Last night was the fifth episode of “Top Chef Masters” on Bravo, which means there is just one more initial show before the six winners square off in single elimination for five weeks to determine the grand prize winner. And it was a pretty close race last night despite one chef not even plating food in the quick fire challenge.

The contestants were Rick Moonen from Mandalay Bay; Nils Loren, a Swedish native who learned French technique before moving to open a restaurant in New York City; Lachlan Patterson from Boulder, Colorado, one of the youngest competitors on the show so far; and Michael Chiarello from Napa Valley, CA, and a Food Network personality.

For the quick fire, they had to do a favorite “Top Chef” task of turning junk food into a fine dining dish. They drew knives to see who would pick first and Michael did, followed by Lachlan, Rick and Nils. Michael chose fish sticks, Lachlan hot dogs, Rick corn dogs and Nils fried shrimp.
The judges were the cast of “Flipping Out,” including star Jeff Lewis who is really kind of a jackass. Nice cross-promotion, Bravo, by the way. Anyway, they loved Michael’s swordfish meatballs with fisherman’s sauce, giving him 4.5 stars. Lachlan made a hot dog and tomato stifado, which earned him 3 stars, and Nils took the breading off his shrimp and made pan-fried shrimp with pickled tomatoes in a lobster stock, also earning 3 stars. Rick, though, did not pay attention to the 45-minute time limit and did not get his corn dog creation plated. Lewis made the snide remark, “He had 45 minutes!” which annoyed Rick, but regardless, he wound up with zero points and a huge mountain to climb in catching the other three chefs.

For the elimination challenge, each chef had to create a 3-course meal for 100 people, but the meals were mini-meals. The audience would be “Top Chef’s” biggest fans, as well as judges Gael Greene, James Oseland, Jay Rayner and host Kelly Choi.

Nils made a scallop ceviche, slow cooked salmon and a chocolate and goat cheese ganache. Rick also made a ceviche (what’s with all the raw fish?), a “brandage” of scallops and shrimp, which to me looked like a croquette, and a lemon pana cotta (custard). Lachlan started with an odd dish, deep fried pineapple on a stick, followed by grilled short ribs and a strawberry tart.
Finally, Michael made a shaved brussels sprout salad, then “pissed off prawns,” or spicy shrimp, and closed with balsamic strawberries and basil gelato.

The two funniest comments were from Gael Greene, who said she didn’t like lawn clippings in her ice cream, and from Rayner, who likened a good panna cotta and the way it jiggles to a woman’s breasts. Nice!

At the judges’ table, Rick was praised for all of his dishes, and his brandage was the favorite meal of just about everyone. Rick earned 17 stars, which gave him, of course, 17 stars total.
Lachlan didn’t do as well, earning just 12.5 stars, which gave him 15.5 and the door. Nils was aslo praised for his salmon dish, which they really flipped over, but they didn’t like his dessert, so he wound up with 14 stars, or 17 total, tying him for the moment with Rick. Michael didn’t make anything that was considered the best of the night, but it was that basil gelato that in the end put him over the top, as he earned 15 stars and 19.5 total.

Rick made a valiant effort, but the fact that he didn’t plate his corn dog dish put him too far out of contention to start out. So Michael Chiarello moves on to the finals against Hubert Keller, Suzanne Tracht, Rick Bayless and Anita Lo with one more preliminary round.

So we’re getting down to the meat and potatoes, or should I say, the ceviche and tartare, of the competition. The final round has got to be extremely exciting and I’m looking forward to it. How about you?