Top Chef All-Stars: Contestant Preview
By Kim Hollis and David Mumpower
December 1, 2010

Which Real Housewives are these?

Elia Aboumrad: It's kind of amazing to think that Elia Aboumrad is just now 27-years-old. That still makes her a mere baby amongst her fellow All-Star contestants, and tells us that she was a mere 23 when her original series was filmed. Lest you think she's not a formidable opponent, consider that she has 34 different culinary certificates. Cooking became her passion after injury kept her from her original love, competitive swimming (she just missed qualifying for the Olympics). The lovely curly hair that she shaved off during season two has grown back, and we're sure that Elia will be doing everything she can to right the wrong that had her finish just out of the finals for her group. In fact, she was eliminated in part one of the finale, losing out to fellow All-Star Marcel Vigneron, whom Elia accused of cheating (though she couldn't back up her claim) and disrespecting the kitchen. In the end, the fact that her food tasted too Mediterranean when the challenge was to create food with a Hawaiian flair was her undoing. On her way to the final four, she won two elimination challenges and finished in the top group a couple of other times during elimination challenges, which isn't necessarily dominant, but she was pretty consistent overall. Elia can certainly be emotional, but she has the talent and creativity to go far in the game if she doesn't let some of the more powerful personalities shake her confidence.

Stephen Asprinio: In evaluating this season’s 18 contenders, Stephen Asprinio is the most difficult to gauge. He’s from the less talented group comprising Season 1 and he’s less a cook and more a wine steward. In his field of expertise, he is unquestionably a master. In a cooking competition, he is nerfed quite a bit by conventions that are occasionally counter to his stylistic choices. In terms of in-season performance, Stephen acquitted himself quite well during Top Chef’s initial run. He won three Quickfires and was on the high side five times as opposed to being on low side only three times. His frequent return appearances on Bravo suggest that the producers of Top Chef consider him a top flight sommelier. His limitations, however, mean that he is probably in over his head in a pure cooking competition and he should be happy to make an extended stay rather than being eliminated early. We just cannot envision a scenario where he is a serious threat to win.

Richard Blais: He is the most established chef among the All Star contestants this season. The molecular gastronomist is an ardent supporter of the theory that there are no rules in cooking and he displays this on a daily basis at his burger joint, Flip. BOP’s Dan Krovich used to regularly torment us with his random proclamations whenever he would grab a bite to eat there and we love/hate him for it. Blais had a strong showing against culinary icon Mario Batali on Iron Chef America before he made an extended run on Top Chef season 3. Along the way to the finals, he won three Quickfire challenges and four elimination challenges, one of the strongest resumes of any returning competitor. In his own estimation, Blais choked in the final, which allowed Stephanie Izard, the most consistent performer that season, to claim her rightful title as Top Chef. There is no shame in losing to a chef of Izard’s skill and Blais has demonstrated himself to be the Boston Rob of Top Chef in terms of passion for his reality competition of choice. We fully expect a tour de force demonstration of culinary expertise from Blais this season. He is our odds on favorite to take the title.

Jennifer Carroll: Not only do we believe that Jen Carroll is a better chef than Tiffani Faison, but we also consider her to be one of the finest overall competitors in the history of the show. All that prevented her from greatness was performance anxiety. Trained by living legend Eric Ripert, Jen has proven herself to be a master of all cooking techniques. She won an impressive four Quickfires and one elimination challenge. She also never finished on the bottom half of the competition until the midway point of the season. At that point, Jen let the pressure get to her, which is why she suddenly finished on the bottom in three straight elimination challenges. There were two different times when she rightfully could have been sent home because her dish didn’t measure up to her usual standards. When the contestants returned from their break between the final five and the finale, Jen was clearly refreshed and even though she was eliminated, she had clearly gotten her mojo back. No one has learned more about themselves in terms of how they handle stress than Jen. This is why we see her as a top tier contender this season. With no Voltaggios around to make her feel bad about herself, Ms. Carroll is poised to make a deep run. Alternately, if she focuses too much on the competition and not enough on her own dishes, Jen’s stay could be short lived. We’ve seen her make that mistake before.

Tiffany Derry: When we recapped a few episodes of Season 7, we were (too) vocal about our dissatisfaction with the overall competition that season. There was one notable exception and her name was Tiffany Derry, a woman planning a wedding who wanted to get Bravo to foot as much of the bill as possible. Derry could have paid for next year’s royal wedding of Prince William with the money she earned during Season 7. She won two Quickfires and two elimination challenges, all of them garnering cash as the first place prize. Then, Tiffany tried to honor the integrity of a NASA-based challenge and was quite arbitrarily eliminated for it, one of the most shocking results in the history of the show. In a pretty lousy season of chefs, the two that were invited to All-Stars are both ridiculously skilled with Tiffany proving herself more consistent than the other one.

Tiffani Faison: Although Tiffani was one of the cast members of that first season, where the show was getting established and before it became a sensation, she had a solid season that saw her get to the final against Harold Dieterle. Yes, she was a low finisher three times in elimination challenges, but she also had two elimination wins, a quickfire win, and finished in the upper tier for elimination challenges on three other occasions. She’s somewhat of a frustrating contestant, as it’s clear that she does have talent, but she also has some self-destructive tendencies as well as a tendency to, well, nag. The infamous line “I’m not your bitch, bitch” came when she pestered Dave Martin to the point that he blew up at her. Still, we know that she is highly respected by the likes of Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud and Todd English, and she has returned for two separate Top Chef specials and finished on the top spot in each one of them. Here’s hoping that she’s learned better how to play nicely with others – one of the primary reasons she is believed to have lost out to Dieterle is that the contestants assigned to be her sous-chefs in the final round expressed their opinion that working with her had been miserable and that they believed Harold was more deserving of the win.

Carla Hall: The most heartbreaking aspect of season 5 was watching Carla Hall implode during the finale. The classically trained French chef showed tremendous poise and confidence in her craft by suppressing the urge to overachieve. This may seem like a trivial accomplishment; it’s not. Many Top Chef contestants have been eliminated due to their self-esteem needs making them attempt to create dishes outside their skill set. Occam’s Razor applies here. Food is supposed to taste good. When a chef loses sight of that in their attempt to create a legendary dish, an inedible meal is the frequent result. Carla had the belief in her abilities to ignore such temptations. All she did was deliver delicious meal after delicious meal, much to the frustration of other chefs who kept getting beaten by what they felt was inferior due to its basic nature. The judges kept siding with Carla on the point, which is why she won two Quickfire and three elimination challenges prior to the final meal. At that point, sous-chef Casey Thompson of Season 3 talked Carla into using a technique with which she had no experience. Her initial attempt to sous-vide her protein was predictably lacking in skill. This ultimately cost her the title of Top Chef, unfortunate since she was the clear favorite heading into the finale. This is a particularly interesting turn of events since Casey is also competing on Top Chef. Whether there is any lingering resentment over the finale remains to be seen. What is clear about Carla is that she makes simple food that tastes great. We do find ourselves wondering if that will be enough for the judges this go around, though. What helped her in the past may be deemed too basic in a competition of the best of the best of Top Chef. Then again, she may continue to infuriate others by making delicious food while they overreach.

Mike Isabella: Hearsay is a factor when we evaluate the respective chefs. When someone like a Voltaggio brother considers Mike Isabella a brother in arms, that means more to us. Talent tends to cluster and water tends to find its level, by which we mean that the Voltaggios know the other chefs who can keep up with them. If they consider Isabella to be such a person, that is the culinary equivalent of praise from Caesar. We are taking this into consideration when we look at Mike’s body of work during Season 6. With only two Quickfire wins and no elimination challenge victories to his credit, he doesn’t look like a top flight contender. There is where the degree of difficulty of the chef’s season comes into play. Who is to say that Mike would not have dominated Seasons 1, 3 or 5 if he had been on one of those instead? We said at the time that we thought Mike was clearly the fifth best chef yet he only finished seventh during Season 6, losing to rather dreadful chef/mortal enemy Robin. How does that translate to Angelo’s success in Season 7? This has been the source of much debate. We –think- Angelo is a slightly better chef but we will not be surprised if Mike proves otherwise. What would shock us is the idea that Jen and Mike are early eliminations during Top Chef All Stars. That would actually reduce Season 6 a bit retroactively from our point of view. Fortunately, we envision little chance of that occurring.

Jamie Lauren: Banky Edwards made the argument in Chasing Amy that the “male-friendly lesbian” is a figment of the imagination, which is news that breaks the heart of Stefan from Season 5. He made no effort to hide his infatuation with Jamie Lauren, who prefers co-stars of The L Word. No, really. She’s been dating Catherine Keener’s younger sister. Way to go, Jamie! Of course, this is a cooking show rather than a dating show, so Jamie doesn’t automatically win All-Stars for scoring hotties, she just wins at life. In terms of Season 5 performance, Jamie was always well regarded by the other chefs yet their respect didn’t translate to many victories. She won a pair of elimination challenges but never finished first in a Quickfire. She was generally in the middle to the high side during elimination votes. What is clear is that other chefs (not just Stefan) love her and are thrilled to have her on their side during team events. That speaks better of her as a chef than her Season 5 showing. Still, her lack of dominance during a lackluster season means she’s probably not a serious contender during All Stars.

Dale Levitski: We begin our damnation of Season 3 by taking a look at Dale. He’s funny, well intended and sincere, a refreshing combination of personality traits for reality television. He was a middling performer on Season 3 who won only one Quickfire and one elimination challenge during the season, one of the worst resumes of any All-Star. Dale did provide surprising competition to Hung in the finale, serving two of the best four dishes that evening. His overall body of work meant that he was fighting an uphill battle against Hung but to his credit, Dale made the finale at least marginally interesting.

Antonia Lofaso: She is one of the trickiest competitors to evaluate in that she never jumped off the page during Season 4 yet she won four Quickfires and an elimination challenge. When she got to the final five, she almost beat Richard Blais not once but twice. Is that a fluke or an indication that she was growing in confidence with each passing challenge? To a larger question, if we think Blais is the best contestant in the competition, doesn’t that mean Antonia is at least middle of the pack if not higher? This is the sort of thing that makes the whole evaluation process tricky. Our perception is that Blais is a much better chef; also, he won seven times in Season 4 while Antonia won only five. Wouldn’t you agree that those results are closer than you would have thought, though? Similarly, Stephanie won a total of seven events that year, meaning that while she and Richard seemed night and day ahead of everyone else in Season 4, Antonia’s resume stands up remarkably well. This is why we are viewing her as a potential dark horse even if she does start out low in the power rankings.

Spike Mendelsohn:Angelo Sosa: The second of two Season 7 chefs is Angelo Sosa, whom we openly despised for most of the season. He seems like a vainglorious, deeply insecure hypocrite in a lot of ways and there are few times in the history of Top Chef that we have laughed harder than with Ed’s revelation that he nailed Angelo’s girlfriend. Still, we have to give Angelo a lot of dap for battling through severe flu symptoms to almost win the competition. In fact, had Kevin not been gifted the presence of a Voltaggio brother at the finale and Angelo been healthy, we believe a different result would have occurred. To Kevin’s credit, he stepped up when it mattered most, but that takes nothing away from what Angelo accomplished. He won four Quickfires and two elimination challenges, including the first three overall events of the competition, a remarkable feat given the sheer volume of competition. Angelo suffered through a downswing toward the end of the season, not unlike Jennifer Carroll’s situation, but make no mistake that he is a serious contender to win the All Stars season.

Dale Talde: Perhaps no Top Chef contestant is more combustible than Season 4’s Dale Talde, a guy who almost got into a fist fight with another chef on Top Chef Masters. Dale can also cook. In the midst of top flight competition during Season 4, he established himself as a great chef with an impressive three elimination challenges as well as a Quickfire victory. Dale is one of those people who is largely a nice guy and usually has a smile on his face but will occasionally lose his damn mind with blind rage. So, his presence is a perfect combination of solid chef and potential reality show drama. We see him as middle of the pack in terms of overall talent, meaning we won’t be surprised if he is there late in the season or goes home early.

Casey Thompson: Since we already mentioned the potential feud simmering between Casey and Carla, we may as well discuss Ms. Thompson the cheftestant. The gorgeous Texan from Season 3 developed a reputation after the show was over for self-aggrandizing. Her actual performance on Top Chef was largely mediocre. She won three Quickfires and two elimination challenges, but both of the latter ones came at the end of the show when there were fewer competitors. For the body of Season 3, Casey was squarely in the middle and in fact toward the bottom more often than not. With a handful of episodes to go, she hit a hot streak and made it to the finale, yet there was never a time when she seemed like a serious threat to the 800 pound gorilla of that season, Hung. In fact, none of her four meals during the finale was considered the best by the judges, meaning she’s the clear bronze medalist from that season. Our expectations for Casey as a competitor are low, but she may bring a lot of drama if she proves insecure about what happened with Carla.

Marcel Vigneron: This Season Two contestant believed himself to be the top competitor against that season’s champion, Ilan Hall. This is not a perception we share, as it consistently seemed that Marcel managed to just do enough to stay in the game rather than showing anything truly special (he only really won two challenges). Other contestants accused him of disrespecting the game and even cheating (though it was never quite clear what they were accusing him of), and he was generally disliked throughout the Top Chef House. We’d call him an early odds-on favorite for villain of the All-Stars, but here’s the thing. While Marcel was kind of obnoxious and annoying, he really didn’t do anything horrible to the rest of the group. On the other hand, arguably the best chef of that season, Cliff Crooks, was disqualified from the competition after he (and the rest of the players) ganged up on Marcel and forcibly shaved his head. Cliff and the gang went way too far, and Tom Colicchio stated that he would have been fine with disqualifying all of the chefs except for Marcel for their behavior, but that would have made him Top Chef by default, and obviously that wasn’t happening. Marcel has an innate ability to get under other people’s skin by saying the most irritating thing possible, and this can have a huge impact on the other chefs if they can’t find a way to ignore him. We choose to believe they can beat him in the kitchen this time, though.

Fabio Viviani: The way that you're going to be able to tell that Kim is writing this chef bio is because she's going to state right here that she has a total crush on the adorable Fabio Viviani. Throughout Season 5 of Top Chef, he was a constant source of entertainment with his charming accent (which he uses to his full advantage) and effervescent personality. He's got to be good-natured to deal with William Shatner, we suppose (he's the Shat's private chef). During his season, where he got along with everyone - even the obnoxious Stefan, Fabio won two elimination challenges, finished in the top grouping four times, and was never on the bottom - except when he was eliminated ahead of the final three. It seems he barely lost out to Stefan, as Fabio's food lacked a bit of flavor and was simply not hot when served to the judges. As fun as he was to have around, in the end, it had to come down to food. Still, his ability to get along with others will serve him well here, especially since he's not fazed by strong personalities. He's the kind of guy who can work alongside a fiery Dale Talde, but he's not so overbearing that he intimidates the quieter types. He's so winning that we can't help but be thrilled that he's part of the cast, and if he has a deep run, we know we'll be entertained.

Tre Wilcox: We mentioned Tre Wilcox in our Top Chef preview because his situation was unique. He had seemed like a force during the early portion of Season 3 but then not one but two Restaurant Wars performances proved to be his undoing. Having recently re-watched those episodes, we recognized just how many mistakes Tre made along the way. We love him, but his elimination was not the miscarriage of justice we had remembered it to be. What we DO remember correctly is that Tre was tremendous at elimination challenges, winning three out of the first seven in season 3. Had he made it until the end of the game, he probably had the best chance of any contestant that season to usurp Hung as Top Chef. We consider Tre to be upwardly mobile this season despite being one of the contestants eliminated the earliest out of the All Stars. We strongly suspect that the producers of the show know that Tre is a lot better than his eighth place finish would suggest.

David's Power Rankings
1. Richard Blais
2. Jennifer Carroll
3. Carla Hall
4. Tiffany Derry
5. Angelo Sosa
6. Mike Isabella
7. Tre Wilcox
8. Fabio Viviani
9. Dale Talde
10. Antonia Lofaso
11. Marcel Vigneron
12. Tiffani Faison
13. Elia Aboumrad
14. Jamie Lauren
15. Casey Thompson
16. Spike Mendelsohn
17. Dale Levitski
18. Stephen Asprinio

Jason's Power Rankings
1. Jen Carroll
2. Richard Blais
3. Tiffani Faison
4. Stephen Asprinio
5. Dale Levitski
6. Tiffany Derry
7. Fabio Viviani
8. Angelo Sosa
9. Antonia Lofaso
10. Marcel Vigneron
11. Tre Wilcox
12. Jaime Lauren
13. Carla Hall
14. Elia Aboumrad
15. Dale Talde
16. Spike Mendelsohn
17. Casey Thompson
18. Mike Isabella

Kim's Power Rankings
1. Richard Blais
2. Jennifer Carroll
3. Tiffany Derry
4. Angelo Sosa
5. Carla Hall
6. Mike Isabella
7. Tre Wilcox
8. Tiffani Faison
9. Dale Talde
10. Fabio Viviani
11. Casey Thompson
12. Marcel Vigneron
13. Dale Levitski
14. Elia Aboumrad
15. Antonia Lofaso
16. Jamie Lauren
17. Spike Mendelsohn
18. Stephen Asprinio