HEAD OF THE PACK
Top Chef: All-Stars Recap
By Jason Lee
January 17, 2011
There aren’t that many changes at the top for me. Until Richard or Angelo seriously mess up, I’m projecting them for the finale. And yes, I know that Angelo was on the bottom of last week’s QF, but his strong showing in the EC more than makes up for it. Also, with two EC wins, I think we have to consider Dale one of the front runners to challenge Richard at this point.
With Fabio’s performances in the early part of the season, I thought he would have been outta here long ago...and yet, in the span of a few weeks, I have him at the #4 spot after showing great culinary dexterity in adapting his Italian roots for last week’s dim sum challenge. Carla, Tiffany and Antonia’s “home-y” food seems to have struck the right note in the past couple of episodes (Carla’s over use of spring roll wrapper aside), and with his first win this season, Mike jumps into this category.
I still believe in Tiffani and Marcel. That said, they need to start making some waves.
With a double elimination this week, ONE of these chefs has gotta go home, right? Right?
This week’s episode opens in the aftermath of Casey leaving. Antonia and Jamie both confirm that all the cheftestants were expecting Jamie to be eliminated. Alas, front-of-the-house Casey had her neck on the chopping block instead. How much longer will this travesty continue? How much longer will Jamie continue her undeserved run on Top Chef: All Stars?
Of course, Jamie isn’t the only one who riling people up. For whatever reason, Marcel is seriously pissed off at Dale for winning last week’s challenge. He screams at Dale in the stew room, and he screams (drunkenly) at Dale on the roof of the Top Chef penthouse. It’s incredibly immature and distasteful. I still think that Marcel has significant culinary talent, but so far he’s living up to the title of “Top Chef All Star That I’d Least Like To Have Drinks With.”
The cheftestant’s alarm clocks inexplicably go off at 4:30 a.m. and most of the stumble into the kitchen with no idea what’s going on. They make their way over to the Top Chef kitchen, only to find a “Gone Fishing” sign sitting on a table alongside a map directing the viewer from NYC to Montauk (which, apparently, is the most popular fishing spot in New York).
Has everyone got an idea of what the chefs will be doing today?
Yup, the chefs head over to Montauk where they meet Tom and Padma. In a big surprise, there’s no Quickfire this week. Instead, the cheftestants will head out on boats and try to catch as many fish as they can in five hours. Then, they’ll be cooking on the beach for 200 diners in four teams of three. This seems like an infinitely better challenge than the “harvest whatever food you can get and then cook it” challenge in Season 5 when Arianne was sent home.
Your four teams are: (all the names were made up by me, by the way)
* The Girls: Tiffani, Jamie and Antonia
* The Guys: Richard, Marcel and Fabio
* Home-Cooking: Carla, Tre and Dale
* The Group-That-Didn’t-Get-Much-Airtime: Angelo, Tiffany and Mike
Not surprisingly, most of the teams have trouble at first catching fish (though Dale gets one right away). But soon enough, The Girls and Home Cooking are scooping up fish after fish, and The Guys and The-Group-That-Didn’t-Get-Much-Airtime (TGTDGMA) are forced to stew in jealousy as their lines keep coming up empty. Finally, fortune smiles on them as well and they get some bites.
The highlights of the fishing expedition are:
* Richard and Fabio trying to help Marcel reel in his fish by kneeling in his lap and holding onto Marcel’s rod (his fishing rod, that is)
* Dale hauling in a HUGE bass. Seriously, it’s enormous. Dale comments that not only is his fish the same size as Marcel, they have the same anatomical structure. “Big head, little body,” he says.
Upon returning to land, Antonia says that she never understood the allure of fishing until today. Dale mentions that he will never ever forget this experience. Meanwhile, I’m wondering whether the chefs smell overly fishy right now.
Well, if they do, the whole farmer’s market is about to get a whiff of the All-Stars. The cheftestants have 30 minutes and $150 to get all of the produce they need to cook up their delicious catch. While walking around the market, it’s clear to everyone that a bromance is blooming between Richard and Fabio.
The editing makes it a little unclear as to what happens next. It seems like the chefs are able to go home for a bit, but then they’re brought to Water Taxi beach to cook up their fare. Based on the sun’s position, it looks to be late afternoon, but I can’t be sure.
Anyhow, the chefs get to cooking, and everyone is treated to a long sequence of Jamie’s complaining. There’s sand in her shoes, she’s tired, it’s too hot, her cucumber is dripping all over her... I really liked Jamie during Season 5, but she’s been grating on my nerves as an All-Star.
Service is rapidly approaching, and Richard starts to (there’s no other way to put it) seriously freak out. He begins ordering Fabio around, telling him to do this or that, reminding him to hurry, and emphasizing that “there’s not much time left!” Even Mike Isabella notices the harried way in which Fabio is being directed.
“Dude, shut up!” Fabio complains to the camera afterward. “It won’t get faster if you keep asking...I love [Richard] to death but this guy is gonna get a knife attack.”
Meanwhile, Richard is still in hyper-worry-mode -- and he acknowledges it. He’s stressed that the team decided to only do one dish. He doesn’t think the succotash is succotash-y. He also finds it overcooked. Oh boy.
The diners enter, and since none of these cheftestants are “new” to the show, I’m betting that every diner there A) knows who these cheftesants are B) has a favorite chef among them and C) will be adjusting their comments to the camera and to the judges in order to support their favorite chef.
The judges soon arrive (Tom immediately gets them some cocktails - though I’m not sure what type of cocktail pairs well with seafood). Our guest judge today is Kerry Hefferman, who Tom Colicchio says knows more about fish than anyone he knows. I wonder how chef Eric Ripert feels about that last comment.
Richard, Marcel and Fabio serve up one dish: a sea bass with succotash, corn puree, tomato confit, concord grape gastrique and jamon air. The judges find the beans overcooked and mushy. Padma doesn’t like the foam that Marcel (surprise!) added on top.
Next is Dale’s group, but first Gail must ask, “Is this THE fish that we’ve been hearing about?” Apparently, his big catch has been all the talk amongst the Top Chef judges and producers.
Dale serves up a fish taco with bass (yes, it’s THE bass) corn and avocado relish. Carla has a tribute to the NY bagel, with a lettuce wrap filled with smoked bluefish, pickled watermelon rind and bagel croutons. Tre has his version of a gazpacho salad with striped sea bass, tomato and avocado. Kerry loves the fish in Dale’s dish. Gail loves the smoke in Carla’s dish and Kerry loves her use of dill. According to Kerry, Tre took a big chance in sauteing his fish outside, but it paid off. Looks like this will be the winning group.
The Girls are next and Jamie has a sea bass and cucumber watermelon salad, Tiffani has a smoked bluefish with tomato, roasted corn and zucchini ribbon salad, and Antonia (despite having picked a VERY hard fish to use, as Tom recognizes immediately), presents a open-faced porgy po-boy sandwich with old bay mayo and cabbage slaw. Tom finds Jamie’s cucumber water to be redundant, Tiffani’s dish lacks elegance, but Antonia’s sandwich is apparently amazing.
Finally, we have The-Group-That-Didn’t-Get-Much-Airtime. They collectively present two dishes: a pickled bluefish, spicy watermelon salad with shallots and red chilies, and a striped bass with corn puree, tomato, aleppo spice rub and watermelon. Padma likes the smashed potatoes on the first dish. However, with the second dish, the judges note that while the fish is cooked well but that the flavors are “competing” with each other.
I’m uber-worried at this point. Since losing my “Favorite Chef of All Time” (Jen Carroll), I’ve been rooting for Tiffani as my “Third Favorite Chef to Ever Be on Top Chef” (behind Stephanie, winner of Season 4). Now, it looks like she and Jamie are gonna be in serious trouble.
Also, unless the chefs have had a chance to shower and change, I’m betting that they stink BAD.
After some minor backstage drama in which Richard highly criticizes Jamie’s cooking of her fish and Jamie highly criticizes Richard’s team for having too many ingredients in their dish, Padma enters the Stew Room and calls out Dale, Carla, and Tre, (Home Cooking) and Tiffany, Mike and Angelo (TGTDGMA).
Marcel notes that this could be a trick and the two teams left in the Stew Room are on top, but Antonia is sure that they’re on the bottom.
And she’s right. The two teams in front of the judges are busy lapping up praise - though living up to their name, TGTDGMA doesn’t nearly get as much praise as Home Cooking. The judges basically note that Mike cooked his team’s fish perfectly and that’s about it.
Meanwhile, apparently the diners went crazy for Dale’s taco. Gail loved that you could really taste the lemon and all the flavors, and Kerry thought it was exactly the type of food that you want to eat in a beach environment.
Gail was super impressed that Carla took them in a totally different direction, cooking-wise, but after eating her dish, found that it made total sense. Tom calls it brilliant.
The winner of this Elimination Challenge gets a trip to Amsterdam as their prize, and I’m thinking it’s gotta be either Dale or Carla. Kerry says that the winner is the chef that impressed the judges the most, with a dish that was perfect for the challenge. That leads me to conclude that it’s Dale but in fact, CARLA has won this challenge!
Awww, I’m so excited for her. This is her second Elimination Challenge win. So far this season, for those of you keeping count, Angelo has won twice (and been among the top chefs three other times), Dale has won twice (and been in the top one other time) and Carla has won twice. Is Richard falling behind a bit, having only won one Elimination Challenge and appearing in the top group twice?
Carla is ecstatic as she returns back to the Stew Room. “I WON!” she crows. I thought she totally deserved her moment of glory among her fellow chefs, but Marcel is quick to burst her bubble.
“I’d be happier for you, but it means that we’re on the bottom,” he says.
“Oh yeah...” Carla trails off. The Girls and The Boys head off to face the music.
“I should have contained my excitement,” Carla notes, feeling bad. Thankfully, her fellow teammates tell her that she had every right to be excited. I’m glad they backed her up.
Out with the judges, The Boys are having a rough go. Gail questions their decision to make one dish. Tom notes that there was a trust issue between Richard and Fabio. Gail calls their concord grape gastrique “overkill.” Kerry says that by delivering restaurant-quality food they made it hard to execute. Padma says that there was a textural problem with the dish, while Tom questions why they didn’t change their presentation strategy when they saw that they would be serving on plastic plates. Ouch.
As for the girls...
Tom notes that Antonia had a great dish. In fact, he says, if she’d been on a stronger team, she would have won the challenge. Her dish was his favorite, and he says that it was “perfect.” Poor Antonia. I wonder if I should chalk this up as a win for her...
Jamie and Tiffani are not so lucky. Tom thought that the addition of cucumber water made the fish bland, and Gail chimes in saying that it was all washed out. Then, Tom hits Tiffani HARD for not removing the bloodline in her bluefish, saying that it was overly fishy. Gail found the components out of proportion with each other.
Padma asks Antonia what she thought of Jamie and Tiffani’s dishes. She wants to know if Antonia thinks that if she had tasted them, she could have prevented the presentation of two bad dishes. Antonia, predictably but understandably, starts to cry. She’s being asked if A) she knew that her teammates were making bad dishes and B) if she should have saved them. Oh lord, this poor woman.
Based on the subsequent discussion amongst the judges, it doesn’t sound like anyone from The Boys will be going home. Yes, Fabio didn’t have a lot to do, and yes, Richard made the disgusting gastrique, and yes, Marcel again displayed an inability to present any dish without a foam . . . BUT
Tiffany didn’t remove the bloodline in her bluefish, which made it too strong. Kerry also found it to be heavy-handed, lacking finesse, and overall, a “muddled mess.” As for Jamie, she was the opposite of Tiffani. She was too light, too refrained, and the use of the broth washed out the dish.
I am really, really worried that Tiffani is gonna go home. Tiffani has long since been my second favorite chef this season, and frankly, if she’s sent home, my motivation for watching this show will plummet.
The cheftestants are called back. Antonia didn’t give her teammates feedback to help their dishes, Tiffani had a heavy-handed dish, Jamie had a bland dish, Fabio wasn’t in his dish, Richard made a bad gastrique and Marcel’s overall conception of the dish was too complicated.
Sigh. Tiffani and Jamie are going home. I hate this show.
In their closing remarks, Jamie says that she feels good about her dish, and if the judges didn’t like it then they didn’t like it. She’s not happy that she didn’t get to cook in two challenges, but she’s proud of how she did.
Tiffani wanted a different experience on Top Chef. She says that she was aware of how she was perceived in Season 1 and has tried to become a different person. She feels clear about how she is now, and that knowledge outweighs any pride she had in making the finale in Season 1. I love her.
In closing, I just want to remark that I think the producers thought this season would be a fantastic experience for all - a gift to the hard-core TC fans, who would get to see some of the best chefs for a second time. However, I don’t think they realized that, for a lot of fans, these chefs were not only great cooks but great PEOPLE. I feel a deep emotional investment in many of these cheftestants, and it is NOT fun watching them get eliminated a second time. It’s gut-wrenching and I’m not enjoying it.
In other seasons, you don’t really care too much about the chefs that depart as #10-16 - you didn’t have time to get to know them and they don’t seem that skilled, most of the time. Not here. We know they’re good people and we know they’re highly skilled. Watching them leave this early (Jenn, Casey, Elia, Tiffani) is a horrible, saddening experience.
Hopefully, this season picks up in the next couple of episodes, but so far, I find this dish to be bitter, bitter indeed.