Top Chef All Stars Recap
By David Mumpower
March 23, 2011

I still beat Angelo. Again.

1) Richard Blais – Well positioned to win All-Stars as expected, Blais has not been as dominant as had been expected this season. I am also troubled by the way he seems to be psyching himself out after a couple of months away from the competition.

2) Antonia Lofaso – Nearly eliminated last week, Antonia appears to be overwhelmed by her potential Top Chef title, questioning her self-worth. And the grease fire didn’t help her disposition any. Hopefully, this was one (overly long) bad day that will be quickly forgotten.

3) Mike Isabella – Mike’s continued presence in the game reflects the fact that players with nothing to lose are frequently the most dangerous. As the other three remaining contestants wonder if they can comfortably call themselves Top Chef All-Stars champion, Mike focuses on what is important: new personal bests in the category of loudest burp.

4) Tiffany Derry – Tiffany won something last week! I haven’t been this shocked by a turn of
events since Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. With a whopping one victory under her belt, Tiffany has a 25% chance of winning Top Chef All Stars. In the immortal words of Gorilla Monsoon, what a travesty of justice that would be.

We are back to form this week as, unlike the previous episode, we start with the remaining contestants lamenting the elimination of a fellow competitor. Carla was the unlucky one in an episode where none of the dishes was particularly good, a stark contrast to the last episode in New York wherein every meal served was a triumph. Whether the chefs can put this misstep behind them and recover gracefully will be determined tonight. Oddly, I am most concerned about the two players who top this week’s power rankings as Richard and Antonia both need to get out of their heads a little bit. Instances such as this one are the reason why the term “paralysis by analysis” was invented.

The Quickfire Challenge begins only two minutes into the episode, indicating that we will be all business this week. Someone named Lorena Garcia is the special guest judge this week, and Padma informs us that Ms. Garcia will be the host of an upcoming NBC reality show competition entitled America’s Next Great Restaurant. Garcia’s biography at is well worth reading if you have the time. She graduated from Law School then chose to become a chef instead; despite her credentials, Richard Blais and Mike Isabella make it clear during the opening competition that they don’t think much of her opinions on food.

The chefs are divided into teams of two with the end result being a battle of the sexes. This suits everybody just fine as the boys don’t even wait for Antonia and Tiffany to say anything before they become Facebook Official with their bromance. All of the estrogen in the room seems to be inducing alpha male behavior from Richard, as he grows overly smug about his team’s chances of winning. The challenge requires the preparation of 100 dishes, each of which is expected to match the others in terms of appearance and flavor. Precision is key here as a random chosen plate will be using for judging rather than one specially prepared by the chefs for this purpose.

The boys are confident that they are the heavy favorites and that their pork dish is a complex, impeccable dish the women cannot hope to match. The women choose to do a seared beef tenderloin salad and it does seem to be going quite well. This is the only reason why I am not surprised when Garcia indicates that the women have pulled off the upset. Richard is upset by this. He describes the women’s preparations as “slice and serve”. This is twice in three episodes that he has disparaged the competition right before that food beats his. Antonia goes on to describe the behavior of the fellas after the results are announced as “sour grapes, salty losers”. She’s not wrong. Their smirks shriek of “can you believe the judges got this so wrong”. They also do not congratulate the women for their victory. Also, Tiffany now has *two* more wins than you, the reader. You’re never going to catch her at this pace.

As the winners bask in the warm glow of triumph and the men sulk over the incompetence of the judges, Padma tells them that the elimination challenge will be a high society endeavor. The chefs will be taken to a deserted island location and asked to use the appliances there to create a meal befitting the 80th anniversary of the prestigious Nassau Yacht Club. The dishes will also feature conch, a signature ingredient in the area according to Mike Isabella. It sounds truly disgusting to me, but so does most fish.

Pardon me for a moment.


I apologize for that momentary lapse in focus. I had to laugh at how proud she was of her look, though. She has clearly lost all of the baby weight and made sure to pick out the perfect sarong and high heels to accentuate all 5’9” of her. At 40-years-old and less than a year after giving birth, she is putting Megan Fox’s bikini body to shame.

Back to the challenge. The catch is one the chefs do not realize until they arrive at their destination. While several ingredients are contained in various storage crates on the beach, conch is not in any of them. Yes, they have to snorkel and spear for their supper, which makes me feel like I’ve just morphed this into a Survivor recap. This isn’t a fun segment to watch as a couple…okay, most of the chefs are not strong swimmers. Only Tiffany, who has never snorkeled before, feels like a champion fisherman worthy of her own Outdoor Channel program. Richard…well, let’s just say that I’m happy Richard survived. He even acknowledges that he had to let the best conch he saw remain in the ocean because it was a bit too deep for his relative swimming skill. Suffice to say that if there had been an undertow that day, Flip Burger Boutique would be under new management right now.

Kim Hollis, Jason Lee and I all work hard to be fair with our praise/criticism of the various challenges of the show. We all agree that there are times when Top Chef tries too hard to create difficulty for the chefs, preventing them from establishing who the best performer is on a given day. Just last week, Carla was sent home primarily because of a faulty appliance, which led to unevenly cooked meat. Yes, chefs should be able to adapt to a degree, but this is Top Chef All-Stars. We’d like to know who is worthy of the title. In the case of Carla, she had been a top performer all season, yet she went home due to something that was no fault of her own. She knew the issue and saved most of the food, but she was unlucky in that two of the judges were served the undercooked food.

I mention this because this week’s challenge offers a similar impediment. As Richard summarizes, the chefs have “no electricity, no gadgets, no toys, no liquid Nitrogen, this is like survivalist cooking here. I mean it’s really, really tough, a woodfire grill, some pots and pans and a table. And that’s it.” Once again, chefs will be tested upon their improvisation skills and their luck as much as their cooking, which is unfortunate. A couple of Top Chef producers have indicated that they read and enjoy BOP’s recaps, news that pleases and humbles us. We as a group would ask that you please take into account appliance related misfires that directly lead to eliminations as you plan future seasons. The need for unexpected twists is gradually moving the competition away from determining who the Top Chef is.

In terms of meal preparations, the lack of electricity is not proving to be a huge impediment. In fact, Richard is more concerned about the technical language of the challenge. He is making a conch dish that will not be Caribbean in style, which strikes me as a needless risk. As is always the case with Richard, he does have a brilliant plan, though. He noticed that the insides of the conch shells mirror sweet potatoes in color. In a burst of inspiration, Richard decides he will make sweet potatoes that mimic linguine, thereby creating a pasta noodle from a potato. This is the reason Richard Blais intimidates other chefs. He cooks without boundaries and his mind is always working.

As the All-Stars finalize their dishes, a group of 11 judges stylishly dressed in all white garb take their seats under a tent. Two of them are “commodores”, the current and former leaders of the Nassau Club. They are almost immediately greeted by Richard and his brilliant dish, sweet potato linguine with conch & spiny lobster. Lorena Garcia immediately notes that her lobster is undercooked. I don’t think Richard will be appearing as a guest star on her NBC series. In only a few shared moments of screen time, it’s readily apparent that the two intensely dislike one another. Everyone else is in awe of the dish in terms of its underlying ingredient and its incorporation. I am not sure if it’s a winning dish, but Richard will not be going home tonight.

Antonia is next on the docket as the wind starts to whip. I mention this for a reason; going earlier this week may prove to be an advantage if rain starts to fall on the grills and plates of the later contestants. Antonia avoids this fate through luck of the draw, delivering a plate of red snapper with conch tartare & lobster nage. The ceviche at the top of the dish causes Gail Simmons to dive for her glass of water. Even the locals are impressed by the heat of the dish. In fact, a divide occurs as the members of the Nassau Club demonstrate their respect for her accomplishment while Tom Colicchio focuses on the lack of conch flavor in the dish. He also notes that the fish is unevenly cooked with his being overcooked and the gentleman to his right having a protein that is undercooked. I think Antonia is safe unless the two remaining contestants deliver grand slam dishes.

My fear is unfounded as the weather does not become a factor to Tiffany. Her biggest obstacle is that with nothing else to do, Antonia and Richard start crowding her as they attempt to assist her in completing her dish. Note to Tiffany’s new husband: the woman needs her space. She also has timing issues caused by Antonia’s meal being eaten too slowly. This causes Tiffany’s meal to cool off a bit, which concerns her. The dish is conch & coconut chowder with sweet potatoes & conch ceviche, and the judges immediately confirm her fear. She has served the dish cold, which is great if and only if the dish in question is revenge. Or ice cream. Tom says, “It’s a nice dish, but the flavor hasn’t developed enough.” Tiffany seems to be in third place out of three contestants thus far, meaning that she needs Mike Isabella to do worse than her if she is to survive the evening.

Mike takes time out from his cooking to monologue about the incompetence of a prior chef, Elia. God, he’s insufferable. His offering is banana leaf wrapped grouper, braised pineapple & conch vinaigrette. I want them to hate it, because I’m sick of Mike. Alas, I cannot decide where they stand on it. The first two members of the club are not dazzled by it, and Tom says it needs more butter. Then, Gail asserts that she loves what he has done with the dish. Assuming that she speaks for the judges, Mike is safe for the evening, meaning that Tiffany’s improbable run has finally come to an end.

And that is exactly what happens. At judges table, the primary surprise is that despite Richard’s daring creation of potato linguine, Mike is chosen the winner. Happy to be there, nothing to lose Mike Isabella is well positioned to win the title of Top Chef All-Stars champion. I’m in Hell. The judges seem like they are dissatisfied with multiple dishes, but we know from their reactions that Tiffany’s dish had the most wrong with it. While Lorena Garcia passionately argues in support of both women (was she the woman Richard Blais dumped when he met his wife?), Tiffany served the worst dish and is the weakest remaining contestant. Her elimination is unfortunate but justified. She still did Beaumont, Texas proud.