Top Chef All-Stars 12/22 Recap: When Good Things Happen To Bad Chefs
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This morning I woke up to a giant thud; as it turned out, the UPS driver couldn’t be bothered to walk up my steps and just chucked at my door the Top Chef cookbook I’d ordered. How befitting, as after last night’s episode, I wanted to throw the book at some of the chefs and maybe even the judges. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s take things in order and then figure out where to lay the blame.
At the start of the Quick Fire, the chefs are introduced to Tony Mantuano, chef and owner of Spiaggia in Chicago. If you ever have a chance to eat at Spiaggia, take it; I was there on a business dinner about three years ago and it was the most elegant, stylish and tasty Italian food I’ve ever laid my eyes on. But this QF has nothing to do with Italian food whatsoever. As a nod to the season this episode is airing, the chefs are challenged to make a stuffing; the winner will take away a jaw-dropping $20,000 and have immunity in the Elimination Challenge. There is just one catch to this challenge, however; the chefs cannot use any ordinary kitchen utensils at all—no spoons, no knives, no nothing.
Tiffani notes that stuffing is really specific to regions, houses, and even mothers; I believe there was a big stuffing vs. dressing discussion somewhere in the general food talk thread here on the FoRT. With the news of the cash prize in play, the chefs make a mad dash to the refrigerators. Carla isn’t going to get caught in the fray, so when she gets to the supplies, all that’s left is quinoa. The chefs get pretty inventive trying to devise ways to cut things: Carla smashes an onion with a pot, Tre freezes stuff with liquid nitrogen to smash it, Fabio shreds cheese on the pot rack, and Tiffani cuts a bird with a pepper grinder. It’s kitchen mayhem at it’s finest. The variations on stuffing produced are:
Casey’s mushrooms with crispy chicken liver, miso cake, and mushroom dashi
Jamie’s stuffing crepinette with pork, lemon oil, and broth (soup!)
Carla’s “un-done-te” Thai inspired vegetable stuffing with black (undercooked, and she knows it) quinoa
Spike’s stuffed quail with raisins, herbs, port and apricot glaze
Marcel’s whole squab, stuffing with raisin brioche, cherries, currants and ras el hanout gravy
Richard’s pressure cooked onion, nitro fried fennel, raisins and pine nuts
Tre’s southwestern stuffing with bacon, cheddar, bell pepper, and chili powder
Dale’s Spanish inspired stuffing with crab, oysters, chili lemon aioli, grapes and olives
Tiffani’s soy maple stuffing with quail, grilled mushrooms, and quartered grapes
Fabio’s polenta bread, vegetables, smoked bacon and grated parmesan
Tony didn’t like Carla’s quinoa (but she knew she was in the weeds with the raw grain), Tiffani’s overly-sweet stuffing, and Casey’s non-stuffing presentation. He really liked Tre’s spicy stuffing and Marcel’s stuffing and whole bird. Tony gives the win to Tre, who will spend the money on his girls because, to his mind, girls are really expensive.
For the EC, the chefs will cook at the US Open courts in two teams, where they will serve head-to-head food designed for athletes. They draw tennis balls to set the teams. Team Orange is made up of Mike, Fabio, Dale, Carla, Antonia, Richard, and Marcel. Team Yellow is made up of Angelo, Tiffani, Casey, Jamie, Tre, Tiffany, and Spike. Continuing with the tennis theme, as the teams face off, the first team to get four points will win the challenge. Tony points out that there is room for strategizing the order the food is presented, as in when to send up the strongest dish.
Spike is a bit worried; he doesn’t have any allies on his team. Carla is intent on doing an African vegetarian soup, but Dale thinks it’s too down-scale. Back at the house, the Orange Team secludes themselves to the roof to talk over their menu and lightly discuss strategy. However, downstairs Team Yellow seriously discusses strategy; Spike doesn’t want to blow their best dish going against another best dish early on. Jamie is supposed to go against the best dish because no one has confidence in her soups or ability to avoid hospitialization.
The next morning, the chefs first head to Whole Foods and then it’s off to the US Open kitchen, which is massive. We learn that Tre and Carla are both runners, and Antonia lettered in high school in the 4:20 club. For some reason, Fabio is making gnocchi again; it’s his personal ceviche. Jamie worries that her chickpeas won’t be done in three hours; I always thought you had to soak dried beans overnight before you cooked them, but maybe that’s urban legend. Angelo runs into some slime on the mackerel he got at the store. I’m watching in HD and don’t see any slime, so I’ll just have to take his word for it. He tries to bum some fish from Tre, but he’s not having it and sends him to Tiffany to see if she has extra tuna. She gives him some because she’s not into playing games.
Tom arrives to find out what strategies the teams are working on. Jamie won’t give up Team Yellow’s strategy but Spike and Angelo do—they figure Team Orange will send Richard out first, so they’ll send out their weakest dish against him that way Team Orange will have wasted their strongest dish. Smirking Tom leaves the kitchen with one hour before service.
And then comes the blood—Carla’s blood, to be specific. She glanced up from her chopping and took off half her fingernail and tip of her finger. Unlike a certain someone else, she gets bandaged up by the medic, puts on a glove, and keeps plowing away. She gets total respect from Dale and Antonia, and I hope Jamie felt a little more embarrassed.
With only ten minutes on the clock, Spike re-fires his shrimp because he wasn’t happy with the first batch. He knows he didn’t get to season them like he should in the rush to finish. Meanwhile, Jamie’s chickpeas still aren’t soft enough to eat and she’s a bit whiney about it.
You Can’t Lose If You Don’t Play
The chefs head out to the tennis court to set up their stations; the teams are on opposite sides of the court so neither knows what the others are serving. Team Orange sends up Fabio first; he wants to go up first because he has the best gnocchi in town. Team Yellow wants Jamie to go up first as planned and take the hit for the team, but she flatly refuses. Casey decides to step up and go up first. The judges (Tony Mantuano, Tom, Gail, and Padma) are joined by Taylor Dent, a professional tennis player with culinary knowledge. They taste Fabio’s whole wheat gnocchi with pork loin ragout, caramelized fennel, and zucchini and Casey’s grilled pork tenderloin salad with faro, cherries, sugar snap peas and vinaigrette. Fabio’s whole wheat gnocchi are a hit, and it’s a point to the Team Orange and a jump over the net for Fabio.
For round two, Team Orange sends Dale up next because if he doesn’t go then, his dish will be ruined. This irritates Marcel because he was set to go next. On Team Yellow, all strategy is out the window, and they send Tiffani up because she has a strong dish. Dale serves an edamame dumpling, with spicy carrot froth and crispy soy nuts and Tiffani serves a sashimi of black bass, avocado and ponzu vinaigrette. Gail would go with Tiffani, as would Tony and Tom, though Padma would pick Dale. Tiffani wins the point and it’s all tied up.
For the third match up, Team Orange sends up Marcel and Team Yellow sends up Angelo. Angelo serves smoked tuna, yuzu gelee, red onion, and capers while Marcel serves cauliflower couscous with pomegranate seeds, golden raisins and yellowfin tuna. Taylor likes them both but the rest of the judges like Angelo’s dish better. Team Yellow wins the point and pulls ahead.
In the fourth round, there is some debate as to whom Team Yellow will send up; eventually they settle on Tiffany, who plates with Angelo buzzing around poking every dish. Team Orange sends up Antonia, though at first it looked like Richard was going up. Tiffany serves spiced tuna with fennel, peppercorns, coriander seeds and lentil salad and Antonia serves scallops, Indian lentil puree, mint, dandelion greens, cilantro, and chives. Tony would pick Tiffany, Gail and Taylor with Antonia, Padma with Tiffany, and it comes down to Tom picking Antonia, so point to Team Orange and its tied up again.
The next round has Richard facing off with Spike; it’s down to him or undercooked bean girl Jamie. Spike is nervous, because Richard is good at what he does; this case of the nerves lets him slip up and let Angelo and Tiffani add stuff to his dish, including Angelo’s yuzu gelee, that was not in Spike’s original vision. Spike serves a tomato tamarind soup, olive oil poached shrimp, pineapple, tomato and dill (and the gelee) and Richard serves his cutesy named “Thai-bouleh” with lam, herbs, and yogurt. Tony didn’t like either protein, and while Tom liked Spike’s soup, the shrimp was bland so Tom gives the win to Richard, putting Team Orange ahead and one point away from the win.
The final round pits Carla against Tre; Jamie’s beans are still undercooked and Tre has immunity. Carla’s peanut soup, according to Mike, has bold flavors and may not be that appealing; Carla has had to defend her soup to her team the entire challenge. Hey, she’s not Jamie; chances are her soup is good. Angelo, still wanting to get into everyone’s dishes, asks Tre if he can do anything, so Tre lets him cook the salmon, some of which are burnt. Carla serves the judges African groundnut soup with baked sweet potatoes, adzuki beans, and peanuts while Tre serves coho salmon, parsnip puree, olive oil sauce with citrus, tomatoes and olives. Taylor loves the salmon but Tony, Padma, and Gail go with Carla and Team Orange takes the win. Gail didn’t mind Tre’s salmon but it was a bit over-cooked. Jamie didn’t even go up at all (but neither did Mike, but whatever he made couldn’t have been worse than raw chickpeas) and won’t be eligible for elimination.
And Now For Some Book-Tossing
As Team Orange won, and only their members are technically eligible for the win, so Padma calls in Fabio, Antonia, Carla, and Richard. They won the points for their team, and, as a special prize, the winner will get a trip to Italy to eat fabulous foods, which is a pretty damn sweet prize. When asked, Richard says they really didn’t have a strategy about who to send up when, because all of their dishes were pretty strong. Tony comments that Carla’s soup could be perceived as homey, but she elevated it. Gail loved the raisins in Antonia’s dish and the layers of flavor. Tom liked Richard’s idea for the Thai-bouli and Tony was impressed with Fabio’s light gnocchi. Tony then announces Carla the winner; those dudes who were against her soup need to suck it.
Team Yellow’s point losing members then face the judges; Casey, Tre, Tiffany, and Spike look less than thrilled to be in the bottom. Spike explains their strategy; they thought the other team would put their best dish up first so they would put the worst. Gail wonders why they thought Casey’s dish was the worst; Spike says they didn’t—Jamie had the worst dish. Tom points out that the worst dish isn’t even up for elimination. Spike then talks about Tiffani and Angelo interfering in the dish and tossing his first three plates because they thought it was too spicy; he says he just got run over by them. Gail thinks the dish did get too sweet but Tom sticks by his complaint that the shrimp was too bland. Tony says the soup was pretty good outside the shrimp. Tom asks Tiffany if she thinks Angelo would sabotage someone; she says after thinking over her season, people should just cook their own food off their own instincts. Tiffany faces criticism that her salad was over-dressed and the spice rub on the lamb didn’t have a good finish. Tony opines that Tre used his immunity to skate, because his dish was their least favorite of all. Gail thought Casey’s dish was heavy; Casey stands by her dish, calling it hearty.
During the deliberations, they conclude Tre phoned it in, Spike lost control of the dish, Casey’s dish didn’t have enough faro, and Tiffany’s dish was lacking in some flavor element. The bottom four return to Judges’ Table. Tom says Casey’s dish was good, but she went up against someone who did a bit better; Tre delegated cooking to a team mate who ultimately is a competitor. Spike’s soup was good but the shrimp weren’t, and Tiffany’s tuna was bland. Padma then tells Spike to pack his knives and go.
Spike feels like he was screwed, and in my opinion, he was and he wasn’t. He should have gotten the team behind the strategy and gotten Jamie up there and he should have told Tiffani and Angelo to back off. But what really bugs me is that neither Mike nor Jamie had to even face the judges at all; it was de facto unearned immunity from elimination and, in Mike’s case, a loss of eligibility for the big win.