Top Chef All-Stars Recap
By David Mumpower
March 28, 2011

We feel the same way.

1) Richard Blais – Another contestant is the hottest performer in the competition, but Blais has been the favorite since day one. Nothing that has happened over the course of the season has changed my opinion that he is the odds on favorite to win Top Chef All-Stars.

2) Mike Isabella – At the start of the season when Kim Hollis, Jason Lee and I posted our preseason power rankings, Kim and I had Mike in sixth position. That placed him in the upper third of the contestants. Jason had him slotted in last place, not because of his cooking ability but because those of you who read Jason’s season six recaps will recall that Mike Isabella is arguably Jason’s least favorite contestant to date. Mike has clearly outperformed all of our expectations while also making Top Chef All-Stars basically a worst case scenario result for Jason. If Mike’s hot streak doesn’t end unexpectedly tonight, Mike is 50/50 to win the title of Top Chef All-Stars champion. I’ll have to talk Jason down from the ledge if that happens.

3) Antonia Lofaso – For the past two recaps, Antonia had been in second place, but the reality is that she narrowly avoided elimination last week while Mike has (seemingly out of nowhere) won two elimination challenges in a row. I hope I’m wrong, but the writing appears to be on the wall that Antonia is going to wind up on the outside looking in for yet another season finale.

With only three remaining contestants, there isn’t a lot of time spent reflecting upon the previous episode’s fallen competitor, Tiffany. Instead, we see the All Stars trio assessing how they stack up against one another. Mike has gone from happy (and lucky) to be there to a legitimate contender to the title. Richard had once viewed Antonia as his primary threat in winning the title, but he is beginning to re-evaluate.

Almost as if Blais needs to psych himself up, the season four runner-up debates their Top Chef accomplishments. He states that Mike has won a grand total of two challenges in two seasons while Blais has won eight. Assuming he is only talking about elimination challenges, Antonio’s victory tally is three, in case you were wondering. The fact that I have to slap this on as an afterthought reflects the conventional wisdom all three chefs share. At one point, there were three women remaining against only two men yet with the eliminations of Carla and Tiffany, Antonia is all that remains of Team Estrogen. The men have switched from an endangered species into the dominant species, the previous episode’s Quickfire result notwithstanding.

The following morning sees the arrival of the Puckmobile and its owner, Wolfgang Puck. Wolfie (I get to call him that but you don’t) was absolutely brilliant during his appearance on the season premiere of season six. He even set the record for Top Chef donut toss, a number that still stands to this day. His presence is always welcome as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, he doesn’t talk much at the start; Padma and Puck (I’m totally pitching this buddy cop series to NBC next season…they’re desperate and will clearly put anything on the schedule) inform the contestants that the Quickfire challenge will be a combination of prior competitions.

At the start, eight previous Quickfire rules are placed before the chefs. The All Stars are asked to assign one another a particular one. Mike gets dibs since he won the previous elimination challenge, and he saddles Antonia with canned foods, widely considered one of the worst constraints. Fresh ingredients are an imperative for topflight cuisine, which means Antonia is already screwed and probably a non-factor. Antonia gets to pick next, and she assigns hot dogs to Richard, presumably because such an entrée limits his creativity. Richard assigns the one pot restraint to Mike, a move that aggravates Antonia. She points out that in doing so, Mike is given access to everything he needs. Effectively, Antonia is taken out of the competition while Mike and Richard should be all right.

Wait a moment. I spoke too soon. There is another twist in a season overly full of twists. A further constraint is given to each competitor after they have begun their preparations. “Any time Padma walks into the kitchen before time is up, you know that something is wrong,” says Antonia. She is not wrong. Padma informs the chefs that they may choose between three classic twists, yet again arbitrarily confining the competitors. The choices are cooking with one hand, the second is the disqualification of utensils for the duration of the challenge, and the final one is the double apron twist, the Top Chef equivalent of a three-legged race. Mike winds up without utensils, Richard is stuck cooking (not typing) with one hand and Antonia picks up an awesome teammate in Carla Hall. Suddenly, Antonia’s chances are looking up.

Alas, Carla doesn’t comprehend the restraints of the challenge very well, causing Antonia to have to waste time explaining them. Meanwhile, Mike looks just as silly as Fabio did in trying to smash open his ingredients. All Blais has to do is finish his dish with one hand and he should win in a walk. Unfortunately for him, Wolfgang Puck finds his hot dog “too ketchup-y” (as if that’s even possible). Then again, he isn’t particularly pleased with the other two dishes as well. This is what happens when you turn the creation of a dish into a series of random punishments. In the end, Mike wins largely because his dish looks the best. Let us never speak of this Quickfire again.

The final elimination challenge is a great one. The chefs walk out to a garden area where they come face to face with an Iron Chef, the king of all Iron Chefs, and a winning challenger from Iron Chef. Wolfgang Puck, Masaharu Morimoto and (Sweet Onion Battle winner) Michelle Bernstein are the guest judges tonight. The remaining contestants will be required to cook a last meal for one of them that reminds the established culinary superstar of a meal from their youth. This is the Anton Ego in Ratatouille stratagem, one I personally adore. This is the type of challenge we should see at the end of a season of Top Chef in that the competitors are given the opportunity to cook to the best of their ability sans artificial, arbitrary impediments. Right on cue, Padma informs the contestants that she holds an envelope with a surprise twist that will not be revealed until later. DAMMIT!

Morimoto, my favorite chef ever (I was watching Iron Chef from the moment it was available in the United States), is the hardest draw of the three by far. He wants a miso soup and a sashimi bento box like he had as a child, and we continue the theme of bad luck for Antonia as she is assigned to him. Mike takes the easy way out by choosing to cook for Michelle Bernstein. Her meal of choice is chicken and biscuits and gravy. Mike could run to KFC and finish this challenge in mere minutes. Richard is asked to create a traditional Austrian meal for one of its most famous citizens. Puck’s last meal includes goulash, spaetzle, and apple strudel. All of this is in Blais’ wheelhouse.

At this moment, I have trouble envisioning a scenario where Antonia makes the finale. It’s not helping any that she looks absolutely devastated in a couple of the monologue inclusions. Unless that’s an editing swerve, this ends badly for her.

You would think Antonia’s bad luck may balance out at some point, but the next thing we see is her sampling hamachi, one of the key components in her dish. For whatever reason, the sushi meat is rancid. She has to choose a different fish, one that is not as elegant an ingredient as a replacement. If we don’t include getting to hang out with her buddy Carla for a half hour, everything in this episode has been a complete disaster for Antonia. The worst part is that Richard and Mike are going about their business as if it’s a regular day at the office save for Richard demonstrating his ordinary amount of self-esteem issues. I’m starting to believe that the editing is a swerve, because the deck seems completely stacked against Antonia.

Bravo gets the shameless promotional shill out of the way before dinner begins. Melanie Dunea, photographer and author, joins the other judges and we are informed that she has released a book called My Last Supper. Update your Amazon carts accordingly. All kidding aside, Dunea does have a good eye for visual stimulation and proves remarkably insightful with her commentary on the evening. I’m still not buying her book, though.

Antonia is first to deliver her dish. Her take on Morimoto’s requested last meal is tuna sashimi with pickled daikon, mushrooms & eggplant, miso soup & rice. It looks quite good and I hold out a momentary hope that she has overcome all obstacles to deliver a delicious dish. Alas, Morimoto’s wording crushes that dream. As politely as possible, he critiques the dish and it’s clear that he is working too hard to avoid saying anything destructive. He doesn’t like the dish. For her part, Gail Simmons makes a choking sound as she tastes the saltier portion of the dish. Barring something unforeseen, Antonia is gone.

Mike does his best Colonel Sanders impression by delivering fried chicken with pea puree and egg yolk empanada with mustard gravy. He has attempted to sous vide the dish in order to demonstrate his skill as a chef as well as to prove that he did not take the easy way out. This proves to be a miscalculation as the skin does not hold up well because of the technique used. Mike has chosen the easiest dish possible and he has messed it up. There may be hope for Antonia yet.

Any fear Richard Blais may have had about choking at the end of Top Chef is alleviated tonight. His dish looks magnificent. It is beef goulash, spaetzle with sour cream & apple strudel with tarragon cream. Other than a few nitpicks about the temperature of the dish, everyone quickly concurs on the quality of his meal. In fact, Wolfgang Puck gives him the ultimate compliment by saying that his mother would have approved of the meal. Stating the obvious, Richard Blais wins the final elimination challenge.

The only remaining question involves who will join him in the finale, which is odd since there is still a full 20 minutes to go in the challenge. At this point, Padma reminds Mike and Antonia about the envelope she showed them earlier in the episode. Antonia opens the envelope and reads the card inside: “There will be one more challenge to determine who claims the last spot in the finale.” Tom instructs the chefs to spend the next 45 minutes making “one bite” for each of the seven guests. The contestant who makes the best bite will join Richard to compete for the title of Top Chef All Stars champion.

Mike chooses beef tenderloin and lobster tails, food he describes as “high end product”. His plan is to deliver the best taste possible (obviously), but Mike once again chooses not to go for it in this episode. He’s zero for three in this regard. Antonia decides to do a spicy coconut curry broth to join some grouper. As she notes, this is new life for her since the elimination challenge seemed to be a demonstration of Murphy’s Law.

Antonia’s bite (sounds like a Twilight ripoff, doesn’t it?) is seared grouper in coconut lobster broth with a yam, apple & dill pollen relish. Mike’s cowardly cuisine is tempura lobster over beef tartare with caramelized olives & chimichurri sauce. Both dishes are well received. Morimoto, who had nothing kind to say earlier, is finally able to champion Antonia. He loves her dish so much that he wants a bigger piece. Mike’s dish requires correct assembly to ingest. As Gail states, she hates the taste of one of the components but when added as a piece to the puzzle, the overall bite is quite good.

As Morimoto states, the decision comes down to “Bang and very subtle.” Antonia has delivered explosive flavors that pop in the judges’ mouths. Mike has given them a map and some directions and hoped that the judges can find their way to great flavor. The decision is so close that a head count is taken. Gail, Michelle and Tom choose Mike while Morimoto, Padma and Melanie choose Antonia.

The tiebreaker is Wolfgang Puck. He vacillates. “If tomorrow I would wake up, which flavor I remember, it would be Antonia’s whereas, Michael’s tartare was technically prepared perfectly. It is a very difficult decision to make.” From his wording, I am convinced that Antonia will be going to the finale since the whole point is to have the most memorable bite. Alas, to the very end of the episode, Antonia is unlucky. Despite his word selection, Puck chooses Michael, who will join Richard in the finale of Top Chef All-Stars. A distraught Antonia struggles to complete her monologue description of her elimination. My heart goes out to her. The final female contestant on Top Chef All-Stars has been eliminated.