Top Chef All-Stars Recap
By David Mumpower
March 9, 2011

Mike Isabella is presumably the one wearing the head dress.

1) Richard Blais – After one week in second place, Blais moves back into first. I hope that this doesn’t jinx him the way that Dale’s ascension to the top of the power rankings did.

2) Carla Hall – With Dale gone, everyone moves up a spot. In terms of performances relative to their seasons, Carla is the remaining contestant who came closest to winning. That bears noting as we grow closer to the finale.

3) Antonia Lofaso – Remember back in season four when we expressed outrage over Lisa getting to advance instead of Antonia? At the time, it was readily apparent that Lisa’s drama was more important than Antonia’s low key personality and exquisite cooking skills. What a tragic miscalculation that was. Antonia, Richard and Stephanie Izard in the finals would have been epic.

4) Mike Isabella – Hey, he won something last week! “That’s two, baby!”

5) Tiffany Derry – You the reader have won as many challenges this season as Tiffany.

Dale is gone. No one can believe it. That is the way this episode begins and the behavior is perfectly human. Dale won a Quickfire and an Elimination Challenge in the same episode then turned around and cooked a dish worthy of elimination the next round. As upset as we have been with some eliminations such as Tiffany Derry’s in season seven, this was as shocking a rise and fall as reality television has ever experienced.

With the dominant player from the season eliminated, well, not much has changed in that everyone still looks at Richard Blais as on a different playing field from the rest, but there is one more spot open for the finale than had been expected. And we are facing that cutoff point tonight. One of the remaining five players will not make a trip to the Bahamas to compete for the title of Top Chef All Stars champion. Tiffany Derry is particularly troubled by this thought as she was sent home for a dish at this same moment in the most recent season. The difference is that she deserved to make the finals that year while her continued presence in All-Stars is a mystery. Again, you the reader have won as many challenges this season as Tiffany. And you may not be able to make a can of soup if I spotted you the can opener and a microwave.

Padma shows up at the door and tells the chefs to head up to the roof. Everyone nervously meanders toward the exit, wondering what challenge is awaiting them up there. Instead, Padma informs the quintet that they are going to take a ferry to Ellis Island for their next competition. When they arrive at the ship, they are informed of their contest. This one is as tricky as anything in the show’s history. Using only the contents of a snack bar, the challengers are asked to create a delicious dish. This request on its own would not be particularly trying, but the catch is devilish. The chefs must cook their meal in the moments between their departure and the horn signifying their arrival at Ellis Island. As Mike Isabella states, this could take five minutes or three hours. They have no way of knowing.

Due to this constraint, pragmatism rules the day. As Richard Blais later points out, Antonia plays “the ol’ shell game” by taking the cheese off of one sandwich, placing it on bread used in another sandwich, and toasting the result. Tiffany makes nachos and popcorn. You know how I just said I wasn’t sure you could make soup? Even if you can’t, I still believe in you enough that I think you can make nachos and popcorn. Frankly, I don’t want to know anyone who *cannot* make nachos and popcorn. Mike Isabella creates a theoretically soupy concoction from hot dog buns that looks more disgusting than anything I ever saw on the original Iron Chef from Japan - and they had live eel as the secret ingredient on any number of occasions.

The only chef who puts any effort into the competition, the one who is willing to brave the fact that the ferry trip may be too brief, is Richard. He states that he has been carrying around a military grade MRE packet, a portable meal for soldiers. MRE actually stands for “meal ready to eat." Pulling this out instantly gives Richard more potential ingredients than his competitors, which allows him to make what he terms as a bahn mi sandwich, a “salad sandwich” featuring hot dog and beef jerky flavors combined with jalapeno, pork rinds, lettuce and apple. As the guest judge, Dan Barber, states, “I want to go to war with you, bub.” Amusingly, he has.

Barber was the celebrity guest chef who aided Richard with his meal preparations during the finale of season four. As was the case then, Richard loses tonight. I think it’s fair to say that Dan Barber is a bad luck charm for Richard Blais. Even worse is the fact that the dish that beats his is Carla’s Orange & Papaya Salad, a dish that he states involves her “slicing some oranges”. This is Carla’s fourth win of the season, which ties her with Richard for most of the remaining competitors. Dale is the overall leader with six, but Dale isn’t here right now.

Before the elimination challenge details are announced, the contestants are given a huge surprise. A member of each of their families arrives. Tiffany, Antonia and Mike are joined by their mothers while Carla and Richard are joined by their spouses. This page from the Survivor playbook lifts the spirits of one and all; the best is yet to come, though.

Celebrating the theme of Ellis Island as the birthplace of the American dream, a genealogist has traced the lineage of all the participants. They will be asked to create a dish that hearkens back to their roots with regards to how their ancestors came to America. This is a beautiful idea that also affords the chefs the opportunity to make wonderful dishes without any artificial constraints, a frequent issue we have with the show’s challenges. Even better, this research reveals that Mike and Antonia, who have been bumping heads all season, are not-so-distant cousins. All of those jokes I’ve made this season about them inevitably coupling at some point now seem so inappropriate.

The judging portion of the dining experience is unique. The five family members join Tom, Padma, Gail and Dan Barber. Not only will they eat the meals, but they will overhear each and every comment about their loved one’s dish as well as those of the competitors. So, if one dish gets criticized heavily yet does not lead to elimination, everyone will know. This seems problematic, but the issue is avoided in a strange way.

All of the chefs hit their dishes out of the park. We have seen something similar in previous seasons where almost all of the food is delicious, leading to someone being eliminated for a relatively minor mistake. That doesn’t happen this time. With the delivery of each meal, the stakes are raised more and more as the family members find themselves wondering, “If the food is this good, how are the judges going to determine who to send home?” And you probably know by now what happens. Let’s take a moment to build to that surprise finale, though.

Mike is the first contestant to plate. His potato gnocchi with braised pork, shank ragu & burrata cheese is special to him. His grandmother made this dish. He has avoided cooking it since her death, because doing so is too painful to him. His mother comments that her mother’s gnocchi had been the best she’d had, but that Mike has topped her. Mike is clearly not going home this evening.

Cousin Antonia delivers a gorgeous looking dish of braised veal, Rapini Leaf & Fava bean risotto. Her mother reveals that she has been cooking since she was nine-years-old. Both Italian mothers on the show formed an immediate bond from the moment they were made aware of their kinship. They each go out of their way to praise the dish of the other Italian relative, which is adorable. In fact, all of the family members at the table develop a bond in that they relate to how much their loved ones have worked to be in the position to win Top Chef All-Stars. Tom’s vote still matters more, though. When he says, “Antonia’s dish is just packed with flavor”, we can safely assume that Antonia will not be going home tonight.

Tiffany continues to freak out over the fact she is in danger of going home fifth for the second consecutive season. Rattling her nerves even more is the fact that she has decided to honor her roots by making okra, knowing full well that Tom hates okra due to its “slimy quality”. This is the type of bold decision that inevitably wins a challenge or gets the chef eliminated. Her meticulously constructed dish is braised short rib with mustard greens, stewed okra & oxtail marmalade. This particular southerner will testify to the fact that her dish sounds as southern as they come. The people at the table confirm that it tastes delicious. She clears the biggest hurdle when Tom says, “I don’t like okra because of the slime.” Tiffany’s mother, sitting directly to his right, looks on in concern at this revelation. Then, Tom continues, “Tiffany finally made okra that I like.” Her relief is unmistakable. Tiffany seems safe as well.

At this point, Tom says aloud what any savvy viewer is wondering. “So, Matthew and Jazmin, I have a question for you. Three really great dishes. Are you feeling some pressure right now?” The spouses of Richard and Carla acknowledge the elephant at the table, noting that they are all too well aware of their situation. Three meals have been served and each has been impeccable. Antonia’s mother asks the question they are all secretly hoping could happen, “Have you ever had a final five?” Hey, it worked for Battlestar Galactica.

Richard is the next to present. His meal is absolutely gorgeous with Padma instantly commenting, “This looks like Richard’s.” It’s a tremendous sign of respect when the judges know your style of plating. Richard states that as an Irish descendant, he has chosen to go with the steak and potatoes theme, but in a way that identifies the meal as his creation. The dish is short ribs, potatoes, fried bone marrow, corn puree & pickled glasswort. I don’t know about you, but I had to google the word glasswort. Tom proceeds to give Jazmin Blais a heart attack when he says, “It’s all right.” He notes her look of abject terror and tries to clarify his homophone. “I mean, not all right. It’s *ALL* right.” Her beaming smile expresses her reassurance. Hopefully, Tom means this and isn’t just being polite to cover his mistake. Everyone else seems deeply impressed with the meal, their first sampling of the legendary cuisine of Richard Blais.

Before Carla unveils her dish, her husband describes the details of their meeting on an online dating site. I am wildly amused at the thought of a former Parisian model writing her profile on When Carla delivers her meal, she becomes the fifth consecutive chef to braise something. What a strange coincidence. Her entrée is braised pork shoulder with fried grits, corn & sweet potato hash & cheddar biscuits. Mental note: buy cheddar biscuits next time I’m at the store. The diners agree with me on the point. A fight develops over the cheddar biscuits while Jazmin Blais correctly points out that the passing around of biscuits is perfectly atmospheric for a family meal setting such as this. The grits, a food Mike’s mother has never done before, are a huge hit as well. Carla too has delivered a marvelous meal, one her husband describes as a food memory.

Tom laments how difficult Judges Table will be.

He is absolutely correct if we take everything they said about the meals at face value. The family members are given an opportunity after the meal to reassure their loved ones, all of them have tasted the other dishes and realize their perilous position. When all five of them are called to Judges Table, a celebration ensues as all involved bask in the afterglow of the triumphant evening. All of the contestants are paranoid about even the smallest criticism of their dishes, but even the “harshest” comments are nitpicky at best.

When the All-Stars return to the waiting area, the editing reveals that Tom didn’t like the salt of one of Carla’s dishes on its own while acknowledging that it was not intended to be eaten alone. He also states that Tiffany had “a Coco Chanel moment” with one of her dishes, needing to lose some accessories. The choice seems to come down to one of these women. My best guess is that Carla offered the least great dish of the evening, which is like comparing the distance of home runs since they’re all fantastic. I think that Tiffany goes home if body of work is a factor as she has been solid throughout the season without being spectacular.

The debate about who will win includes the other three contestants. I had expected Richard to win followed by Antonia and Mike. To my complete shock, Antonia is the victor while Cousin Mike is almost immediately informed that he will be joining her in the finale. Then, the judges demonstrate a (cruel) sense of humor when Padma says, “Richard, please pack your knives. You’re going to the Bahamas!” Richard loses his composure for the briefest of instances as he starts to lash out, but he quickly bites his tongue. I think Richard’s heart stopped beating for a moment, maybe longer. If you freeze frame his reaction (yes, I did this), you’ll see my point. Dan Barber was almost bad luck for him yet again.

The real surprise is yet to be revealed, though. Tiffany and Carla’s fates hang in the balance, but we know something they don’t know. When Padma stated earlier that they had made their decision, the other judges did not look troubled by their choice. Given the sublime quality of the dishes, anyone being eliminated tonight would be a miscarriage of justice. There should be guilt over such an action. Instead, guest judge Dan Barber cannot hold his grin. I had strongly suspected that the producers of Top Chef were about to reward the contestants for an amazing dinner and they do.

Tiffany and Carla are informed that they too will be going to the Bahamas. For the first time in the show’s history, five players have earned a spot in the finale. I have no idea if this means three players will be voted out next week, but this is one of the best decisions in reality television history. All five players delivered and deserved to be rewarded. Top Chef All-Stars has been on fire since the moment the Muppets arrived.