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I am very excited for this All-Stars season because a lot of my favorites are back and I already know everyone’s names. Of course with the good, you get some bad *cough* Marcel *cough*; but with the return to New York, the promise of plenty of Bourdain (maybe too much, but we’ll see), and the caliber of contestants, it should be a fun season.

Ooohh, flashbacks in grainy footage!

One by one the chefs arrive to their sixteenth floor apartment in New York City. The first thing I notice is they all look a bit more polished, more media or camera savvy. The Season 1 folks arrive first—Tiffani (note the “i”, please) and Stephen. She’s known for cooking really well and losing by a hair and he’s known for wine and snappy dressing. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not watch most of Season 1 and only know them from their subsequent appearances on Top Chef’s Season 1 vs. Season 2 cook-off and that ill-conceived reunion hosted by Fabio.

Season Two’s Elia and Marcel return; Elia’s hair has fully intact and is not white. Marcel still has his weird cone hair. Season Three brings Tre (the worst elimination ever!), Casey and her best bud Dale L. They all are executive chefs now and Tre is working on opening his own restaurant. Season Four brings Richard, who hopefully won’t choke again; Spike, who still wears hats goofily; Antonia, who still harbors resentment toward Spike; and Dale T., who may have mellowed a bit over the years.

Season Five’s chefs are Jamie, who is inconceivable even more cocky than before; Fabio, who is the Italian underdog with his quip ability still in high form, and Carla, who I hope will hootie-hoo at least once. Fabio is not keen on two things: seeing Marcel nor having his man bits squished in a bunk bed--sounds reasonable to me. Season Six’s participants are Jennifer, who wants to maintain her aggressiveness to continue to shine through and Mike, who is ready to cook. Finally, Season Seven’s chefs are Angelo, seeking redemption and armed with Advil, and Tiffany (note the “y”, please) who is a bit star-struck at the caliber of chefs in the room. The eighteen suit up in their black Top Chef jackets and head into the kitchen of terror.

Working with who you know, whether you like them or not.

Padma and Tom are in the kitchen and Padma outlines the prizes; overall, they’re going to give out $500,000, with $200,000 of that going to the winner. Thus, there will be cash prizes along the way, like they’ve been doing since Season Six. The Quick Fire Challenge is pretty straightforward; the chefs will group off according to their season and prepare a dish in 25 minutes that represents the city where they competed. The winning team will have immunity from elimination and the argument over which season’s chefs were the best will (hopefully) end.

The Chicago-based Season Four team decides on a freshly-made sausage with mustard. Angelo and Tiffany decide to represent the greater DC area with a take on a crab cake. Season Five was in New York, so they go for the obvious apple; Jamie decides that the three of them will each make something with apple, and of course she wants to do a soup. She thinks she’s better than the other two; she wants to shine on her own and thereby negates the team-based nature of the challenge.

Season Three was in Miami, so they’re going with fresh flavors such as mango, pork and plantains; Dale L. knows their season was the best, as that’s what everyone tells him. Elia and Marcel decide to represent Season Two’s Los Angeles with a fish taco in an apple wrapper, which sounds suspiciously nasty to me. Finally, San Francisco will be represented by Stephen and Tiffani with a fresh seafood dish. Season Six was in Vegas, which as Mike points out, doesn’t really have a regional cuisine, thus they decide to go old-school gangster and make something Italian for the mafia who used to run the casinos.

The twenty-five minutes must have been intense not only for the chefs but for the camera men as well. With this many cooks in the kitchen, it was truly chaos and I think a couple of shots were from the camera guy just running so as not to be hit with a hot pan. In a scene that could equally happen on Bones, Richard pumps out liquid nitrogen to freeze up some mustard ice cream. With five minutes remaining, Angelo gets bumped (accidentally, I suppose) by Stephen and drops his cooked fish. He tries to recover by throwing some more fish in the pan. Meanwhile, Tre has to put the pork in the oven because it’s not cooked yet.

After time is called, Tom and Padma return to taste:
Season One’s cioppino gazpacho with sourdough
Season Two’s shrimp tacos with guacamole in an apple wrapper
Season Three’s pork tenderloin, avocado lime puree, tostones, habanero sauce
Season Four’s deconstructed hotdog of pork and black pepper sausage and mustard ice cream
Season Five’s curried apple soup, pasta with caramelized apple, and rib eye with apple
Season Six’s bucatini pasta with bacon lobster carbonara
Season Seven’s crab cake essence with rockfish, lemongrass, jalapeno, and old bay

Tom renders the verdict; he did not like Two’s bland shrimp and too-thin wrapper, One’s had too much garlic, Five’s dishes were disconnected, and Seven had too much salt. Tom did like the flavors of Three’s take on Miami, Four’s deconstructed hotdog for being inventive, and Six’s great pasta. The dish that wins the day is Chicago’s frozen mustard hotdog and Richard, Antonia, Dale T., and Spike all have immunity.

The ultimate do-over.

This Elimination Challenge is quite brilliant, in my estimation. Trays are brought to each of the chefs, and when uncovered reveal the ingredients of the dish that got them eliminated in their seasons. They have to re-make the dish, with some improvements, but they can’t get too far away from the original dish. They have three hours to prepare and then two hours the next day at the Russian Tea Room, where they will serve Tom, Padma, Tony Bourdain, and Gail Simmons.

Spike relives his frozen scallop throw-down and determines that he’ll just try to mask the flavor of the frozen scallops as much as possible. Dale T. was also vexed by terrible butterscotch scallops, that Bourdain hated back on Season 4 and will get to eat them again. You know, between Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen, scallops sure do cause a lot of distress. They’re just tasty bits of evil, I suppose.

Stephen has another problem—he was eliminated for not cooking and spending all his time in front of house serving wine. He’s a bit out of practice in the kitchen it’s obvious to all. Elia still is mystified at her elimination because of the tea-leaf steamed fish, so she’s not going to change it up too much. Jamie doesn’t want to screw up a second time the Eric Ripert dish she was eliminated for, and Angelo is really focused on making his dish properly this time. Richard is impressed with Angelo’s focus; if the two of them don’t make it to the top four, I’ll be shocked.

Everyone is pretty much focused on their prep and cooking; they borrow ingredients from one another and very little drama ensues. Dale T. takes advantage of his immunity and bakes muffins for everyone and plays with the liquid nitrogen tank a bit. Mike’s a bit worried since he has only leeks and other vegetable matter to work with. Jennifer is very confident she’ll win and not over-season her food. Carla holds no ill-will toward Casey and her finale suggestion of sous vide; she’s going to cook her food her way this time.

Sometimes CCTV isn’t all that great.

The next day, the chefs arrive at the Russian Tea Room; Tom splits them into two groups of nine because the kitchen is small. While the first group cooks, the others will dine with the judges. Tom ups the ante by announcing the winner will get $10,000. The first two hours flies by with the only bit of drama being that Richard continues to plate after time is up; Tre and Tiffany both notice and undoubtedly alert a producer.

The dishes are served to the dining chefs and judges; the chefs in the kitchen then notice there’s a big television broadcasting the diners’ comments on the dishes. Elia can’t bear to hear the comments and hides from the television. Richard’s and Angelo’s dishes get high praise; Bourdain thinks Dale T. redeemed himself with the butterscotch scallops. Tiffany’s fish wasn’t cooked properly, and Tre’s dish of salmon was over-powered by the macadamia toast. Tiffani’s dish had unexpected flavors and Stephen’s appetizers were kind of muddled. Fabio’s fish stew (served on paper) caused Bourdain disgust and Elia’s dish was water-down and had fish scales.

The second group heads to the kitchen to cook their losing dishes. The cooking goes quickly; not everyone is happy that they have to make the dishes again, but so it goes. The first group sits uncomfortably with the judges, some with still raw feelings about what they heard a few hours back. The food comes out and the group in the kitchen then notice the television and realize what the first group saw. Antonia’s sausage dish gets high praise from most people, but Tiffany wasn’t keen on it. Spike’s scallops were hardly tasted—the other ingredients successfully masked the frozen taste. Jamie made the Ripert fish dish her own and everything tasted good. Mike’s leeks were a success; Richard thought it was the prettiest looking dish there. Dale L.’s dish was good except for the dumplings; several diners liked Carla’s steak but Angelo got the nerve ending bite. Casey proved she could cook pork-belly and Marcel proved he really likes vanilla in his dish. Jennifer’s duck dish wasn’t nearly as strong as she thought it was; apparently it was lacking in actual duck.

Once more into the stew room.

The chefs cool their heels in the stew room, all dreading being the first one eliminated. There’s some discussion of Richard going over the time, the uncomfortable nature of hearing the judges’ comments as they eat, and Fabio’s reasoning for using paper on the plate. He claims it was to make the dish look neat and clean, but who eats stew on paper? Padma calls Spike, Jamie, Richard, and Angelo to the Judges’ Table.

Tom addresses Richard first; he did make a great dish, but he plated over time and cannot be eligible for the win. I was worried that he’d be eliminated entirely, but it didn’t look like an intentional move. Gail loved Jamie’s fish and celery dish; Tom asks if she’ll ever serve it, and Jamie declines. Angelo killed his watermelon tea, and Spike overcame an insurmountable problem of frozen scallops. Tom announces Angelo as the winner for improving on, but being true to, his original dish.

Angelo sends Fabio, Stephen and Elia to face the judges next. Stephen defends his dish for not being in the kitchen in the first go-round; Tom finds all his dish proportions off. Elia was happy with her flavoring, but Gail said she got raw fish. Elia doesn’t quite believe them, but then admits she didn’t taste any one of the plates. Bourdain thinks she never got over the difficulty of the challenge. Fabio says the only problem they had with his dish previously was that it was too light of a stew; Gail thought the whole dish was over-done. Bourdain finds the dish brown, wet, and horrifying looking. Fabio shoots back that he was not happy with the insults Bourdain lobbed at him at the dining room table. Bourdain says he would have been happier if it had been served in an old china bowl rather than on paper. Before departing, Elia asks not to be eliminated because she can do more.

As the judges deliberate, Tom comments that Elia pretty much re-did her prior fish in tea leaves, while there was so much more she could have done with it. Bourdain sums it up by saying it didn’t look or taste good nor was it cooked right. He goes on about Fabio’s dish, noting he didn’t make a decision if it was going to be a gumbo or a pasta dish; Tom finds a lack of nuance. Stephen had no idea what it was supposed to be in the first place so he couldn’t fix it.

After the long day, the bottom three await the axe to fall. Fabio’s pasta was well-made but the sauce was off. Elia should have been able to deal with the thicker tea leaves. Stephen’s three dishes were all out of balance. With Tom’s summation complete, Padma tells Elia to pack her knives. Elia is crestfallen and feels humiliated at being the first one to go home. On the bright side, she did leave with her hair still firmly on her head.