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In the Weeds: "Top Chef" Battle of the Seasons

"I'm not your bitch, bitch."

Okay, those words might not have gotten re-uttered this week but I can't tell you how happy I was to see some familiar faces back in the kitchen for Top Chef: 4-Star All-Stars.

As a little sampler to next week's official launch of Season Three, Bravo brought us this week a charity culinary challenge that pitted the final four contestants from each of the first two seasons of Top Chef in a showdown to win $20K for charity and, well, bragging rights to the dubious title of Top Chef.

From Season One, it was the gleefully mismatched team of Harold (Season One winner), Tiffani, Stephen, and Dave (blech), who managed to put aside their differences and work together as a single unit, something that the Season Two folks--Ilan (Season Two winner), Elia, Sam, and Marcel--still seem incapable of doing. Maybe that says something.

First up was a quickfire challenge (the looks on their faces when Padma made that announcement was priceless), in which the contestants had ten minutes to perfectly cook two eggs... with one hand behind their back. I thought that Stephen's words (a chef who can't properly cook eggs just isn't a chef) were especially profound, given the situation over on FOX's Hell's Kitchen this week in which, well, the "chefs" were unable to do just that.

In any event, everyone's dishes were completely different. The winner of the quickfire challenge, Stephen, managed to prove an important point with his dish, a perfectly executed omelette: keep it simple, stupid. There was no saffron foam on the plate, no intense flavor profiles, no beverage shot accompanying the eggs, rather just a delicious, straightforward (wow, from Stephen?) egg dish that wowed Tom.

Stephen's win proved that there need not be elaborate trickery or over the top anything to win a challenge on Top Chef; in fact when the contestants often go wrong it's when they attempt to do too much at once. Elia's first-course scallop dish, paired with a beautiful onion marmalade and crisp endive, is the perfect example of this; there was no need to do a duo of scallops preparation, with one a carpaccio and the other a seared scallop. Less is more, after all. Same holds true for Dave's scallop course: that tapenade was confusing and unnecessary and lost Season One a clean victory. (Though there's no comparison between Dave and Elia as chefs.)

Tiffani attempted to create a simplified duo preparation with the final Kobe beef course, adding a raw Kobe crudo on top of a perfectly seared Kobe steak, topped with fried parsley. While some of the Top Chef 3 contestants (who had been invited to criticize their predecessor's cuisine) seemed confused by the crudo, the judges--especially Gail Simmons--seemed impressed with the flair with which Tiffani executed the dish, which was visually stunning.

It was no mean feat for the four very different chefs on the Season One team to work together in creating a unified menu, under the leadership of Stephen, but somehow each of them used the Sicilian/Mediterrean flavors of the previous course as a through line for the entire menu, something the Season Two team seemed incapable of doing. Case in point: Stephen's poached lobster tail with cauliflower puree and saffron beurre blanc, which was not only perfectly executed, but exquisitely plated; elegance and simplicity through and through. Marcel, on the other hand, presented a way over the top concoction with table-side lobster foam and a rapidly melting vanilla gelee that, in the heat of the Miami setting, quickly turned his plate into an oozing mess of liquid.

What was up with Ilan? Besides looking way too much like Spud from Trainspotting with his even weirder hairdo and oversized glasses, Ilan sort of left a bad taste in my mouth as he wandered around aimlessly during their 30 minute shop period, confused about what he was doing, unable to break away from the Spanish-style cooking he seems wedded to completely. Duck is duck and it was shocking to me to see the winner (yes, the winner!) of Top Chef 2 acting like a total neophyte; his actions (including running around the kitchen like a headless chicken and knocking over Marcel's perfectly diced mango) made me realize all the more how it should have been fan-favorite Sam in the final two last season. He's proven himself a professional through and through.

(I did like Elia's platinum white 'do, though. It was somehow fittingly fierce and fun at the same time.)

I'm not quite sure what was missing from Harold's duck dish--a rustic meal of duck meatballs and mint-infused gnocchi--but the judges (including new judge Ted Allen) seemed to think that the dish was "incomplete." Hmmm. Perhaps the mint of the gnocchi did need to be a bit more forward in order to draw the dish together. In any event, however, the dish was light years ahead of Ilan's mess of a dish in which he neglected to completely render the fat off of the duck skin and overcooked the duck, then served the breast next to rice topped with a raw egg yolk (again, in the Miami heat?). The result: unsophisticated and all over the place.

It was clear who the winners were: Season One, of course. I couldn't be happier (hell, I was rooting for them the whole time) and the cook-off was the perfect way to catch up with some familiar faces (Harold's restaurant is finally opening in New York) and sneak a glimpse into Season Three's contestants, who seem wickedly self-confident and opinionated. Sharpen those knives, guys, it's going to be another fun season of backstabbing and filleting.

Next week on Top Chef: It's the Season Three premiere ("First Impressions"), fifteen new contestants gear up for the culinary challenge of their lives as they compete for restaurant seed money and the dubious title of Top Chef. Bring it on!


Anonymous said…
I was so disappointed by this show. The head chef is calculatingly and intentionally overly hard to the point of ridiculousness. Why does every reality show seem to feature a British man with a bad temper and rude disposition? I was hoping for something more constructive in this kitchen. Instead, it's a tacky Jerry Springer thinger.
Jessica, I think you're talking about Hell's Kitchen?

Last night's Top Chef was really fun. It was great to see some of my favorite contestants compete (Harold, Sam, Elia) and others fail (Marcel, Ilan). I have to say that I was particularly impressed by Stephen who seemed more restrained, especially in the presence of the twittering Marcel. His omlette was flawless and his lobster dish stunning.

I also enjoyed the addition of Ted Allen as a judge, especially since Padma puts me to sleep. I definitely am looking forward to this season of Top Chef, especially after being so disappointed with the new Hell's Kitchen. Maybe they should do a Top Chef/Hell's Kitchen battle next time. Now that would be interesting!
Anonymous said…
I was so glad to see Harold and Dave back in the kitchen after the disaster that was Season 2. Hell, I was even glad to see Tiffany and Stephen. I would take their arrogance over Ilan, Elia, and Marcel's childishness any day.
Anonymous said…
What Whitney said.

And as you said, this ep proved, yet again, that Sam should have been the winner of S2. The competition wasn't even close. No amount of editing could make a viewer think that S2 had a chance.

Ilan just continued his assy ways...the ones that showed up about halfway through S2.

Stephen was actually...tolerable.

Marcel hasn't changed/learned/ grown at all.

Bring on S3!

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