Barbara Nitke/Bravo
February 12, 2009 12:00 AM

With the semifinals around the corner, the remaining five chefs–Carla, Hosea, Leah, Stefan and Fabio — had one last meal to cook in New York. And the taste testers judging their food would be a daunting team of culinary stars.

First up, the chefs had to get through the requisite Quickfire challenge, which was presided over by Wylie Dufresne whose very presence conjures up two words for foodies: molecular gastronomy. Known for his experimental technique (often involving chemically altering ingredients), the star chef told the cheftestants to blow him away with a creative egg dish.

While Stefan busied himself with innovation, creating traditional eggs benedict paired with panna cotta-filled mango puree that cleverly mimicked an egg yolk, other chefs (yes, that would be Carla) fretted about manipulating the properties of food. Her tactic? To use her wit! The chef — who revealed she was a former model (!) — drew inspiration from Dr. Seuss, delivering a breakfast of green eggs and ham that impressed Dufresne enough to nab her a win. The chef praised her for her sense of humor and, interestingly, for her simplistic approach. Then, the chefs drew knives, each one emblazoned with the name of an influential chef or culinary professional. As they learned, they would be cooking a “last meal,” specified by their client.

Their picks: •Carla: Jacques Pepin (roast squab with fresh peas) • Leah: Wylie Dufresne (eggs benedict) •Hosea: Susan Ungaro (shrimp scampi with tomatoes Provencal) •Stefan: Marcus Samuelsson (roasted salmon and spinach) •Fabio: Lidia Bastianich (roast chicken, roasted potatoes and a leafy salad)

Given the option to swap dishes, Carla kept her squab, then unleashed a bit of a lovefest for Pepin. “I think Jacques and I are two peas in a pod,” the kooky chef said, announcing that peas were her favorite vegetable ever. Stefan, too, seemed to find his match in Samuelsson, whose Swedish heritage resonated with the cocksure Finnish chef. His approach? Serve up a traditional salmon and dill sauce alongside two kinds of spinach — one creamed and the other plain.

Then, drama alert! — Fabio let out a heartrending scream from the back of the kitchen. Turns out, he had snapped his finger – badly – and it was broken.

Was he going to the hospital? No way, said Fabio. “I’ll chop it off and sear it on the flattop so it doesn’t bleed anymore,” he said, revealing a rather brutal coping strategy. “And tomorrow, I’ll deal with nine fingers.”

Thankfully no amputation was necessary, though his cavalier handling of a cleaver while hacking up his delicious-looking roasted chicken may have been a step toward wish fulfillment for the Italian stallion.

Less histrionic this week, one-time lovebirds Leah and Hosea kept their hands on the food and concentrated on getting their dishes right, while a preening Stefan pretty much proclaimed victory as he threw his salmon in the oven.

Then it was time for service. The dishes went out to a long table – Last Supper style, of course – where the guest food pros sat and judged.

Leah’s eggs benedict was picked apart for being undercooked with a thin sauce. Though he had already proclaimed victory in his head, Stefan’s dish was unanimously declared overcooked. Hosea’s scampi sauce deviated too far from a traditional broken butter, and his tomatoes were derided for being too refined. Much better were Fabio’s rustic chicken and Carla’s squab, both of which won the chefs over, though Fabio’s salad was mocked for being too much like airplane food.

At Judges’ Table, an elated Fabio was named the winner for his chicken despite his steerage-class greens. Carla came in second, but seemed to melt when Pepin (who acted as the guest judge) waxed enthusiastic about her peas.

In the bottom, a nail-biter of a trio: Leah, Stefan and Hosea. Ultimately, the judges sent home Leah for too many missteps in her breakfast.

Indefatigable, Stefan walked out of the room, proclaiming, “I had to be in Final Four. There was no other option for me!” Ah, ego.

Next up, the semifinals in New Orleans – and guest judge Emeril Lagasse. — Brian Orloff

Tell us: Did Leah deserve to go home? Are you surprised by Carla’s late-stage surge? And predict your Top Chef winner?

Barbara Nitke/Bravo

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