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Top Chef Masters — A mountain goat sweating on the beach

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So last week I was on vacation in Colorado without a TV or access to "Top Chef." But, while shopping in a little mountain town, I came upon a very friendly face: "Top Chef Masters" contestant and George Clooney look-alike Michael Chiarello.

There he was, smiling from the cover of a prominently displayed book in a trendy store aptly called "Trendz" looking all dapper and Italian and cool.

By the end of Wednesday night's episode all I was thinking was: Jerkwad. (Or in Italian, boia.)

This was the second-to-last episode of the show and we were down to four masters: Rick Bayless, Hubert Keller, Anita Lo and Chiarello.

Rick and Hubert are like the cool professors you would die to work with. Anita is like a quiet virtuoso, working in her corner and never ceasing to amaze us. Michael, well, he tries to work that Clooney-esque charm to his advantage and make your forget his food hasn't been the best.

Well, at least that Clooney smoke screen worked until last night, when we saw the exterior crack and underneath it was something not nearly as pretty.

Up until now, he's worked his charm, getting ladies to serve up food for him and working the half-smile while explaining why this didn't pan out or that didn't work.

After winning the quickfire challenge —a blind taste-test in which we learn that some masters can identify chevril by taste but not peanut butter (Anita thought it was tahini) — Michael was given a score of 5 stars to start off with, winning by identifying seven ingredients blind. Meanwhile Rick and Anita tied for 4 stars and Hubert got 3.5.

The elimination challenge was just as difficult: a buffet for 200 people. Of course, that's nearly impossible for a single person to pull off, so the masters were given some help: former "Top Chef" contestants. The returnees included my all-time favorite, Fabio, as well as Jamie, Dale, Richard, Spike, Antonia and some other folks whom don't need last names to be known throughout the "Top Chef" world.

And this is where we first got a taste of the jerk lurking behind the smile of Michael Chiarello. While all the other chefs were asking questions during an interview process — Hubert and Rick were inquiring about flavors and experience, while Anita probed former employee Jamie for her opinion — Michael sent his interviewees on a wild goose chase for a carrot to chop. Of course, he was asking questions too amid the carrot torture: "What's my name?"

Cue a montage of mispronunciations that sounded like some cross between a chia pet and an armadillo. Some, like "Top Chef" Chicago finalist Richard, knowingly mispronounced it because they didn't want to work for someone so clearly on his high horse.

After the interview process, the masters made like team captains in gym class kick ball, picking each former contestant one at a time to join their team of sous chefs for the big buffet.

Teams in place, the real jerkiness began to show as Michael got all his troops together — sooner or later it had to seep out like the cheese filling of a manicotti, didn't it? The catalyst? Dale, the former hot-head from Chicago, putting his team's ingredients into a fridge that Michael deemed his. Out of the blue, the Clooney smile was gone and Chiarello started yelling at Dale and calling him "young man." Um, I know Dale doesn't have any cookbooks at "Trendz" (I looked) but he's a bona fide chef, not a 15-year-old bus boy.

After that, the jerkiness just ratcheted up with all of Michael's team except Fabio looking scared to death. Meanwhile, across the kitchen Hubert and Rick were gamely taking suggestions for team members and taking the opportunity to teach, while Anita just clammed up as usual.

Of course, there would be not one, but two, twists. The first was a change in venue as the chefs would have their buffet on a hotel terrace in the sun rather than indoors. For the second twist, the masters and the sous chefs were brought up to said terrace and, while standing in the baking sun, told that they would have to then and now lose a sous chef.

Cue groans. On the bright side, we ended up getting a fabulous Fabio line from the whole situation. And I quote: "I'm sweating as mountain goat at the beach and she's telling us that we have to get rid of one chef, oh God!"

Man, I miss Fabio. Love, love, love.

Somehow the buffets make it out of the kitchen and immediately there's a clear divide. Zen masters Hubert and Rick put out wonderful displays of their respective cooking techniques (French and Mexican). Meanwhile Michael had what Richard called a "wedding buffet from 1987" (Michael himself calls it "rustic Italian") and Anita was having her own problems because she decided to do a raw food bar before realizing she'd be in the sun. Rather than change her plans, she went ahead with things hoping no one would get sick. Same with Michael, who gambled on dishes with mayo and fish.

To which I say: "Yum, salmonella."

Obviously a raw bar in direct sunlight and an Italian swordfish deemed "furry" by one of the judges wasn't going to put Anita and Michael, respectively, in the top, meaning Rick and Hubert were the first two into the final three.

The last chef into the finale I thought would be Anita. It just seemed like her transgressions were of less magnitude than Michael and his furry fish with a side of attitude. But it seems the producers had other plans.

You see, like "young man" Dale, Anita Lo doesn't have a cookbook. And she's not exactly a name chef or someone who is in the running for Miss Personality — it's clear she competed in "Masters" only for charity and not for fame.

Really, she's the anti-Michael. And because of that she was sent home, where she might be able to find the time to co-author a cookbook with good ol' Dale.

So, yes, Michael is in the final three. Despite being a jerk. Despite furry swordfish. Despite (or maybe because of?) letting us see the real Michael.

And there's the set up for next week's finale: The Good (Rick and Hubert) vs. The Bad (Michael).

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