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Top Chef: Natalie Portman Hosts a (Veggie) Dinner Party

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Trae Patton/Bravo

Natalie Portman paid a visit to the seven remaining chefs this week — and threw them a delightful curve ball. While the contestants were prepared to cook a meat-heavy dinner in Tom Colicchio‘s Craftsteak restaurant, the actress waltzed in before they started prepping, announced she was a vegetarian and that she expected some upscale, creative fare. Jen C. summed up the group’s sentiment. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh s–t,” she announced. Cue the panic!

TV Dinners: First, though, the chefs had a Quickfire challenge to contend with — this one sponsored by TV Guide, which tasked them with re-imagining a TV dinner inspired by a classic show. (Think Gilligan’s Island or, a modern classic, like Seinfeld!) Guest judge Paul Bartolotta and Padma took their seats on a sofa and ate from an elegant tray — none of that plastic-wrapped stuff here, thank you — before declaring Kevin the winner for his Sopranos-inspired meatball dinner.

Veggie Showdown: After ditching the meat for, well, vegetables, the chefs went rooting around for ingredients. Predictably, many hoped to cook with eggplant or mushrooms, both substantial enough to possibly substitute for the missing meat. Most excited about the challenge, Robin, who declared that vegetarians “are too,” discovered fresh garbanzo beans that sparked some inspiration. Jen, meanwhile, battled it out for the eggplants she wanted with Eli, nabbing baby eggplants much to her chagrin. “I have never been a vegetarian, and I never ever will be,” she said.

Gracious Host: Service began at the dinner party, the wine was flowing and Natalie Portman and her friends were eager for dinner. Unlike past celebrity judges who have imposed restrictions on the chefs — ahem, Zooey Deschanel on Top Chef Masters — Portman was delightful, uninhibited and chatty at the table. When Michael Voltaggio presented his artful dish — complete with banana polenta and an asparagus salad — the actress said, “It makes me smile and laugh, and I’m confused!” (In a good way!) And when an unusually rattled Jen served her dish, saucing the plates with an extremely shaky hand, Portman didn’t mind. “That added a little danger to the presentation,” she said, laughing off the possibility that she would be wearing, not eating, that sauce.

That’s What She Said: But the best moment was when Bryan Voltaggio presented his artichoke dish with garlic blossoms and shallots. As Padma dug in, she wondered aloud if liked the garlic flavor. “It’s like a little prick on the tip of my tongue,” the host announced, as Portman tittered. Then Padma continued: “I thought that my shallot was a little sharp especially when you pair it with these garlic blossoms that are very tiny in size and yet …” — and right on cue, Portman finished the thought — “big in your mouth,” she said. Unable to resist, Tom piped up: “It went from a little prick to big in your mouth,” he said. Quipped one of Portman’s pals: “That’s what usually happens!” End scene.

Judges’ Table: Despite the revelry at dinner, tough decisions had to be made: The judges praised Eli, Kevin and Michael’s inventiveness, eventually naming Kevin the winner (again!) for his hearty smoked kale dish. But they took issue with Jen, Robin and Mike I.‘s work. In somewhat of a surprise, the judges dismissed a shocked and upset Mike I. for his undercooked turnips and leeks, leaving Jen rattled and Robin hanging on for another week. –Brian Orloff

Read our interview with Mike Isabella, who says he was the show’s black sheep.

Tell us: Would you want to join that dinner party? Did the judges make the right choice? And are you glad Mike I. went home?Trae Patton/Bravo