Top Chef All-Stars Recap

By David Mumpower

April 12, 2011

You'll never guess who won by these reactions.

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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.

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