And lo, the most talented chefs in the land were brought down from on high into the fryer, and it was declared that they must serve guests within five to seven minutes as per their expectations of fast food.
"The best chefs in the nation are putting on a headset, wrapping things up in paper and putting them in a to-go container. We're a little out of our element," chef George Mendes suggests.
Quickfire: Make an appetizer for $1.
If last week's Top Chef Masters was all about watching your waistline,
this week was all about watching your budget. The cheftestants were
given $1 and 20 minutes to make an appetizer.
"What am I going to do, serve a lime with a wedge of lettuce?" chef Alex Stratta asks.
He'd actually serve a calamari dish that earned him a spot in the top three. All of the contestants were struggling with the limitations, working tiny hand calculators to tabulate the rising price of their ingredients. When chef Hugh Acheson broke an egg, he loudly lamented the loss of 18 cents. We learned, while they were cooking, that chef Floyd Cardoz came to America with $100 in his pocket and was on his way home to India when he got his first job the day before he was supposed to leave. Ladies and gentlemen, Horatio Alger is in the kitchen.
The judges for the quickfire challenge were Brendan Newnam and Rico Gagliano of NPR's The Dinner Party Download. Newnam suggested that the plates looked like the "fanciest dollar store ever." Chef Celina Tio's spicy carrot soup made with carrots, chicken stock, and literally one single lime and shrimp scored high marks.
"This will make me rejudge the value of everything I've eaten at fancy restaurants," Gagliano says after Newnam suggested that he'd pay $15 to $20 for the soup.
And although the judges had nothing but praise for Tio's dish, it was chef Naomi Pomeroy's bread salad with asparagus that earned the victory and immunity.
Elimination: Handle the dining-room lunch rush and drive-through at a fast-casual restaurant.
The cheftestants are told only that they'll be taking a road trip and will need to make a side and dish for 100 diners that can be eaten without utensils. They've got 30 minutes and $300 to shop and no idea what the kitchen will look like.
When they pull into the parking lot of Farmer Boys -- a fast-casual California chain -- Cardoz voices what all the cheftestants are thinking.
"I should have done burgers," Cardoz says.
The judges and host Curtis Stone will be on a pair of mini dates, switching between the dining room and the drive-through. Sytsma is paired with Oseland while Danyelle Freeman is giddy over her date with Stone.
The cheftestants struggle to adapt their meals to a fast-food environment as the dates only get more awkward. Sytsma can't get over the idea that he was an intern for Oseland; meanwhile Freeman is falling in love.
"This is my first drive-through date. How's it going?" Freeman asks.
"So far, so good. Let's try the food," Stone answers.
The cheftestants will be cooking in two shifts with half of the eight contestants manning the drive-through and dining room while the other half cooks. Predictably the lines stack up as the lunch crush arrives.
"My first cook's job was at a Bennigans," Tio says. "And I had to beg the kitchen manager to let me be the pantry cook."
She's doing a pork, lamb and garbanzo-bean wrap. Half the menu will end up being burritos, quesadillas, tacos and wraps.
"This is not so fast food," Cardoz quips.
Chef Mary Sue Milliken's flank-steak quesadilla is one of the first dishes to wow the judges, but it's her quinoa fritters that really get the action going. That dish propels her to victory, where we learn that the fritters will be going on the Border Grill Truck's menu. Obviously, running a food truck served as an advantage for Milliken.
"It's like a healthy hush puppy," Freeman says.
"You're a healthy hush puppy," Stone deadpans. Oh my God ... fingers crossed ... Top Chef Wedding ... could it be happening?
At the judges' table, Tio finds herself at the bottom alongside chef Mendes and chef Stratta. Her garbanzo wrap is repeatedly called a "pancake" by Oseland, and she gets dinged for seasoning and for the difficulty in eating the wrap. Mendes' pork loin and chorizo skewers with a clam inside a cucumber is called "sparse" and "ugly." Stratta's salmon tacos were "too sweet," and he admits that he "was out of my element."
Mendes is ultimately sent to pack his knives and go. He leaves with words that echo those of chef Suvir Saran.
"I stand behind my food," Mendes says. And that's all we can ask of any cheftesant.
Line of the Night: "We've all eaten slaw with our hands. But it's got to be done in private," chef Hugh Acheson says on why serving slaw to people with no utensils might not make sense.
[Photos courtesy of Bravo]