Top Chef All Stars Recap
By David Mumpower
February 7, 2011

At least my pasta was cooked!

The power rankings this week are as follows:

1) Richard Blais - He won Restaurant Wars. Period.
2) Dale Talde - Offered the second best Restaurant Wars performance and has been arguably the best overall chef this season.
3) Carla Hall - Also part of the winning team last week, Carla seems to be surging at the right time just as she did during her season.
4) Fabio Viviani - Does front of the house better than anyone in the history of Top Chef.
5) Tre Wilcox - The consummate professional in a team challenge, Tre was a prep animal last week and served multiple tasty dishes. Again.
6) Tiffany Derry - Punished the least for her team's Restaurant Wars performance since she was forced to do the job nobody else wanted...or could have done as well.
7) Antonia Lofaso - She's the Calvin Johnson of Top Chef, an impeccable talent always stuck on a team that can't win.
8) Angelo Sosa - In terms of talent, he's in the top half of the remaining contestants. Why then does he continue to under-perform in team challenges?
9) Mike Isabella - Marcel deserved to go home, but Isabella's behavior was childish and counterproductive.

Good news, everyone! Marcel was eliminated last week due to not one but two #FoamFail incidents. Also, he had that minor beef with the entirety of his team that led him to getting the Stonewall Jackson treatment from them at Judges Table. Marcel has roughly the same popularity as that guy who likes to eat people and take their faces on The Simpsons. Oddly, SyFy has decided to build a television series around Marcel. Unless it's a South Park clone wherein SyFy movie villains like Mansquito take turns killing him (you bastards!), this show will be a disaster. If MegaShark eats Marcel then explains his (?) actions at Judges Table, it will be the highest rated show on cable.

The remaining nine contestants on Top Chef All Stars demonstrate more politeness than me. Tre describes the caliber of training Marcel has had and how unfortunate it is that he was unable to capitalize on it. Okay, most of the remaining nine contestants are more polite than me. Isabella may hate him even more than I do. The night after throwing Marcel under the bus, he is now ready to back up and repeat the process a few more times. While he does so, Antonia remarks that she has a list of people who needs to go home and Isabella is at the top of it. With Marcel gone, this is what passes for interpersonal conflict.

We jump straight to the Quickfire this week. And our celebrity guest judge is Isaac Mizrahi. Hmm, have I recorded the wrong Bravo television show? There is Angelo saying that his two passions are food and fashion, so I must have the right channel but now I also have the disturbing thought that Angelo considers himself a sharp dresser. Brushing the hair of dolls then changing their outfits while you threaten a kidnapping victim in your basement does not make you a fashionista, dude.

The challenge today is strange. Mizrahi states that the chefs will not be judged on their cooking but instead on the physical appearance of their dishes. Seriously, am I watching the right show? My agitation is reduced for a moment as a hilarious editing montage demonstrates how poorly several contestants adapt to these rules. Even though taste doesn't matter, people begin cooking anyway. Fabio goes so far as to say that he has the inspiration of a "beautiful woman walking in the rain trying to not get messed up by the water". He represents this by putting sloppy vegetable gunk on uncooked beef. Stuff like this is exactly why I don't go to art museums.

Richard Blais notices that Mizrahi wears a lot of black, so the chef determines that he should work with black ice. That's one way to go, I guess. Antonia reflects the best ability to adapt as she chooses not to cook anything, instead building an inedible art project based upon her favorite book, The Giving Tree. Dale makes street graffiti about his girlfriend's Masters Degree. Or something like that. As you can see, people are all over the place with their ideas. This leads to quite the mixed bag as they get judged.

Isaac Mizrahi does not have a reputation for being a polite, nice person. The chefs find out why over a span of several minutes as he makes one vile remark after another. He treats the entire cast like they just ran over his Yorkshire Terrier (I don't know if he has one of these, I'm just presuming). Dale is told that his meal looks like what he should have left behind as scraps when he was cooking the real meal. Fabio is so nervous that he talks so much that Mizrahi has tuned him out before he can stop talking. Worst of all, Fabio's plate has an entire paragraph of explanation wrtten in icing (?) so any talking he did was redundant. Mizrahi also makes some sort of raw egg/salmonella joke about Isabella's dish that is so acerbic that I needed to listen three times to recognize his underlying meaning. Isaac Mizrahi is a jerk.

Let's ignore the judge and focus on the dishes chosen for the bottom and the top. Clearly the worst dish in terms of visuals is Angelo's. He has created a reptilian theme and he has attempted to reinforce this by writing the word "Crocadile" on the table. The other contestants are cackling at his Dan Quayle-ish mistake and when Whathisname says that it reminds him of Charles Manson, I cannot disagree. Of course, the problem with insulting everyone and everything is that when something is truly worthy of scorn, you've already shot your wad and have nowhere else to go. Can't Top Chef have gotten Lauren Conrad from The Hills instead?

Anyway, Dale, Tre and Angelo fail to make a visually appealing dish. The top half of the group includes Fabio (what???), Carla and Richard. Moments later, Richard is given immunity in the next challenge, and reminds us yet again just how vast his culinary skills are.

What is the immunity challenge this week? The producers of Top Chef woke up this morning and got themselves a gun. The chefs will be taken to one of the most exclusive restaurants in the country, Rao's, a New York City location with an Italian theme as well as a reputation for catering to made men. In fact, Frank Pellegrino, one of the co-owners, appeared as an actor in Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Ignoring the innumerable potential mob jokes (at least for the moment), an Italian cuisine challenge is music to the ears of three remaining contestants, Fabio, Antonia and Mike Isabella. This is their wheelhouse and frankly seems to give them an unfair advantage over the other six players.

The nine chefs are divided into three groups of three chefs. They are not, however, teammates. Instead, their groups represent courses, antipasto (the appetizers), primo (the first course) and secondo (the meat course). Pellegrino aka Frankie No (and let's not ponder on exactly how he got that nickname) tells the nine players that he will debate proper meal ideas with one group while Frank Jr. aka Junior and Dino Gatto (yes, his name sounds like a former WWF tag team champion) tutor the others. All players will be taught the Rao's way for a proper Italian meal that reminds the diners of home and family. This is spelled out so many times that it is readily apparent we are witnessing a Ratatouille challenge. The first chef to make Anton Ego cry wins.

The antipasto group consists of the remaining ladies, Antonia, Tiffany and Carla. Carla is happy about this challenge, but Antonia's joy is total; she almost tears up thinking about her preparations. The primo trio is comprised of Dale, Tre and Mike. Tre takes this opportunity to remind us of his nickname, the Black Italian. Clearly, he's angling for the lead role in the inevitable Rocky reboot. The secondo group is comprised of Angelo, Richard and Fabio with the Italian gleefully discussing the cuisine of his people with Frankie No. When he obliviously refuses to let the latter man talk, Angelo's frustration boils to the surface, causing him to lash out that Fabio needs to let Frankie talk. Chastened a bit, Fabio still treasures every moment of the conversation. He will be crushed if he loses this challenge.

A trend we have noticed on Top Chef this season is that whenever a chef does something important in the kitchen, it is meticulously chronicled during the show. Jennifer Carroll's elimination is impossible to miss in hindsight, because the episode may as well be entitled Watch Jen Fail. Conversely, several of the winners during All-Stars made bold choices to which the camera also paid particular note. I say this because Italian expert Antonia has a problem with the way that Black Italian Tre cooks his risotto. He cooks the groupings as a batch while she indicates he needs to toast each piece of rice individually. So, he's either going to make food wrong and win or he's going to go down in flames because of this. I love Tre so I hope it's the latter; then again, I love Antonia, too, so I don't want her to be wrong. God, I hate All-Stars season now that Marcel is gone. I need villains and heroes, black and white rather than shades of gray.

The final judge this week is inspired. Lorraine Bracco of Goodfellas and The Sopranos joins the owners and employees of Rao's. She has of course worked with Frankie No and they relay the fact that she has been an occasional guest of his at the restaurant. She will be almost as hard to please as the actual employees of Rao's.

The women start the proceedings and the mood is largely upbeat for their presentations. Antonia presents a mussels dish complete with fennel, white wine, garlic and parsley. Some of the other chefs have hinted that her meal lacks degree of difficulty. Whether that becomes an issue at Judges Table remains to be, but the diners are giddy about the taste of her food. Carla's meal is a minestrone soup with basil oil, tomatoes and homemade focaccia, which I'm just now learning is a real thing rather than a word Krusty the Klown made up. One of the restaurant employees indicates you could find this dish in Wisconsin, which I'm presuming is a huge insult in his mind. Everyone else seems to love it.

Tiffany D. creates a dish she should have made for Whathisname in order to win the Quickfire Challenge; it is gorgeous. She describes it as a polenta terrine with Italian sausage, roasted peppers and kale. The Italians quickly agree that she has aced the trickiest portion of the meal, the polenta having the perfect composition. The women seem to have knocked their dishes out of the park. A dude is going home tonight.

The primo meals are up next. New Jersey Italian Mike (his words, not mine) delivers a spicy calamari, fresh rigatoni and tomato sauce. He made the bold decision to make his own pasta despite receiving a recommendation that box pasta would still turn out fine. Mike's pride would not allow him to do this, which I find commendable in this particular situation (it is his people's food, after all). He has not caught any breaks during the preparation phase, though, and he knows upon delivering the dish that the pasta is undercooked. This opinion is quickly confirmed as everyone is actively turned off by the dish.

Dale does no better with his fresh pasta, pancetta, brussel sprouts, chanterelle mushrooms and pecorino romano. Lorraine Bracco even does a fine Mizrahi impersonation by stating that if her man had cooked her this dish, he "would not be getting laid tonight." Tre ends the primo meal portion of the evening by delivering a grilled vegetable risotto, marinated tomatoes and fresh basil. The judges quickly confirm that they fall on Antonia's side of the risotto preparation debate. All three of these dishes seem like they could send someone home. The primo meal is a complete bust.

The secondo dishes are Fabio's pollo alla cacciatora and polenta al pecorino, Angelo's sauteed pork chop, cherry peppers, green olives, tomatoes and pancetta and Richard's fresh pancetta cutlet, broccolini and pickled cherry tomatoes. The difference between the last meal and this one is significant but this is primarily because of Fabio. His dish is just what the judges need in the wake of the primo meal disaster. There is universal consent that he has earned the right to call himself Fabio tonight, which is also my second favorite Italian name after Furio. Richard and Angelo's dishes are the first ones of the evening that are just okay rather than definitively good or bad.

At Judges Table, the women and Fabio are called first. Mike convinces himself that they must be on the bottom since Antonia's dish was so simplistic. He's...wrong. Very, very wrong. The judges state in no uncertain terms that Antonia and Fabio have proven themselves to be Italian chefs worthy of the home country. Tiffany bursts into tears, relieved that she is on the top after the Restaurant Wars disaster the prior week. Carla is just happy that the judges tasted her love. Don't make it dirty, people. In the end, the choice comes down to Fabio versus Antonia and much to the gentleman's chagrin, Antonia is determined to be the One True Italian Chef. Screw complexity, All-Stars. This is a competition where the tastiest meal wins.

The women return and Antonia informs everyone that she won. The silence is deafening. For several seconds, no one congratulates her for this, her first win of the season. This is particularly unfortunate given that Antonia has cooked her ass off during All-Stars yet she keeps losing due to getting stuck on the bad team every time. She could have won twice previously if only her team had been victorious. All the remaining men in the room can do, however, is realize that three of them are up for elimination. As expected, everyone from the primo meal is sent to the gallows.

The judges question Tre, Dale and Mike about their mistakes. Two of them are understandable. Mike clearly recognizes that he failed to cook his dish perfectly. According to Tom, Mike's sauce turned out fine, meaning that if he had used store bought pasta instead, he would not be up for elimination. Meanwhile, Tre and Tom debate the proper way to make risotto. We believe Tre when he says this is the way he was trained, but it is obvious that Tom sees his mistake as amateurish. Dale is also quizzed about his performance; the judges act as if his dish is bland rather than bad, though. Dale should be safe, which means that the choice comes down to Mike being eliminated for making bad pasta or Tre being eliminated for learning a different way to cook risotto than Tom believes is correct.

My instinct is to believe that Mike should go home, yet anyone who has watched Top Chef for a while knows that Tom makes the final determinations. He liked Mike's sauce; conversely, he hated Tre's risotto. To the chagrin of Padma, who is fighting back tears as she announces the decision, Tre is eliminated from the competition. I hate this and I also disagree with the logic. It does reinforce what we had said last week, though. From this point on, everyone who gets eliminated will be someone we either like or respect or both. Tre falls into the both category. Judging from how forcefully he is hugged as he leaves, it's clear that the other contestants on Top Chef All Stars hold him in the same esteem that I do. On the plus side, Tre truly redeemed himself this season after his disastrous Restaurant Wars outings (yes, two of them) led to his elimination during season three.