Top Chef: All-Stars Recap
Night at the Museum
By Kim Hollis and David Mumpower
December 14, 2010

This is actually a nicer look than she gave the judges.

Previously on Top Chef, the season started wonderfully as the producers came up with the perfect initial Elimination Challenge. With a cast of 18 chefs who had not won in previous seasons, they were asked to remake the dish that led to their ultimate disappointment. In the end, there were several surprises, some of them serendipitous. Spike got the last laugh against Rick Tramonto, almost winning in spite of being stuck with more frozen scallops. Richard Blais may have choked the first time he attempted a glazed pork belly, but the only thing that kept him winning this time was the fact that he went slightly over the allotted time for plating. Finally, Angelo proved that his health was probably a factor during the Season 7 finale, as his recreation of his pork belly won him this week’s top spot.

Three dishes were clearly worse than the rest. This led to a decision between voting out a chef who hasn’t been cooking lately in Stephen Asprinio, someone whose meal looked and tasted icky in Fabio Viviani, and someone who served raw fish in Elia. While we expected Stephen to go home since he seems like he’s in way over his head, Elia failed in cooking school basics and had to be sent home.

In terms of our power rankings from last week, we feel that the situation is largely the same for most competitors, but we have made a couple of adjustments. Here is our new order, including some comments by way of explanation at the end.

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

We still think Jennifer is at worst the co-favorite this season, but we had to punish her for a dish that was not well-received. Meanwhile, one of the Top Chef blogs has indicated that Angelo’s dish would have won even if Richard Blais hadn’t been disqualified. We placed Mike Isabella a bit higher since he had a strong showing in both challenges. We did not, however, drop the duo of Carla and Tiffany down a significant amount. Their body of work is stronger than their opening day jitters would indicate. Dale Talde deserves recognition for exorcising his demons. Along with Dale, we should also note that Jamie, Tiffani and Spike all had fine first showings, with Jamie and Spike in particular impressing the judges. Casey was good as well, but we’d like to see more consistency from her before moving her up. The rest did about what we expected or didn’t even merit much face time during the episode, other than Fabio, whose dish seemed to make Anthony Bourdain regret ever becoming a celebrity cook famous enough to be a judge on Top Chef.

To kick off the show, we are introduced to a Jonas brother. Are we on the right channel? Readers of this site primarily know the Jonas Brothers for their hugely disappointing movie, which earned $19.2 million domestically, or roughly half of what Miley Cyrus’s concert movie made. Dale Talde has no idea who Joe Jonas is, and idly thinks perhaps he might be a pastry chef. Having just seen Top Chef: Just Desserts, we understand why. Also, Padma must have at least three inches on him. We understand why pre-teen girls like them – he’s their size! God, we hope our nieces aren’t reading this.

The Quickfire Challenge has the chefs create snacks for 150 kids who will be attending a sleepover at the Natural Museum of History. Since Ben Stiller was presumable unavailable, Joe Jonas will be the special guest of the evening. Whatever snack they make must be able to go in a brown paper bag, and they’ll have no utensils to eat it. Winner gets immunity plus an advantage for the next Elimination Challenge.

Joe Jonas says, “And, uh, you have 30 seconds.” The ad-lib catches everyone, including Padma, off guard. You’ve won this round, Joe Jonas, but we’re sure there’s a younger, hunkier, shorter boy band coming just around the corner.

Dale Talde commits his second faux pas of the evening (the first being the fact that he doesn’t know who Joe Jonas is…just like us) when he leaves the sugar sitting at his station. Not having received culinary training, we hadn’t realized this was such a no-no. At least three all-stars indicate that they are pissed about it.

Tiffani Faison takes this opportunity to remind us of her Season 1 fiasco – the one where she lost, she didn’t care that she lost, and Tom Colicchio didn’t appreciate her lousy attitude. We know from various appearances on other challenges that Tiffani and Tom have discussed this many times. She’s singing a different tune today, though, embracing the challenge and thinking about things that a child would find delicious.

Last season had a similar challenge in an elementary school, but the focus was singularly on healthful food. There are no such restrictions this time, and it also doesn’t seem that anyone is liquoring up the kids…oh, wait. There’s Dale Talde talking about Nyquil-infused corncakes.

When it comes time for judging, Joe Jonas’s least favorites are Tiffany Derry (it was falling apart), Mike Isabella’s (the chocolate wasn’t strong enough), and Stephen’s snickerdoodle sandwiches, as the mint in the middle just wasn’t quite right. Stephen continues to be in over his head, while Mike Isabella talks about how embarrassed he is. This is the first time he’s ever been at the bottom in a Quickfire, and it is certainly a lapse for him. Last week his dish was one of the favorites.

Joe Jonas has two favorites – Tiffani Faison’s malted chocolate snowball and Spike’s potato and carrot chips with a marshmallow dip. The small musician reveals that he’s not going to choose a winner, though. Instead, the two finalists will choose teams and will cook a big bunch of snacks, and will then give it to the kids to decide.

The teams are as follows:

Spike: Richard Blais, Dale Talde, Angelo, Marcel, Carla, Fabio, Stephen, Mike Isabella

Tiffani: Dale Leviski, Jamie, Jen, Tre, Antonia, Casey, Tiffany Derry

Amusingly, the splitting of the teams means that Fabio is odd man out and he gets to choose his own team. He says he’s not bothered by being last kid chosen and goes with Spike, because he thinks he’ll rankle the potential Quickfire winner by doing so.

None of the contestants seems to understand why they’re being split into teams like this, but it seems pretty obvious to us that these groupings will carry through to the Elimination Challenge. We’re surprised they don’t put two and two together, but maybe they do and just don’t mention it.

Before the kids come in for their snacks, Stephen lays it out. Will the kids want something kind of salty and semi-healthy (Spike’s snack) or something ridiculously sweet? The answer seems pretty obvious. One of the kids actually comments that they don’t really like raisins, which are in, you guessed it, Spike’s dish.

So now that the kids are pumped full of sugar, they bring on their idol, Joe Jonas. Who was the genius who planned this? Any glass cases that were in the museum before are now shattered.

Joe Jonas gets to the all important topic of which dish is the favorite. Spike’s dish elicits…well, it sounds like everyone’s in a library, and they’ve just been shushed. As for Tiffany’s dish, well, the response is like you might expect for a Superbowl winning team, or maybe Joe Jonas. Tiffani Faison wins immunity, and she is extremely appreciative.

Before the contestants can move, Tom walks out. At this point, they do the math and realize they’ve been divided up into teams for the next challenge. Even worse, they’re gonna have to sleep in the museum (and not much sleep at that). The Elimination Challenge will require them to prepare breakfast for the children and the museum workers, so no they’re going to be dealing with no sleep, an early start time, and…more screaming kids. Maybe Joe Jonas can whip up a couple of desserts.

As her reward for making Joe Jonas happy, Tiffani is given the opportunity to choose her team’s ingredients for the challenge. The choices are T-Rex, which is composed of meat and meat by-products, such as eggs and dairy only. The other option is Brontosaurus, which is fruits, vegetables and grains only. Tiffani goes with meat, because bacon is breakfast. What could possibly go wrong?

There are three camps after the challenge is announced. We have the anti-social set, including Tre (who wants to sleep in the nude), Stephen, who is used to living in a mansion, or perhaps on a yacht when he’s slumming it. We also have the women, who just want to get some sleep. And then there are the boys who absolutely loved Night at the Museum and are trying to figure out which of the miniature figurines will talk to them just like Owen Wilson did.

Before everyone crashes for an hour or two, both teams split all their members into pairings for better efficiency. Team T-Rex has Dale Levitski & Tiffani, Jamie & Jen, Casey & Tre and Tiffany & Antonia. For Team Brontosaurus, it’s Richard Blais, Angelo and Marcel, Dale T. & Mike, Carla & Spike and Fabio & Stephen. They pre-plan some dishes, and hope that the stock room will supply them with the things they need.

The alarm goes off at 3:45 a.m. and everyone feels a hate crime coming on. We think the chefs are braced for anything except losing a good night of sleep. Several of them need a number of hours to recuperate their energy. They’re not wrong, either. Do you want to be using sharp objects on no hours of sleep? Or cooking with heat? If you hit a couple of extra hours on the microwave, the place goes boom.

When the various chefs arrive at the kitchen, team T-Rex learns an important lesson about listening carefully to Tom’s wording. They had assumed a much deeper selection of ingredients would be available to them. Instead, they discover that they don’t get herbs, or acid, or flour. Also, for Jen & Jamie, they had planned to use sausage with a scotched egg, but there no is no sausage available.

Meanwhile, everyone over at Team Brontosaurus seems bright and happy. They’re not necessarily making “breakfast” food, but they are being inventive and making stuff that would fit right into a brunch menu. Team T-Rex wonders who wants to eat that sort of food at 7:30 in the morning, however.

Oh, hey, remember what we said earlier about using sharp objects when you’ve had little sleep? Jamie chops off her thumb…er, well…she slightly cuts her thumb. Slightly. She’s freaked out, and we learn later that this is because she’s never had an injury serious enough to require stitches before. When the medic informs her that she should go have it examined, she immediately does so. This puts the screws to Jen, who is now doing the work of two people on a dish that already had to be modified. Thank God Jen is a rock star.

Dale Levitski summarizes the Jamie situation by saying, “Okay good luck. We love you. Go away.” No fewer than five of her teammates express disgust over her decision to leave, though. Not a joke, five. Everyone else is of the opinion that she just suck it up and play through the injury. Fabio makes the best point when he reminds us that he broke a finger during his competition, yet refused medical attention until the challenge was over. Jamie does have a reputation of being an amazing team player, so it’s particularly shocking that she’d take off and leave Jen hanging.

As for Jen, she’s so far in the weeds, she tells people she can’t tell them anything about her dish until she finishes conceptualizing it. To her credit, she refuses to throw Jamie under the bus at any point during the episode. This Elimination is now effectively nine on seven, with the seven having the more challenging menu options.

Over on Team Brontosaurus, Marcel is pissed because Angelo has decided that their plum tomatoes should be cut smaller. “You don’t mess with somebody’s mise-en-place,” Marcel says. He may just be acting like his normal, pissy self, but he also might be pretty perceptive about who Angelo is. Angelo certainly doesn’t worry about being underhanded in ways that will eliminate other people. Either way, we think if they get into a murder-suicide pact, it’s a net win for society.

The meat team’s Casey decides that she has no need of tasting her partner Tre’s sauce. Dipping your spoon into something and tasting it is a two second process. She tries to convince us that she just didn’t have enough time, but we know that what it really comes down to is she just doesn’t want culpability. If she can say, “I tasted it in the kitchen and it was fine. I have no idea what happened after that,” Casey can totally toss Tre under the wheels of a Greyhound to suit her needs.

The kids arrive, and are disappointed by Antonia and Tiffany’s mini-frittatas, but the line for meat is still very long. Even so, they’re clearly enjoying the food provided by Team Veg.

All of a sudden, we have a Katie Lee sighting! For those of you who didn’t watch the first season, she was the original Padma. Then, Bravo recognized what was readily apparent to the rest of us – she has no personality. Even though she’s mainly famous for being married to Billy Joel (although they’ve been separated for a year or more), she’s an accomplished food critic and a fine choice for a guest judge, as well as a nice call back to the origins of the show. We’d also like it a lot better if she were the host of Top Chef: Masters, as opposed to Kelly Choi, who has even less personality – and far fewer credentials.

Let’s be honest. Bravo needs to steal Anthony Bourdain away from The Travel Channel.

The judges pick up their food from Team Veg first, and divide into groups of two, presumably to keep Katie from killing Padma and taking over her position. Tom sits with Katie, while Padma sits with Gail, and they all are able to hear the comments of the kids and museum workers at their tables. There are strong compliments for Fabio and Stephen’s gnocchi, and although some of the kids find Dale and Mike’s polenta to be spicy, the judges approve of this dish as well. Carla and Spike’s gazpacho leaves a spicy aftertaste, but the judges don’t have much issue with it. The banana parfait from Richard, Angelo and Marcel is easily the most well-received dish of the day so far. Gail notes that it looks like a painting, and there is much ooh-ing and ah-ing.

We move over to Team Meat, and the judges and kids start off with Jen and Jamie’s egg and bacon dish, which has chewy bacon and flavorless eggs. It’s as poorly received as we had feared it would be, given all the strife in creating the dish. Tre and Casey’s fish has some bone, which isn’t catastrophic, but the fact that the sauce is way too salty, and Tre admits he was having some trouble with the reduction of it. Like Jen and Jamie, Tre is in some trouble. Tiffany and Antonia’s frittatas are not consistently cooked. In fact, the only dish that receives any compliments at all for T-Rex is Dale and Tiffani’s, which has good flavors and definitely seems breakfast-y. It looks disgusting, though. Everyone seems to be a candidate for elimination, with the exception of Tiffani and Dale Levitski.

It seems quite clear that one team dominated, while the other one…well, the other one is looking at having a contestant eliminated.

Before final judging, Tiffani is bitching that she thought T-Rexes are omnivorous (they weren’t, unless you count the vegetables inside the things they ate). She thought her team should have had a bigger advantage since she won the quickfire, and Marcel points out that getting to choose your dinosaur was the advantage. Fabio also notes that they gnocchi with no eggs and no butter. Where was the adaptation for Team Meat?

Indeed, the first team that the judges call to their table is Team Veg. We don’t go straight to the judging, though. Instead, we get to see more sour grapes from Team T-Rex, who bitch that Team Brontosaurus’s food didn’t seem like something that should be served for breakfast. Jen comments that she cooks for the judges, not the kids, and Dale Levitski (who doesn’t seem to like her) calls her out for it. Jen has a bad moon rising all the way around. She thinks they should have won and that their dishes were better, and that they were also screwed on the technicality of the rules. We’re sure she’ll be polite to their faces, though…

Back to the winners, and the judges are highly complimentary. They all agree that the process of working together was very organic, though some of them bring up minor disagreements. They’re able to laugh about it now. They do single out the banana parfait as the best dish, at which point the three people involved stay perfectly in character with regard to their victory. Richard Blais says he’ll celebrate for five munutes and then move on. Angelo brags that when he’s on a streak, he’s tough to beat, and Marcel takes credit for the success of the entire dish, saying that if they could have picked only one person to win, they would have picked him. This is why we love Richard Blais, and would like to light Marcel on fire.

Team T-Rex arrives for their flaying, and Tiffani once again reiterates that she didn’t feel that the challenge was fair. Gail notes that the challenge is about adaptability, while Jen bitches a little bit more about the beast’s omnivorous nature not being taken into account. Tom puts that to a stop right quick when he asks whether they really believe the challenge wasn’t explained specifically enough. The judges also seem to confirm for us that the players we think are ripe for elimination are in fact the ones we mentioned before, with perhaps the exception of Casey, who appears to be safe in addition to Tiffani and Dale L.

Jen’s body language is that of a five-year-old kid who has just thrown a tantrum in the middle of a department store. Clearly, the sleep deprivation, double work load and frustration over available ingredients has put her on tilt. This is the time where we remember that Jen had a very bad three-episode run during her otherwise stellar Top Chef Las Vegas showing.

The judges criticize all the things we noted earlier, but then they notice Jen’s aggressive stance and note that she seems really pissed off. She loses her damn mind at this point. Note that we love Jen, we had Jen at #2 in our power rankings, and were openly rooting for a Jen vs. Richard Blais duel all season long. We cannot overlook the fact that Jen acts like an insolent child during this discussion, though.

Tom asks why they “piled everything on one plate.” Jen’s reply is frankly the most pissy thing we’ve seen in the history of the show. “You guys are smart enough. You’re the judges. Why don’t you say, ‘hey, can I get a different plate for this?’”

Tiffani says, “Oh wow,”

The fact that Jen’s own teammates are appalled speaks volumes about how far she has crossed the line. Jen is obviously someone who needs her beauty sleep.

Tom then asks if Jamie’s leaving to get medical attention affected the dish, and Jen said not at all. Antonia harshly criticizes Jamie for her unwillingness to play through pain, and notes that everyone else on the team said the same thing.

“I will fight to the death on this,” Jen says, as she defends the flavors of her dish.

After the commercial break, she does indeed die. Or at least her candidacy on Top Chef All-Stars does.

“I think I yelled at the judges more than they yelled at us,” Jen says when they come back to the stew room.

Jen’s elimination is the most surprised we’ve ever been with regards to a reality show that bases its results on performance. It would be like Dwight Howard getting kicked out in the first round of a dunk contest against high school students.

This is echoed when Antonia says, “Holy shit” after Padma tells Jen to pack her knives. When the decision is announced to the rest of the contestants, the reaction is pretty much the same as it would be if Edward got staked in Twilight.

After she makes her very courteous exit, Jen can be heard swearing in the back.

As we have said, we had considered Jen to be a co-favorite. You can tell the strength of a contestant’s professional reputation by the way the other chefs behave. Running an Eric Ripert restaurant is the equivalent of being an NFL head coach. Those are the most coveted jobs in the industry. In re watching the episode this weekend, what became apparent is that the producers knew that they were going to get buried for Jen’s ouster. So, they laid it out carefully to make the whole thing understandable. And it was a perfect storm:

1) She doesn't get to pick her dish's components.

2) When she and Jamie agree on what to cook, one of the items isn't
eligible for use due to the contents of the freezer not being what was expected.

3) They were down a person as a group when Fabio picked the other team.

4) Their team divided up into duos. Jen's partner left for a sketchy reason.

5) The ovens didn't cook evenly.

6) Jamie only showed up in time to basically plate the dish.

7) The rest of the team struggled so much that they were on the bottom. Had they been excellent otherwise, she would have been safe.

8) Eliminating one of the other contestants would have forced a decision about which half of the duo was more responsible for their failure. Jen is the only choice on her dish unless the judges feel Jamie should be eliminated for her absence.

Fare thee well, Jen. We know you were Jason Lee’s favorite, and that he’s so distraught he has said he would quit watching this season if he weren’t going to be recapping it once his school semester is done. You were one of our best-liked contestants as well, but we do have to say that your behavior at the end of your run was unattractive. We know you’re a great chef. We just wish you’d comported yourself better when the chips were down.