airy.

Team Earth (Spike, Zoi and Antonia) can’t agree  — Spike wants to do a butternut squash soup, but Zoi and Antonia think that’s not posh enough. Antonia says if they insist, she’ll go with soup, but Zoi makes an executive decision against it. Instead, they go with a beef carpaccio.

Team Fire (Dale, Stephanie and Lisa) seem screwed — they can’t come up with a plan to save their lives. Dale wants to do something involving a devilled egg (devil=fire), while Lisa really wants to do an Asian dish, since that’s her specialty and she wants to impress Ming Tsai. They can’t make up their minds at the menu-planning session, and they even spend 10 minutes of shopping time debating. When they find out Team Earth is doing a beef dish, they scramble for something else.

In the kitchen, Team Water is cocky — dudes, we’re awesome! What could go wrong! How about scales on the salmon when you plate it? Team Air is also confident, which worries me — the dish seems like nothing special. Team Earth continues to butt heads — Spike thinks Zoi’s mushrooms are underseasoned, but he’s overruled. In Team Fire, Lisa bitches and moans about just about everything, which is obviously getting on Dale’s last diva-like nerve. But their fiery shrimp with chili salad and miso-seasoned bacon looks pretty darn good.

The judges compliment every aspect of the Fire dish — they were three separate components that really worked together. But Ming Tsai decides the bacon is what made the dish — it’s a presentation and flavor he hadn’t seen before. Lisa wins the challenge, and a trip to Italy. Dale fumes.

Earth and Water are called on the carpet — Richard, how could you let the fish go out with scales? Andrew, what’s with doing the faux caviar again? And Mark, what was the point of your aioli? But at least it wasn’t as bad as Earth. When Spike announces he wanted to do a soup, the judges say that would have been a great idea — why’d he listen to everyone else?

In the end, the judges decide that the mushrooms are the worst part of the dish. Zoi’s going home.

But wait, there’s more — it’s time for Chefs Gone Wild! Spike bitches that he should have insisted on soup, and blames Antonia for absolutely refusing to go along with him (that’s not how it played out, dude.) Jen is pissed that Spike threw Zoi under the bus, and looks like she wants to hit someone. When Dale says something and Lisa tells him to shut it, Dale blows up — you’re a total negative bitch! Jen throws a chair. Holy crap, folks, this could be wrestling!

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends:

  • I’m getting a little frustrated with the guest chefs. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve all been amazing chefs, but besides Rick Bayless, we haven’t seen any Chicago biggies. Where’s Charlie Trotter? Where’s Grant Achatz? Where’s Gale Gand? Where’s Arun Sampanthavivat? Come on, this town is lousy with talent — let’s see it!
  • Andrew on the quickfire challenge: "It’s very important to have a good palate — as a chef, it’s your life. If you can’t season properly, if you can’t taste what good food is, you suck." That pretty much sums it up.
  • While I applaud Lisa for her use of bacon, she really is incredibly negative — this is wrong! This sucks! This is annoying! It pains me to do it, but I have to agree with Dale that she’s a font of "observational negativity."
  • Hey, the Walnut Room at Marshall Fields! (I don’t care what’s on the sign, it will NEVER be Macy’s.)
  • Did anyone find Richard’s attempts at smarm absolutely painful? "I don’t know if he’s got a good poker face or if the Richard Blais charm has worn off on Tom Colicchio," he says. That was supposed to be charm? Shut up, Richard.
  • Dale, on Lisa’s win: "She made BACON, and she gets a trip to f*cking Italy? I’m bitter." Really? But you hide it so well!
  • Once again, Zoi seems to talk a much better game than her food actually bears out. I love intense flavors! Ok, so why were your mushrooms completely tasteless?
  • Spike laments he was "too nice.” Yeah, THAT’S your problem, Spike.