Top Chef All-Stars Recap
By David Mumpower
April 12, 2011

You'll never guess who won by these reactions.

1) Richard Blais – We have ridden this pony until the final stretch. We are certainly not going to bail on him now. As an aside, I finally had the opportunity to eat at Flip Boutique the other day, but I could not convince the rest of my party that they could find something they would like to eat there. Tragic.

2) Anyone Not Named Richard Blais – In this instance, the anyone else is Mike Isabella or, as I like to call him, Dead Meat.

Here we are at the final outing of Top Chef All Stars and what I keep wondering is how we reached this point. I took this opportunity to flip through the archives to see just how good a read we had on the various competitors throughout the season. Suffice to say that we were right about Richard Blais all along and we were the opposite of right about Mike Isabella. I had noted down the stretch this season that Top Chef is a difficult competition to judge from the episodes since we do not sample the food. I also pointed out that as long as the person remains alive in the competition, they have the chance to win Top Chef, no matter how strongly or weakly they had performed until the finale. Enter Mike.

At the start of the season, Kim Hollis and I pronounced Mike the sixth best chef in the competition, placing him in the upper third. Jason Lee had Mike at the bottom of his power rankings, but that was due to his personal dislike of Mike as a human being rather than an evaluation of his cooking talent. Over the course of the first half of the season, Mike plummeted in our rankings even as he remained alive in the competition. Our rationale for this was simple. Mike never won an elimination challenge in the first dozen episodes. He had a whopping one Quickfire win in the first ten episodes. Ergo, when a lot of competitors remained alive on Top Chef All Stars, Mike failed to stand out. To his credit, he also rarely came close to being eliminated.

Restaurant Wars was arguably Mike’s worst performance of the season. As Angelo aptly stated, if Mike had acted so disruptively as an employee at Angelo’s restaurant, he would have been summarily dismissed for his attitude. Yes, Marcel shares the blame in this regard, but Mike failed the test of professionalism by not demonstrating he could rise above those difficult circumstances. Hating your boss just means you have a job most of the time. Mike needed to accept that but his disrespect for Marcel led to the latter man’s elimination. It easily could have led to Mike’s as well had Judges Table not turned into a piñata competition with Marcel’s body the presumed location of the hidden candy. My description at the time still rings true: “Marcel deserved to go home, but Isabella's behavior was childish and counterproductive.”

The following episode, An Offer They Can’t Refuse, was the closest Mike came to elimination. The Italian descendent who specializes in Italian cuisine was asked to do a pasta dish. The resulting food was a pasta Tom Colicchio described as “not even al dente”. Anthony Bourdain went so far as to say that if Mike had served boxed pasta rather than attempted to make his own, he would have avoided the bottom grouping. At the time, I was convinced Mike was in trouble. As I stated in that week’s power rankings, “An Italian chef who fails at the Italian restaurant meal is in trouble.”

In the Italian cuisine episode, Kim and I believed that Mike deserved elimination more than Tre since his mistake was one of improper training while Mike’s was one of skill, but that didn’t happen. As such, Mike earned his way deeper into the game and when the chefs took a sabbatical after episode 12, several of them psyched themselves out. Conversely, Mike convinced himself that he was worthy of the title of Top Chef All Stars champion. He has cooked to prove this ever since, even beating his buddy Michael Voltaggio in a head to head challenge. Mike has gone from afterthought to 50/50 claim the throne.

Richard’s season has not been a cakewalk, either. As we notated several times throughout the competition, he has been held to a higher standard than his competitors. When special guest judge Jimmy Fallon sampled Richard’s food, he sounded disappointed and dejected by the offering. In that episode, Richard had reached too far in the Quickfire challenge, so he pulled back in the Elimination Challenge, returning a measured dish. Unfortunately, his reputation preceded him, which led Fallon to note: “I think I was expecting like a smoke machine and laser beams. To come out as a Richard fan, I have all his baseball cards. I have everything…posters. This wasn’t a homerun. This was bunted, and I really wanted him to swing for the fences.” This aptly summarizes the raised expectations judges have for Richard Blais. It came to a head in the Island Fever episode as Lorena Garcia had such unrealistic standards for Richard’s food that she came away disappointed by all of it. This is the problem in any competition that lacks standardized judging.

To his credit, Mr. Blais was a strong performer throughout the competition anyway. He has won three Elimination Challenges as well as a Quickfire. Even more impressively, he was only in the bottom grouping once the entire season. In episode six, We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat, Richard’s dish was described as having too many components. I should also note that there were three people on Richard’s team, so the blame wasn’t even exclusively his in the only Elimination Challenge where he fell in the bottom group. Of course, Richard also convinced himself he was going home in the Give Me Your Huddled Masses episode, and Padma magnified that when she tricked Richard with a “please pack your knives” start before ending with “you’re going to the Bahamas”.

In the entire season, Richard didn’t have much reason to sweat although his personality caused him to do so needlessly each and every challenge. While Dale was the stronger performer in terms of wins, he came closer to elimination multiple times before finally being eliminated. Richard was always ahead of the pack in terms of consistent excellence, which is why we have had him as the favorite to win since the preseason rankings.

To a larger point, we had speculated in our preseason evaluation that all three of us were hoping to see an All-Stars season that featured frequent match-ups between the best competitors from seasons four and six. As it turned out, that wasn’t much of a competition. Jennifer Carroll was eliminated at least ten episodes sooner than would have been reasonably expected. Meanwhile, Dale and Antonia proved themselves to be chefs on the same talent level as Richard Blais and actually outperformed Mike Isabella by quite a bit during the season.

As of this moment, contenders from season four have won eight out of the 14 elimination challenges as well as four out of ten individual Quickfire challenges plus a fifth one when the seasons competed against one another in the first episode. Season six’s wins all come from Mike. He has two Quickfire victories and two Elimination Challenge wins. No matter what happens in the finale, season four has staked a claim to having the deepest cast ever due to those 13 All-Stars victories as opposed to the four from season six. Yes, I realize that none of the top three contestants from season six competed in All-Stars, but here is my counter to this. One of the two players that did return didn’t make it out of the second episode while the one who did wasn’t a factor until we were down to a handful of players. Conversely, three of the final six players came from season four while even Spike, whose elimination was questionable, outlasted Jen by two episodes. Overall, season four has demonstrated superiority over season six during Top Chef All Stars. The only remaining question is whether that theme continues tonight or whether Mike pulls off the huge upset.

The episode begins with Antonia crying over her narrow loss in the Best Bite tiebreaker. Mike takes this as a sign that his time is now. What he ought to take from it is that he and Richard just cooked in a competition and Richard won. I understand the need to psych himself up, but Mike is going to have to show more than he did in the prior episode to have a chance. Of course, Richard indicates that he had already beaten Antonia once and felt confident he could beat her again. She was the one he wanted to win the Best Bite, not Mike. This surprises me in that just a couple of episodes ago, immediately after a grease fire, Richard was the most worried about Antonia of any remaining competitor. Momentum truly is everything in these challenges.

“I’m gonna beat Richard. I’m a better cook than he is. Period.” – Mike Isabella, making a statement no one else believes.

Tom and Padma meet with the two remaining All Stars. Tom calmly informs them that there will be no twists this week, a welcome change from the prior episode’s Quickfire boondoggle. Instead, both challengers will be given everything they need to create the restaurant of their dreams. All Richard and Mike need to do is bring it to life. Richard says he gets goosebumps, an understandable sensation. The two gentlemen then spend the morning debating who is the underdog. Mike, who was just saying he was the better cook, now turns around and indicates that Richard has won a lot more than him; ergo, he is a huge favorite. Let’s hope that Mike’s dishes offer more consistency than his thoughts.

When the players arrive in the kitchen, friendly faces are there to greet them. All of the eliminated competitors from this season of Top Chef (except for Dale Levitski) have been flown to the Bahamas. They will be asked to prepare a dish. Richard and Mike will be the judges in a blind taste test. Each of them will choose three eliminated contestants to staff the kitchen of their dream restaurants. This adds a layer of intrigue in that Mike cannot simply choose his buddy, Jennifer Carroll, nor can Richard pick his new BFF, Fabio. Instead, luck of the draw factors in. This goes both ways as well in that all of the returning cast members have big plans for the afternoon in the Bahamas. Many of them, Spike being the loudest, make it clear that they do not want to be selected, because that will cut down on their play time. They have jet ski reservations, apparently. They didn’t come back to work; this is a vacation to most of them. It will be interesting to see whether the six players who are selected let this disappointment impact their performances.

When Mike picks, he has three goals. The first one is to get his aforementioned comrade-in-arms, Jennifer, on his team. Perhaps the even more important one is to avoid Marcel’s presence. We already know that Marcel will not keep his mouth shut when he is supposedly aiding another chef. Given that the two despised one another during Restaurant Wars, such a pairing would be disastrous. To a lesser extent, Mike also wants to avoid Jamie, who is notorious for her slow prep work in the kitchen. Richard wants his buddies, Dale Talde and Angelo, in particular although he also notes his desire to have Jennifer Carroll on his team, believing that she would have his back. I’m sure that she likes Richard a lot, but I think that her connection to Mike is unmistakable. I doubt she would sabotage Richard or anything yet I still believe that would work out about the same way as a Marcel/Mike pairing.

Richard gets first pick due to his victory in the most recent challenge. In a hilarious turn of events, the first person selected is the same one who mentioned his Jet Ski reservations, Spike. His face speaks volumes about his disappointment over this turn of events. As you know by now, this also proves to be one of the key moments in determining who wins Top Chef All-Stars. Richard’s other two aides are Angelo and Antonia, making this a formidable team. Mike’s first choice is Tiffani and his third one is Carla, both of whom are exceptional chefs. His middle selection is the one where fate is unkind. Despite his misgivings about her performance on Top Chef All-Stars, Mike accidentally selects Jamie as his other helper. This could prove problematic.

The chefs are given an hour to finalize their menus. Mike declares that his restaurant will be called Iz, short for Izzy, which has been his nickname for most of his life. He wants to focus on mozzarella and pancetta, two dishes he fondly recalls from his youth. Mike is personalizing his dream restaurant experience, demonstrating a lot of comfort in his own skin. Mike, like Angelo and Dale, has grown quite a bit during the All-Stars season. Mike does demonstrate a bit of Marcel-ish behavior when the women (Mike’s Angels?) offer some thoughts on his dishes. Eventually, he lets them know that he would prefer them to do what he asks rather than offer a lot of creative input. We’ll see if the control freak behavior hurts him.

Richard is all business. He determines his restaurant’s identity will be Tongue & Cheek. I would not eat there. I’ve never been a fan of offal. I also wonder if Richard realizes the phrase is Tongue in Cheek. Spike’s grin tells me that he is wondering the same thing. Richard states that every dish will have a duality to it, and he tells Spike that after doing the dessert, he will be placed in charge of the front of the house. Antonio gets the first course. He indicates that he will not be micromanaging his supremely talented group. Angelo winds up handling the mise en place while Antonia does the vegetables and Spike…pours Captain Crunch into a bowl. No, really.

The primary concern Richard has is his dessert, a foie gras ice cream. They are struggling with the texture. It’s an oozing gloop, which isn’t the most appetizing food appearance. It also doesn’t help that the dish is a FOIE GRAS ICE CREAM!!! This is the dessert served in Hell.

Despite Jamie’s presence in the kitchen, this is a drama free episode in terms of preparation. All of the returning All-Stars bust their asses in a harmonious work environment. The end result is that the episode focuses almost entirely upon the tasting process. What becomes readily apparent is that each finalist has cooked a meal worthy of the title of Top Chef. Tom Colicchio even comments that the food is quite possibly the best in eight seasons worth of finals. He goes so far as to say that Mike’s fish dish is the tastiest he’s had since the inception of the show. Later on, he notates that he said that before he tasted Richard’s fish. Yes, both contestants deliver a fish flavor superior to anything from the previous 111 episodes in the show’s history. Take a moment to appreciate the majesty of that feat.

Richard’s menu is as follows. He begins with an amuse-bouche of raw oyster with crème fraiche, pearls & salsa verde. The first course is raw hamachi with fried veal sweetbreads, garlic mayonnaise & pickled celery. The second course is pork belly, black cod cutlet, bone marrow, beets, Brussels sprouts & kumquat. His final entrée is a beef short rib with mushrooms, red cabbage, marmalade & celery root horseradish puree. Then, he finishes with cornbreak and the afore-mentioned foie gras ice cream (from Hell!) & whipped mango.

Here are a few notes about the judging for Richard’s dishes. The judges universally adore the amuse-bouche, a dish that (at least technically) won’t count toward the judging since it’s not one of the four required courses. Spike, who is in charge of culinary reconnaissance reports that all of the judges as well as the other All-Stars among the 70 diners lick their plates after the hamachi dish. Dale describes the third dish as Richard at his best. Things are looking good for the favorite. One of the judges makes the point that in terms of creativity, the short rib isn’t impressive yet the flavors dazzled him.

That leaves only the dessert and here is where the final results hangs in the balance. The judges have been split into two groups with one side tasting Richard’s first and Mike’s second with the other group reversing the order. The group that starts with Richard is anchored by Hubert Keller and all of them are dissatisfied with the dish in terms of texture. Spike returns to the kitchen with the intel that “it’s a controversial dish”. Without missing a beat, Spike makes eye contact with Richard to make sure the finalist understands his concern. Then, he strongly suggests that Richard add milk to the next batch to aid the texture/flavor. When the second group reaches the dessert dish, Oprah’s personal chef (and former Top Chef Masters contestant) Art Smith describes the ice cream as “very subtle”, deeming the dish a success. Spike, who didn’t even want to be there, may have offered the advice that wins Richard Top Chef.

Mike begins with a first course of spiced beets with mozzarella, truffle & chocolate vinaigrette. The second dish is halibut with kumquat marmalade, cauliflower puree & pancetta crumbs. Mike follows this with a third course of braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage & turnips. His dessert is a rosemary caramel custard & pine nuts with citrus, celery & apple.

Here are a few notes about the judging for Mike’s dishes. New Top Chef Masters host/pretty boy Curtis Stone is impressed by the composed nature of the first course. Tom simply states, “I think Mike is off to a good start.” The second course is the halibut Tom describes as the best piece of fish he’s had since the show began. The third dish includes pepperoni sauce and, as my wife describes it, this is the flavor that would cause Gail Simmons to leave her husband for Mike Isabella. The taste of it does something to her, the very definition of a hypnotic flavor. The only moderate misstep is that the dessert is “slightly overcooked but also cooked too fast”. Everyone agrees this is his weakest dish “by far”. Given the quality of the first three courses, that doesn’t even guarantee it’s a bad dish, simply one that lacks by comparison. Both Richard and Mike have performed with aplomb in this, the biggest stage in the history of Top Chef.

“I would venture to say the best food we’ve had in any finale.” – Tom Colicchio

The judges lavish praise upon the contestants with Gail going the extra mile to eye-bang Mike over the pepperoni sauce. If Gail’s new husband wants to make their marriage work, he is going to have to learn that recipe. What becomes clear as the judges talk with the finalists and confer with each other is that Richard won the first course (remember that the amuse-bouche doesn’t count in the judging). The fish dish is largely a draw with some favoring Mike, but Tom gives the slight nod to Richard. The third course with braised entrees is clearly a win for Mike. That makes the score 1-1 for sure with the second course being up for debate. Similarly, the dessert course came down to whether the judge was in the first or second group. Those who had the less milky ice cream favored Mike while those who sampled the Spike-improved version liked it better.

While discussing the judges’ comments, Mike and Richard both feel as if Mike may be in position to pull off the huge upset. Alas, they have forgotten that the judges always make comments that keep the viewers as well as the chefs guessing regarding the results. In this instance, Richard’s overall meal was superior to Mike’s, and the majority of the judges realized that after some discussion. Ergo, Richard Blais, the favorite from the start of the competition, becomes the champion of Top Chef All Stars, a season that will stand as the finest composition of Top Chef contestants until the inevitable season when returning champions face off. We are probably two to four seasons away from that one. Until then, Richard Blais is the reigning king of Top Chef.