Top Chef All-Stars 3/2 Recap: Genealogical Gastronomy

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After many months of winnowing down the field of 18 contestants to the final five, the chefs are about to compete in their last challenge in New York before going on to the finale. Richard believes he’s the last great chef standing after Dale’s departure and Dale’s elimination is the only one that upsets him. I don’t know about that—Antonia has been performing consistently well and Carla still can surprise us with brilliant dish. Tiffany and Mike, on the other hand, well, they’ve still got to prove themselves a bit more in this season. Tiffany is concerned since she got eliminated at the top five point in her season.

Yet Another Silly Quickfire

The chefs sit around their townhouse waiting for the day to begin; Antoina says it feels like a day when Padma will turn up at the house and sure enough she does. Padma makes a snide remark about their Brooklyn location, but at least the view is nice. They all head up to the roof of the townhouse where, for the QF, she sends them off on a ferry to Ellis Island. This is no leisurely trip—on the ferry the chefs learn they will have to make a dish out of whatever they find in the snack bar on the ferry and the time they have is from the sound of the horn when they set out and the sound of the horn when they dock—no one knows how long that really is.

With the first blast of the horn, the chefs dive over the snack bar counter and take a look at what they have for supplies. There’s a bit of fresh fruit, nacho chips and all the fixings, popcorn, hotdogs and buns, some chips and some pre-made sandwiches. The uncertain time to cook and the crappy ingredients cause some crazy dishes to be produced. Mike made a bread soup out of torn-up hotdog buns with cheddar cheese, sour cream, green chili and pork rinds, which he admits he wouldn’t feed to his cat. Richard made a hot dog and beef jerky sandwich with jalapeno, pork rinds, lettuce and apple; he cooked the dogs in an MRE heating bag that he happens to stock in his knife bag. Tiffany went for the obvious and made some nachos with cheese, lettuce, tomato, jalapeno, banana pepper and sour cream and popped some corn and tossed candied mangos and pineapples in it. Antonia took bread from one pre-made sandwich and cheese from another, combined them, and grilled it on the hotdog cooker for a grilled cheese sandwich with raisin bread and apples. Carla cut up some oranges and papaya to make a salad and tossed it with carrot and rosemary juice and made the rosemary-infused sauce by heating juice with rosemary chips.

Once the ship docks at Ellis Island, Padma and Dan Barber, a chef known for local and sustainable food, arrive to taste the mess. Mike’s soup is inedible, Antonia’s sandwich has pork flavor from the hotdog grill but she used a smart technique, Richard’s was tasty and creative, Tiffany’s was a throw-away, and Carla wins the day with her innovative and fresh-tasting dish. Richard is bitter about Carla’s win for cutting up fruit. This dude is nearly constantly bitter or nervous. He needs some psychotropics, stat.

Ancestry Dot WTF?

After the QF challenge on Ellis Island, Padma tells the chefs that the show had their ancestries researched and will give them a packet of information on what they found to use as the basis for their Elimination Challenge dishes. Padma at least acknowledges that the African American experience of coming into the country is different than those who went through Ellis Island. Delivering these packets of information are family members—Richard’s wife, Carla’s husband, and the moms of Tiffany, Antonia, and Mike. Everyone has an emotional reunion, made even more emotional by going through their ancestries.

Richard finds a butcher and a chemist in his genealogy, as well as ties to Worcestershire, England, which explains his love of their sauce. He also can’t keep his hands of his pregnant wife’s belly, which is a bit much for my anti-PDA self. Carla finds she has roots in a lot of southern states and is proud of her ancestry of civil war soldiers and independent businessmen. Tiffany learns that she’s not just from Beaumont, as she has some Louisiana ties; she decides to take a chance and cook some traditional okra, though she knows Tom hates okra. Mike reminisces about his grandmother, who taught him to cook; he has avoided cooking Italian food professionally because he didn’t want to be reminded of the loss of his grandmother. Then, in a shocking twist—even more shocking than seeing a young Mike in a spandex dance outfit—Antonia pieces together that she and Mike share a distant relative. Yep, they’re cousins, distant, but still! No wonder they fight so much! And now they start to get along…thanks, Magical Elves.

After spending some time with their family members, the chefs head back to Manhattan to do some shopping and then back to the townhouse. They can’t stop talking about Antonia and Mike being related and Mike’s spandex dance outfit.

The next morning, everyone is slow waking up but when they do, they find a DVD and keys to a Toyota Highlander. They run down and play the DVD in the SUV and learn the winner of the challenge will get the SUV. It took all my editing power not to write “SVU” as I’ve been infected by Law & Order a bit too much.

They head to the kitchen and it’s all serious business. Carla even pulls out the liquid nitrogen to get her grits ready for frying. Antonia is honoring her father cooking braised veal, his favorite dish. On a personal note, I wish Antonia and her dad the best in his prostate cancer treatment. Our family was affected by this all too common disease, and I hope he made it through the radiation okay. Seven years in, and I still get twitchy around the time PSA tests come up. Richard is making glasswort a/k/a sea beans, but he just thinks “glasswort” sounds cooler, which it kind of does. Mike calls on his memories of his grandmother to make his classic Italian fare. I like this humanizing of Mike; I know he can’t be the complete asshat he’s been previously edited to be. There’s some great humanity under that tough-guy exterior. The judges—Padma, Tom, Gail, and Dan Barber—arrive with the five family members for dinner service.

A Curious Lack of Fish and Chicken

All of this heritage cooking got me thinking about what I might make in this challenge. I’m Slovak, Russian, Irish and English, so I’d be up crap’s creek. My family traditional meals are fried turkey for Thanksgiving and chicken fajitas for Christmas Eve, so unless those genealogists could have found a distant Cajun or Mexican relative, I’d be stuck. Then again, this is why I’m not on Top Chef and only write about it.

Mike serves first with a potato gnocchi with braised pork shank ragu and burrata cheese, inspired by his grandfather from Napoli. Mike’s mom says he’s been cooking since he was 3 years old. Tom loves the gnocchi, as does everyone at the table. Mike’s mom says it is even better than his grandmother’s gnocchi.

Antonia serves braised veal with rapini leaf and fava bean risotto; her inspiration for the whole dish is what she would have cooked for her husband back in the sixties. Tom finds the dish packed with flavor, and the diners are still happy. And we learn Antonia has been cooking since she was ten years old, back when her family had a restaurant in Beverly Hills.

Tiffany’s dish is made up of a braised short rib with mustard greens, stewed okra, and oxtail marmalade. This dish is something that her mom would cook at home. Tom suddenly is a convert to okra, as it has no sliminess. Tom asks Richard’s wife and Carla’s husband if they’re feeling any pressure, since there have been three great dishes put out so far. They nervously laugh, but admit some nerves. Antonia’s mom slyly asks if they’ve ever had a final five, and Tom says no.

Richard presents short ribs, potatoes, fried bone marrow, corn puree, and pickled glasswort as his homage to his Irish/English and mid-western US heritage. He is extremely nervous, especially since his wife is a super-competitive attitude. Tom says it’s “alright” but then clarifies it is “all right” as in everything tastes perfect.

Carla serves a braised pork shoulder, fried grits, corn and sweet potato hash and cheddar biscuits, which she serves family-style with a passed plate of biscuits. This is Mike’s mother’s first time eating grits, and Gail loves them. Carla’s husband talks about the food memories attached with her cooking; we also learn that Carla met her husband on Match.com.

The chefs get a final few moments with their family members; Richard is overly worried and his wife assures him that he is safe. They head to the stew room where they have a final toast. Padma arrives to call them all in to Judges’ Table.

When Foreshadowing Pays Off

Before we get to Judges’ Table, I want to make note of Padma’s odd dress. It’s a white, V-necked, spaghetti strap affair, which is all well and good. However, down one side of the strap appear to be extra napkins attached. Perhaps they come off to cover a stain as she eats. In any event, it is very daring to wear white to any kind of food event.

Padma first starts with Carla, who says Ellis Island was amazing and finding out she had ties to so many southern states was impressive. Gail loved the broth of the dish and the biscuits were beautiful. Dan loved the pork shoulder; Tom found a roundness to the broth that is unusual to find, and while the corn was a bit tough, the grits were very good. Carla explains her liquid nitrogen technique, to the amazement of Gail. Richard was emotional with his wife there; Dan thought the corn and whole plate worked well together. Tom says he told his various background story well on the plate.

Antonia wanted to capture the peasant food quality of cooking something to fill up the husbands. Tom found the risotto to be the opposite of everything bad that has been on the show thus far. Tiffany talks about okra being a staple to Louisiana and Texas cooking; Tom admits he’s a convert—the slime wasn’t slimy, but rich. Dan says she had him tasting what he otherwise wouldn’t be tasting. Mike’s gnocchi were a huge hit, and inspired by his grandmother. His mother made sure he made a gravy; everyone is glad he listened to his mom.

The chefs head back to the stew room, where they likely sat for six hours or more. No one totally failed and no judge had a real issue with any dish, so you know the judges probably went late into the night debating with producers on what to do. As the judges discuss, Tom finds Antonia’s dish to be perfection, but Gail says that if you ate the meat alone, it would be a tiny bit salty. Dan would put a bit less meat on Mike’s dish if he were plating it. Tom is going to steal Richard’s dish, but Padma wanted more green. Carla had an awesome broth, but the garnish got a bit lost. Tiffany’s dish was foreign to Gail’s life, but it was beautiful otherwise. Dan never thought of oxtail marmalade but he loved it. They have a decision, and the five remaining return.

If you weren’t biting your nails by now, you’re just not human. Dan announces Antonia as the winner, and she gets the car. She gets to go to the final round in the Bahamas. Tom then addresses Mike, and says he’ll be going on to the Bahamas as well. Mike and Antonia are sent out to the stew room, where the cousins jump around in jigs of joy. Padma then nearly induces a heart attack in Richard when she tells him to pack his knives and go…to the Bahamas. So it’s between Tiffany and Carla; Tom says it’s all about nitpicking and it’s a tough decision. Padma then sends both of them to the Bahamas as well. Antonia’s mom got it right—it’s a five person finale. Much jubilation ensues in the stew room.

Next week—chefs in swim suits. We may need some brain bleach; judgment will be reserved until the episode airs.