After seven seasons proving itself as the best reality show on television, Top Chef has finally acquiesced to the frequent requests of fans by providing us with an All-Star season. The one notable catch here is that none of the seven winners of the show will participate. Instead, all of the returning contestants have something in common. They made a deep run in the game only to fall short at the end. In fact, almost half of the participants in Top Chef All Stars made it to the season finale of their respective competitions with a handful almost winning. What this means is that we have a deep roster of accomplished chefs who all have a chip on their shoulder due to their near-triumphs that fell just short.
Top Chef: All-Stars Recap
By David Mumpower and Kim Hollis
December 2, 2010
The other aspect of this season that should make for great television is that all of the All-Stars are known commodities. The first time they competed, each of the 18 players was largely an unknown with whom the judges had no preconceived notions about their cooking. Now, some of them are as much as four years removed from their first appearance on Top Chef. There have been countless get-togethers and PR events wherein they have hung out with the judges, forming a bond over time. Once their time on Top Chef was done, they stopped being contestants and started being friends to Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gayle Simmons and returning celebrity judge Anthony Bourdain. People like Richard Blais, Fabio Viviani, Tiffani Faison, and Carla Hall have become key presences on Bravo TV’s interactive web site. They are established chefs who have earned the respect of their peers. How will they react when Tom and Padma, people they now consider friends, tell them that their dishes suck? For that matter, will Tom and the other judges hold back some due to their familial attitudes toward many of the players? This is a strange new dynamic that should make the show even more engaging.
The season begins with the introduction of the players as they all arrive at the $7.3 million Brooklyn Bridge penthouse where they will be residing during the season. Even by previous Top Chef standards, they have luxurious accommodations this season. Since many of the contestants are fledgling celebrities in their own right now (just ask Spike Mendelsohn to talk about himself…he’ll never shut up), they deserve a little bit of pampering. Of course, with the luxury comes the nerves. Almost everyone participating in the competition seems to be feeling a bit insecure about their place among the combined culinary greatness there. Also, everyone reinforces the idea that Marcel is a jerk. Seriously, that guy is less popular than the Unabomber.
First to arrive is Tiffani, who cannot wait to tell us how she was “neck and neck” for the first season’s championship. We remember Harold as being night and day better than her, but somehow we doubt we’d ever be able to convince her of that. Next up is fellow first season contestant Stephen Asprinio, who is dressed with the finest in London fashion…Victorian London, that is. Dude looks like he’s going to an audition to play Jack the Ripper. We are vaguely disappointed that he wearing glasses instead of the more obvious choice, the monocle. If Stephen got any more pretentious, he’d be an M. Night Shyamalan film. We have such a love/hate feeling toward him because we honestly do not think he is putting on airs. This is who he is, a smirking patrician, and he just goes with it rather than try to be someone he is not. That’s almost admirable…but not quite. The one interesting revelation here is that Stephen has been working the front of the house recently, meaning he is out of practice with his knives. Against these 17 opponents, that’s probably a deal-breaker.
Elia shows up next and talks about how angry she was about not winning Top Chef last time. She then states firmly that she will win this time, which in reality television speak means she’ll be eliminated any moment now. We wonder if she at least gets to unpack first. Marcel then shows up and talks about how great he is. If self-delusion were an art form, Marcel would be Picasso, The Beatles and Shakespeare all rolled into one. To our amusement, Tre shows up next and Marcel immediately tries to foster a relationship with him by using all of the dialogue that he learned from listening to that one Kanye West CD to relate to Tre on his terms. Friendly to a point of fault, Tre resists the temptation to pull a Cliff Crooks and shave off the entirety of Marcel’s body hair. We commend him for his discretion.
Dale Levitski and Casey Thompson from season three are next to arrive. The shadow of Hung looms over each. Finishing behind him is akin to being the silver medalist to Jesse Owens. Prior to the invention of Google, no one without an encyclopedia knew who that was and even though Dale gave it the ol’ college try, the reality is that Hung won in a walk. Recognizing this, the producers quickly move on to the cooking star of this season, Richard Blais. A quick edit shows just how many times he won during season four only to blow it in the end. Harsh. Then again, it could be worse. Spike shows up and starts talking about himself. We realize after he has gone on for a while that we may owe Marcel an apology. Spike is the Terrell Owens of Top Chef in terms of self-aggrandizement. Antonia is shown next and we are quickly reminded of how she politely attempts to hide her dislike of him but always just barely fails. We’re the same way, Antonia, except we don’t’ try to hide it. Next up is Dale and rather than let him talk, they show all of Dale’s combustible moments on the show. That’s going to be a popular YouTube clip in coming years. Dude punches a lot of walls.
Jamie is next to arrive and is given maybe seven seconds of camera time. Jamie is too low key to be a reality show contestant. Top Chef’s producers know what to do with her. Meanwhile, the next contestant is just the opposite. Few contestants from the show have been as popular and leveraged their appearance into celebrity as much as Fabio has. He has become one of Bravo’s favorite performers since his appearance in Season 5. Fabio’s elevator ride up to the top floor is filled with a discussion about how he wound up in an oddly heated conversation with Marcel when he hosted a Bravo Top Chef reunion special. Moments after Fabio mentions how much he dislikes Marcel, guess who is waiting to greet him when he steps off the elevator. Awkward.
One of our favorites, Carla, is next to arrive and after a montage of “Hoody-Hoo” clips is shown, she gets right to the point, saying that she knows she was eliminated due to listening to someone rather than going with her own instincts and she will not repeat that mistake. Atta girl. She is followed by one of our other favorites, Jen Carroll from Season 6, who pretends like she came across as a confident woman during her initial appearances on Top Chef. That’s not how we remember it, but we loved her for her talent. We were not the only one, either. Out of all the people shown arriving on set, Jen’s presence creates the biggest stir, even over Blais. The other All-Stars clearly have tremendous respect for her cooking talent.
The final three to arrive are Angelo, who claims to have a lot of Advil just in case he gets sick again, small town girl Tiffany (“from Beaumont to New York City”), and Mike Isabella. If we are judging the expected finishes of the players based on the amount of face time they receive at the start of the episode, these three are in trouble. Fortunately for them, we think it’s more that Tiffany never provided a lot of drama on her season. Also, while Mike and Angelo did have some conflicts, none of the three people they battled (Robin, Kenny and Ed) are here today. So, there are no existing feuds to highlight. We will be curious to see if Angelo’s arrogance is dialed down in the presence of so many chefs. As for Isabella, we suspect he’s more of a worker bee who will have trouble standing out.
Tom and Padma’s arrival signifies that the game is on. The mood of the competitors goes from insecure to nervous. Padma enhances that emotion by pointing out that all of them are Top Chef losers. She then relays the information that the prize money is doubled this season with half a million dollars up for grabs with the winner earning $200,000 of that. Cha-ching! That’s gonna pay for so many Tiffany weddings! Tom informs the 18 contestants that the first Quickfire challenge is all about bragging rights. Since so many seasons brag that theirs was the best and only Season 6 is right about this (he doesn’t say this but we all know it’s true), he will let the chefs settle the matter in the kitchen. Grouping by season, the players will create a series of dishes they believe best reflect the city where their season was based.
The groupings are as follows. Stephen and Tiffani create dishes representing San Francisco cuisine. Elia and Marcel create dishes representing Los Angeles. Tre, Dale L. and Casey create dishes representing Miami, the easiest city in our estimation. The largest team of Dale T., Spike, Antonia and Richard creates dishes representing Chicago. Carla, Jamie and Fabio create dishes representing New York City. Jen and Mike create dishes representing Las Vegas, the hardest city in our estimation. And Angelo and Tiffany create dishes representing Washington, D.C. This is a fantastic idea for a challenge, straightforward but requiring some thought, some decision making and a lot of team work. Given that the chefs only have 25 minutes to create their meals, there is also a lot of pressure due to the significant time restraint.
The decision making process is smooth for most of the teams. With less than a half hour, choices are made almost immediately with the first idea usually the one chosen. The cooking process is smooth with a few exceptions. Stephen is clearly out of practice and Tiffani, who is always in a bad mood anyway, gets quite frustrated with him. Richard Blais cannot resist the opportunity to break out the Nitrogen tank, which we’re not even sure was on the set. He may have the mutant power to produce a tank out of thin air. The unluckiest group is Angelo and Tiffany. Stephen is in a mad scramble to get his dish completed and just runs through Angelo, causing him to spill a lot of their protein. To her credit, Tiffany keeps Angelo focused with her attitude of “It happened. Move on. Let’s go.” They wind up plating a good looking dish, albeit one with a lot less fish than planned.
The judges have their poker faces on when they taste each of the meals. We are not joking when we say that the most descriptive evaluation given to any of the seven meals is “interesting flavors”. When they reveal their choices for best dishes, we largely fall back to our preconceived notions about the overall skill of the various seasons. We expect Chicago and Miami (due to their easy cuisine options), along with Las Vegas (due to their ingenuity) to be at the top and San Francisco and Los Angeles to be at the bottom with Washington D.C. also there due to the clumsiness of a competing chef. To our surprise, this is almost exactly what happens. The three teams mentioned above plus New York with their “interesting flavors” finish on the bottom. Chicago, Miami and Las Vegas finish on top, with the winner coming down to a decision between Las Vegas’ Bucatini with Bacon Lobster Carbonara against Chicago’s bravely simple hot dog (albeit one with mustard gelato).
The Chicago team of Dale T., Spike, Antonia and Richard Blais wins in a tight race and while Las Vegas contestants Jen and Mike vent their frustration with the result, the fact is this. The other team had twice as many chefs and while there may be a maxim about too many cooks in the kitchen, more of them is a huge advantage with such a short time limit in effect. The fact that Jen and Mike made this Quickfire close speaks volumes about their overall skill. This is also the first shot off the bow in the Jen Carroll vs. Richard Blais that we hope will define Top Chef All-Stars.
With regards to the elimination challenge itself, the producers of the show have produced a masterstroke. A series of plates are placed in front of the various contestants. When they see the contents within, all of their faces register shock. Each All-Star is being asked to recreate the dish for which they were eliminated. For several of them, this borders on being a death sentence already. Jamie will be asked to make the fish dish from Eric Ripert’s restaurant that she didn’t even like in the first place. Dale T. will be forced to take a second attempt at what was described as an innately failed concept that could never work, a meal Anthony Bourdain described as “Worst. Dish. Ever.” Stephen was knocked out of the competition largely for his front of the house performance. He has never even cooked the meal he will be asked to reproduce. The other members of his restaurant wars team did it for him the first time. Best of all, Spike will be required to make the dreaded frozen scallops meal that led to one of the most heated arguments in the history of the show, the one where Spike insulted a guest judge for the contents of his freezer. And just to prove that the show’s producers have a great sense of humor, the scallops they provide are once again frozen in order to make the situation identical. That’s what you get for talking smack to one of the judges, dude.
The genius of this challenge is that almost all of the chefs have obsessed over the dish that got them eliminated. This is either their chance at redemption or their re-living of their worst nightmare, depending on if you are an optimist or a pessimist. There is a second twist to the first elimination challenge. The 18 contestants are divided into two groups. The people who are not plating will sit with the judges and offer their critiques of the dishes served by their competition. What none of them realizes at first is that all of the judges’ comments will be shown on a television in the kitchen. Yes, people will hear the comments about their food in real time. Elia all but curls up in the fetal position and cries when this is announced. She never took criticism well during Season 2 and we are disappointed to see that she has not developed thicker skin in the interim.
The general opinions of all of the contestants from the first group not named Fabio are as follows. Richard Blais quickly reminds the judges why they loved him so much in the first place. His dish makes their eyes light up. We should note, however, that Angelo, Tre and Tiffani all pointed out that he plated beyond the allotted time, and we aren’t sure if the judges will take issue with that. In terms of taste, however, he has created a sublime meal. Similarly, Angelo dazzles people with his glazed pork belly. Casey redeems herself according to Gayle by making an impressive dish. Anthony Bourdain gives Dale T. one of the best compliments of his professional career by stating that “There is this great expression in the Marine corp. Get yourself un-bleeped. He un-bleeped this dish.” Bravo provided the bleeps, not us, but you get the point. That’s quite the improvement from Worst. Dish. Ever. Tiffany, Tiffani and Tre’s meals are somewhere in the middle, garnering some praise and some minor quibbles. Stephen’s food is poorly received with the judges universally agreeing his food lacks focus. Elia suffers the worst fate as one of the other All-Stars notes there is a scale on his food and multiple others say the fish isn’t cooked properly.
The opinions of the dish from Fabio are largely espoused by Anthony Bourdain. “I hated the whole dish. I keep tasting it. I keep poking it just to make sure that I actually hate it as much as I think I do. I really, really, really hate it. It looks like an inside out animal. It’s appalling.” Bourdain is correct in this regard, as even though Kim has Fabio on her reality television laminated list, we still agree that the meal looks like desecrated animal guts. Several others mirror this opinion, with some of them wondering if the superfluous paper included with the meal is supposed to be rolled up and smoked. Fabio stews as he watches this on the closed circuit television. When the All-Stars change places and he sits across from Bourdain, he glares as the No Reservations host attempts to laugh it off. Eventually, the judge realizes just how hurt Fabio is by his commentary. This circles back to our earlier statement that the judges having personal relationships and prior awareness of the contestants will impact the game in more personal ways this season. Anthony Bourdain is one of the legends of modern cooking and he just mercilessly mocked Fabio on national television. Tiffani summarizes the entire situation aptly when she states, “This is like the beginning of the most uncomfortable Thanksgiving ever.”
The second grouping has its fair share of surprises, perhaps none more so than the fact that Jen’s meal is harshly criticized. Bourdain says “the only problem with Jen’s duck dish is the duck”. Ouch. One of the co-favorites to win this season makes an elimination challenge dish that is closer to the bottom than the top. Antonia’s dish is generally well received although Tiffany doesn’t care for it at all. When Spike presents his frozen scallops dish this time, Bourdain makes the seemingly random comment that “It’s a good tasting dish but I could have lived without the scallops”. At this point, Tiffani asserts that this was the tactic chosen in order to avert the previous disaster. Upon realizing what Spike has done, Bourdain calls him “the craftiest mother-bleeper” for his daring sidestep. Jamie, Casey, Dale T. and Mike are all described as delivering redemptive cuisine. Dale L. is less fortunate as his dumplings are roundly decried. Carla and Marcel fall somewhere in the middle with their dishes.
Overall, we think that the best dishes on the evening have been delivered by Richard, Angelo, Dale T. and Spike (!) with the worst dishes coming from Stephen, Elia, Fabio, and Dale L. When the judges announce who has finished at the top of this challenge, we are mostly right. Richard, Angelo and Spike are selected along with Jamie, who probably deserves special consideration for being required to cook a dish she doesn’t like twice now. When they reach the judges table, Richard is informed by Tom that since he went past the allotted time, he is ineligible for victory. While Richard is visibly disappointed, this is not just a fair ruling but a good sign that the producers of Top Chef have taken steps to avoid last season’s possibly stolen pea puree mystery. That’s right, Major League Baseball. Even Top Chef uses instant replay now. Please catch up with 21st century technology. Richard’s loss is Angelo’s gain as his refined pork belly wins the day. We idly wonder if this is a happy moment to Angelo or a bittersweet one. He cannot help but be wondering if he would have won Top Chef Season 7 if he had been healthy enough to cook this meal the way he wanted on that day.
There are only three All-Stars nominated for elimination. So, it was three of the four names mentioned above – Fabio, Elia and Stephen – but Dale L. is safe for tonight. In our opinion, Stephen is the obvious choice for elimination tonight in that he has seemed in over his head the entire episode. Not only did he finish on the bottom in both phases of competition, he was also a danger to others in the kitchen, hurting Angelo and Tiffany’s chances during the Quickfire. He is clearly rusty and against 17 top flight competitors, he simply has too much ground to make up in a short period of time. Even if he survives tonight’s elimination, we cannot see him lasting for more than a handful of episodes.
Of course, we have to be honest that many of the same comments hold true of Elia as well. We had expected to see her blossom in this competition due to what a strong performance she offered at the age of 23. With more seasoning in her profession, we expected dramatic improvement. Instead, she seems to have regressed a bit. The fact that she didn’t even want to look at the television screen when the judges were critiquing her dish is indicative of a chef who doesn’t have the thick skin needed for this show. As for Fabio, we think he just had a bad night. Then again, we also think that Fabio believed the dish that got him eliminated was good in the first place and his stubborn pride could justifiably cost him if he does go home tonight. Elia and Fabio seemed to have spent the least amount of time considering how they would re-work the dish that first eliminated them from competition. That’s troubling.
At the judges table, all three participants take a lot of heat. Elia seems to have failed on a basic level as a chef. Stephen doesn’t even seem to realize that his dishes were incompetent. And Fabio is still pissed at Bourdain. This leads to another confrontation with Bourdain, who is trying to be his usual funny, over-the-top self, the Bourdain brand that has made him rich and famous. Fabio is not in the mood for it at all. He feels personally slightly to an inappropriate degree. “Sir, I’m telling you something. I agree to be criticized in a constructive way. I don’t like to be made fun of and that’s what you did through the meal. Some comment that you did about my food, if we weren’t in this situation, we would have a different problem.” That’s right. Fabio all but asks Bourdain to step outside and settle this like men. He tries to be polite about it, but there is steel in his voice.
Meanwhile, Elia takes this opportunity to say, “Don’t eliminate me. I have a lot more to do. I mean it.” Gayle seems to find this amusing while it seems to rankle Tom. When the chefs return, Elia is informed that she does not in fact have more to do, whether she meant it or not. So, Fabio narrowly avoids his fate of being the dummy who gets eliminated twice for cooking the same meal. Elia is less fortunate. In the end, she served raw fish with scales on it to judges. That’s almost always cause for elimination.
Overall, this was a tremendous episode and we cannot wait to see what happens the rest of the way. If ever a reality show competition was meant to have an All-Star competition, it’s Top Chef.