Top Chef All-Stars: Contestant Preview
By Kim Hollis and David Mumpower
December 1, 2010
Elia Aboumrad: It's kind of amazing to think that Elia Aboumrad is just now 27-years-old. That still makes her a mere baby amongst her fellow All-Star contestants, and tells us that she was a mere 23 when her original series was filmed. Lest you think she's not a formidable opponent, consider that she has 34 different culinary certificates. Cooking became her passion after injury kept her from her original love, competitive swimming (she just missed qualifying for the Olympics). The lovely curly hair that she shaved off during season two has grown back, and we're sure that Elia will be doing everything she can to right the wrong that had her finish just out of the finals for her group. In fact, she was eliminated in part one of the finale, losing out to fellow All-Star Marcel Vigneron, whom Elia accused of cheating (though she couldn't back up her claim) and disrespecting the kitchen. In the end, the fact that her food tasted too Mediterranean when the challenge was to create food with a Hawaiian flair was her undoing. On her way to the final four, she won two elimination challenges and finished in the top group a couple of other times during elimination challenges, which isn't necessarily dominant, but she was pretty consistent overall. Elia can certainly be emotional, but she has the talent and creativity to go far in the game if she doesn't let some of the more powerful personalities shake her confidence.
Stephen Asprinio: In evaluating this season’s 18 contenders, Stephen Asprinio is the most difficult to gauge. He’s from the less talented group comprising Season 1 and he’s less a cook and more a wine steward. In his field of expertise, he is unquestionably a master. In a cooking competition, he is nerfed quite a bit by conventions that are occasionally counter to his stylistic choices. In terms of in-season performance, Stephen acquitted himself quite well during Top Chef’s initial run. He won three Quickfires and was on the high side five times as opposed to being on low side only three times. His frequent return appearances on Bravo suggest that the producers of Top Chef consider him a top flight sommelier. His limitations, however, mean that he is probably in over his head in a pure cooking competition and he should be happy to make an extended stay rather than being eliminated early. We just cannot envision a scenario where he is a serious threat to win.
Richard Blais: He is the most established chef among the All Star contestants this season. The molecular gastronomist is an ardent supporter of the theory that there are no rules in cooking and he displays this on a daily basis at his burger joint, Flip. BOP’s Dan Krovich used to regularly torment us with his random proclamations whenever he would grab a bite to eat there and we love/hate him for it. Blais had a strong showing against culinary icon Mario Batali on Iron Chef America before he made an extended run on Top Chef season 3. Along the way to the finals, he won three Quickfire challenges and four elimination challenges, one of the strongest resumes of any returning competitor. In his own estimation, Blais choked in the final, which allowed Stephanie Izard, the most consistent performer that season, to claim her rightful title as Top Chef. There is no shame in losing to a chef of Izard’s skill and Blais has demonstrated himself to be the Boston Rob of Top Chef in terms of passion for his reality competition of choice. We fully expect a tour de force demonstration of culinary expertise from Blais this season. He is our odds on favorite to take the title.
Jennifer Carroll: Not only do we believe that Jen Carroll is a better chef than Tiffani Faison, but we also consider her to be one of the finest overall competitors in the history of the show. All that prevented her from greatness was performance anxiety. Trained by living legend Eric Ripert, Jen has proven herself to be a master of all cooking techniques. She won an impressive four Quickfires and one elimination challenge. She also never finished on the bottom half of the competition until the midway point of the season. At that point, Jen let the pressure get to her, which is why she suddenly finished on the bottom in three straight elimination challenges. There were two different times when she rightfully could have been sent home because her dish didn’t measure up to her usual standards. When the contestants returned from their break between the final five and the finale, Jen was clearly refreshed and even though she was eliminated, she had clearly gotten her mojo back. No one has learned more about themselves in terms of how they handle stress than Jen. This is why we see her as a top tier contender this season. With no Voltaggios around to make her feel bad about herself, Ms. Carroll is poised to make a deep run. Alternately, if she focuses too much on the competition and not enough on her own dishes, Jen’s stay could be short lived. We’ve seen her make that mistake before.