Top Chef All Stars Recap
By David Mumpower
March 16, 2011

Don't worry, Carla. We still love the hootie-hoo out of you.

1) Richard Blais – He still isn’t dominating the way I had expected, but it seems like every dish he cooks is worthy of victory.

2) Antonia Lofaso - With no eliminations last week, the temptation is to duplicate last week’s rankings. I don’t think that is fair in the case of Antonia, though. She has either won or been in the top group in five consecutive elimination challenges. She is in the zone right now.

3) Carla Hall – This is the spot in the competition where she sous vide’d her way out of victory. Hopefully, she has learned from this mistake. Her willingness to risk her season on liquid nitrogen last week has me concerned, though.

4) Mike Isabella – Proved last week that he can make a delicious dish that wasn’t Richard’s idea. Then again, it was his grandmother’s dish, so I’m not sure if that’s forward progress.

5) Tiffany Derry – I adore Tiffany and my recent criticisms of her prove that you sometime hurt the ones you love. Still, I must once more point out that you, the reader, have as many challenge wins as Tiffany.

This week’s episode begins in a different fashion from previous ones. The five contestants who earned a working vacation in the Bahamas do not have a fallen comrade to lament. To the contrary, their dazzling dishes in the previous challenges should have folk songs written about them. I am confident that there would be much rejoicing if we joined the remaining competitors in the hours after their triumphant presentation to the judges. Instead, Top Chef fast forwards four months and in the interim, all of the women seem to have questioned their worthiness.

Antonia presents herself as a strong contender who is more interested in the title of Top Chef than she is in winning the large sum of money that accompanies such a victory. Carla is still dwelling on her loss in the finale of her season, the competition during which she inexplicably moved away from her comfort zone and tried a new cooking technique. Tiffany is looking back on her struggles during the current season of Top Chef All-Stars; she is all too well aware of how fortunate she is to be in the finals. Between the three women, Antonia seems to be in the best place in terms of focus, but even she seems to be steeling her nerves. I have concerns about the marvelous female contestants who have earned a spot in the finals.

Richard has other concerns. First of all, his hair has grown exponentially goofier during the down time, something I would not have thought possible. He looks like a 10-year-old boy who has not washed his hair during the Obama administration. Professor Blais’ larger concern is that his daughter, Embry Lotus, will be born any day now. Blais is driven by twin fears, that he will once again choke in the finale (his words, not mine) and that he will miss the birth of his daughter while doing so. I’m starting to believe that in the throes of orgasm, Blais worries about the national deficit. That Muppet should have told him, “Be happy, Richard!” instead of “Be careful, Richard!”

Also, Mike Isabella is there.

No punches are pulled during the first Quickfire of the finals. The contestants walk into the outdoor cooking area and immediately recognize Hosea Rosenberg, Michael Voltaggio, Kevin Sbraga and Stephanie Izard. These are the Top Chef champions who beat each of the remaining All Stars during their original competitions. While Mike instantly presumes that he will be cooking on the same team as his buddy, Michael Voltaggio, the reverse is the case. In another clever challenge during a season of strong ideas, the All-Stars must prove their worth by attempting to defeat the chef who originally bested them. In the particular case of Stephanie Izard, this means that she faces off against Antonia and Richard. Seriously, how great was season four?

The challenge itself is something of a bust. Several chefs have trouble with their haphazardly thrown together cooking appliances. This leads to a few truly terrible dishes. No one even wants to taste Carla’s raw rice, which means Hosea wins $10,000 in addition to his free trip to the Bahamas. Hosea also reveals that he has a chip on his shoulder toward the haters who claimed he was an unworthy champion during his season. Carla’s tribulations in presenting her dish will not aid his reputation any in this regard, which is unfortunate. Hosea is a great chef and a worthy champion. His only real mistake during season five was flirting too much with Leah.

Antonia and Stephanie both share Carla’s struggle in preparing their meals. This leads to a split decision wherein Stephanie’s food is declared slightly more palatable than Antonia’s. Neither lady is pleased by the judges’ critique of their dishes. Stephanie sardonically declares, “I win with a crappy dish.” Needless to say, Richard wins his half of the round, which means that he gets $10,000, Stephanie gets $10,000 and Antonia gets to feel especially bad about her cooking.

The strong legs of the Quickfire involve seasons six and seven. As Tom states, always consistent Kevin and Tiffany both offer strong dishes, but Tiffany is declared the winner. This marks her first victory during the entire season of Top Chef All Stars, meaning that I have to retire the joke that you the reader have won as many times as she has. Goodbye factually accurate joke, I will miss you. The shocker is that while Michael Voltaggio delivers a delicious dish that impresses Padma, Tom Colicchio and Eric Ripert agree that Mike Isabella has edged him. While the other chefs spent the past few months doubting themselves, Mike showed up with a “nothing to lose” attitude that serves him well. Beating a Voltaggio in a cooking competition indicates that I should start taking Mike Isabella seriously as a contender. Rats. I really didn’t want to do that.

The Elimination Challenge’s announcement creates further doubt among the female competitors. They will be creating dishes for “Bahamian royalty”. Immediately, most of the contestants plan the finest haute cuisine in their arsenal. Carla’s downward spiral has her on the verge of tears in the kitchen, something Antonia discovers when an innocuous question is met with a tortured response. After asking “how you doin’” (I don’t think it was intended Joey Tribbiani style, but that was the phrasing), Carla breaks down with a series of strained replies. Antonia’s face says everything about her desire to parachute out of the conversation right then and there. Composure and Carla are no longer friends.

The drive to the kitchen where the meal will be prepared is a funny albeit mean-spirited reveal. The All-Stars are expecting to be chauffeured to an immaculate mansion wherein they will navigate a regal kitchen and deliver a meal befitting a black tie event. Instead, they are driven down a series of ill-paved streets populated with drunken revelers. At this point, Richard, who has meticulously researched the Bahamas in preparation for the finale, recognizes that they will be cooking for Junkanoo, an annual island street parade. The king for whom they will cook is not in fact of royal lineage but instead the Secretary of Partying Down or some such title. In fact, the moment he appears on camera, I expect him to say “Hooray Beer!”

The contestants are thrown by this twist as their meticulously prepared meals are far too high brow for a group of people looking to snack between orgies. Only Tiffany is pleased by this turn of events as her dish aimed the lowest of the quintet. Of course, none of this matters as Top Chef’s roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. Actually, it’s a deep fryer and Antonia recognizes instantly that the situation is dire. Moments after she states it will catch fire, this is exactly what happens and before we know it, fire engines are making their way to Junkanoo. I’m guessing those firemen have quite a story to tell about that circuitous path to the kitchen. Are beads an internationally traded good or is that just a New Orleans thing? Richard describes the severity of the situation by stating that an uncontrollable flame is precariously positioned atop of 35 gallons of oil. Maybe that wasn’t the best time for me to bring up New Orleans.

Richard disappoints me a bit in the next segment. Antonia is strung out over the chain of events that just transpired. Rather than reassuring her, Richard pointedly attempts to unravel her further in a blatant attempt to undermine a strong competitor. Kim and I commented on how loathsome we considered this action to be when performed by Antonio. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking to see someone we like attempt such underhanded shenanigans. Richard is clearly so obsessed with winning this competition that he is in danger of losing a part of himself in the process. Champions want to beat the best competitors in the world when they are at the top of their game; Richard Blais is not behaving like a championing in this episode.

Tom Colicchio arrives to inspect the damage then deliver terrible news to the contestants. The three hours of prep work they did in creating the evening’s meal was a waste of time. The fire has ruined the dishes, meaning they must start from scratch. Given the hectic nature of the day thus far and the trauma of the fire, nerves are already frayed. Now, the competitors have to create new food for an even later dinner. This is proving to be one of the longest days of the season, only marginally better than the Target and museum episodes in terms of hours on the job but much worse in terms of tension.

While Tiffany is the only All-Star who feels like she missed an opportunity due to the fire, none of the five chefs will be singing any Disney happy worker anthems during the rest of the evening. Poor Carla just can’t catch a break as her kitchen appliances once again fail her during the final stages of the meal. Her pork cooks unevenly with the middle portion far too rare to be served. She attempts to “MacGyver” a workaround as she knows that undercooked food is a huge no-no, a chef faux pas she has already committed once in the episode. Antonia’s situation is similarly perilous. She doesn’t feel like her dish “came from me”. It’s clear from the editing that both women are in a lot of trouble.

Carla’s meal is the first served to King Red Stripe and the judges; it is a fried pork medallion with sweet potato puree, apple sauce & apple chip. Everyone agrees that it is beautiful, but Eric Ripert finds it far too sweet. The guy from the Bahamian bobsled team or whatever says, “A little sweet, yes, but I like sweet”. At this point, Gail states her concern with the dish and the camera closes in to confirm her statement. MacGyver has failed Carla as not all of the pork was saved from an undercooked fate. It looks disgusting.

Antonia is next on the docket with crispy shrimp & grits with cilantro & pickled vegetables. Visually, it is a great looking stack of food. In terms of taste, the guests seem to like it. Alas, Eric Ripert feels that the meat is overcooked and Padma emphatically nods her consent. Gail is unable to identify a meat hidden at the bottom of the dish while Tom becomes obsessed with a random strand of carrot at the top of the dish that he describes as Howard Johnson-ish. Yes, both women are in a lot of trouble.

Mike Isabella delivers his dish next and it looks like white meat covered by green spit. Also, the dish is formed like a human body that has a yam erection. There is a sentence I never thought I’d type. I am told it is sous vide chicken, mushrooms, yams, lobster sauce & lobster hash yet I continue to be hypnotized by the appearance of it. This looks like what we see if we looked on the table beside someone who just had their stomach pumped. The judges love it.

Richard delivers a plate of roasted lamb loin & malted braised leg with pickled turnip & mustard. I am going to spare you the specifics, but my first thought about what it looks like ordinarily involves a plunger. As far as I can tell, during this elimination competition, the appearance of the dish is inversely proportional to its critical reception. The judges make it clear that Richard is safe while also stating how impressed they are by his ability to make an entirely new dish this creative in the span of a few hours. In the kitchen, Richard has a bout of uncontrollable self-loathing that strikes me as karmic vengeance for his earlier behavior with Antonia. Alas, I like Richard too much to stay mad at him, so I’m more concerned by how little joy he gets from being one of the best chefs in the world.

Tiffany’s dish is next; it is roasted spiced pork tenderloin, dirty rice, curried slaw & tomato jam. The meal gets the type of middling reception generally received for .500 sports teams. Everyone agrees that it tastes fine; the disappointment from the judges is centered upon her low aspirations. They (rightfully) feel that this is the finale of Top Chef and that the contestants should be trying to dazzle the judges. Instead, Tiffany offers something that feels like a menu item from the 2 for $20 specials at a franchise restaurant. Since it doesn’t taste bad, Tiffany should be safe unless she gets punished for cooking at an 8th grade level while the others are working on their doctoral dissertations.

Judges Table offers no real surprises. Mike’s food was the best received and is clearly the choice as the winner of the evening. Richard is also safe. The decision is reduced to whether Tiffany should be punished for her lack of ambition, Carla should be punished for mediocre appliances, or Antonia should be punished for the core flavors of her dish. Gail goes so far as to describe her food as cafeteria mystery meat, which leaves me convinced that Antonia is about to be upset. To my absolute shock, the luck of the draw that saw Tom and Gail receive the undercooked pork leads to Carla’s elimination from the competition.

I rarely disagree with the ruling of the judges since they have, you know, tasted the dishes, but this seems like a travesty. And I say that as an Antonia Lofaso superfan. On the plus side, Carla acquitted herself extraordinarily well this season and can hold her head up high, knowing that the tools in her toolbox let her down more than anything she did on her own. Also, this sets up an Antonia versus Richard showdown in the finale, something we were robbed of seeing in season four.