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All-Night at the Museum: Child-Size Dishes and Childish Attitudes on Top Chef: All-Stars

If you saw last night's episode of Top Chef: All-Stars, you saw just how competitive and cutthroat this competition has gotten, just in the second week alone.

There's more on the line for these returning chefs than there was the first time that they were on the reality competition series. The cash prize is bigger than ever, there are cash prizes sprinkled throughout the challenges, but most importantly, there's an aspect of honor for the winners and a sense of embarrassment for those packing their knives early.

No one ever wants to go home early, especially in the first few weeks. In any other season of Top Chef, these first few episodes are dedicated to sending home the sacrificial lambs, the culinary cannon fodder whose presence in the competition seems more of a fluke than anything else. But that's not the case here with Top Chef: All Stars, where the chefs competing are of a naturally high caliber. But that doesn't make defeat any easier to swallow. In fact, it's even more of a bitter pill.

Which brings us to last night's episode ("Night at the Museum"), in which the chefs were put through the ringer, forced to help someone else win a Quickfire Challenge, forced to work on little or no sleep, and forced to throw together a breakfast buffet with limited resources at their disposal.

In other words: Pressure + heat + lack of sleep = explosion.

Which is exactly what happened here. What I would never have expected is which chef was the one doing the exploding.

I was upfront about the fact that I was pulling this season for Richard Blais and Jennifer Carroll to go far and make it all the way to the end. Hell, Richard even singled Jennifer out as his chief competition in the first episode of the season. So I was surprised when she seemed to crack under pressure and aggressively confronted the judging panel at the end of this week's episode.

First, it's inherently clear to anyone watching that Jennifer is a culinary force to be reckoned with, a creative chef with strong conceptual and execution abilities. She's a natural leader, fearless, and strong. But while she can cope with pressure in her own kitchen, where she has control over the ingredients, her sous chefs, the mise-en-place, and the timing, she's out of her element on Top Chef, as proven from the last two times she was eliminated.

Because, let's be honest, Top Chef is really a test of one's adaptability under extreme circumstances at the end of the day. When Jennifer had control of the situation, her dishes sang. When she lost control and could adapt to what the producers were throwing at her, she crumbled.

I'm glad when a chef stands behind their dish and doesn't throw a teammate under the bus. Hell, Jennifer even acknowledged that Jamie's disappearance--the result of a trip to the hospital for two (TWO!) stitches--made no difference on the outcome. She was proud of her dish and she stood behind it and the seasoning. If she was going to be the one sent packing, she wasn't going home without a fight.

Which is where that heretofore unseen side of Jennifer Carroll emerged. That sort of anger and aggression, that rigid posturing and defiant attitude smack of defense mechanisms, deflections to conceal the true hurt and embarrassment bubbling under the surface. Throughout the episode, from her repeating of her father's haunting words about losing to her arrogance towards the judges, Jennifer put on a brave face in order to distract the cameras from what was really going on: she was coming apart at the seams.

Deprive anyone of sleep and they're liable to be cranky. As we saw from this episode, several chefs descended into childish behavior after getting 0-45 minutes of sleep in the North American Mammals section of the Natural History Museum, their demeanor changing from polished chefs to whiny brats over the course of the challenge, moaning to the judges about the unfairness of the situation, the advantage the other team had, blah, blah, blah. Nerves were frayed and tempers simmering before the losing team even stepped foot into the judging room.

Jennifer and Jamie had wanted to do a Scotch egg, a sausage and breadcrumbs-wrapped hard-boiled egg which is deep fried. Lack of sausage and a lack of flour from their side of the kitchen scuppered those plans. Jamie, as already mentioned, bowed out after cutting her finger and needing medical attention, further adding complication.

And then there was the dish itself. Forced to stick solely within the realm of meat, eggs, and dairy (I do think that Quickfire winner Tiffani made the wrong call there), Jennifer decided to offer a play on bacon and eggs with what she deemed "braised bacon and hard-boiled eggs."

A few things: calling something "bacon" brings to mind some very specific connotations, including crispiness and saltiness, neither of which this dish had. Instead, it was closer to a pork belly that was braised and then served with its own braising liquid on the plate, rendering an already wet dish even more soggy. The egg condiment was--according to Tom and vehemently denied by Jennifer--underseasoned. As soon as she mentioned that she was doing egg mimosa, I had a feeling this dish would crash and burn and when I saw the meat in the liquid, I had a feeling that she would not be able to nail the texture, even though she argued--passionately--that it was precisely how she had envisioned the dish.

Which might be the problem, as the dish was conceptually flawed from the start. The blandness of the egg was only half of the problem but the other half was the entire dish, start to finish, that liquidity and that textural issue with soft plus soft, with steaming liquid on top.

It might not have been a good dish (it did seem more edible than Casey and Tre's salmon with shrimp and apple-smoked bacon sauce, which was over-reduced and over-salted) but it wasn't going to kill anyone, unlike, say, Antonia and Tiffany's trio of frittatas, many of which were undercooked and even RUNNY. Serving that to anyone with compromised immune systems could have resulted in some widespread illness if the eggs carried salmonella. A real problem, considering there were kids eating the food. Yet this seemed to be less of an issue for the judges than Jennifer's bland dish.

Also, I did agree with the team's assessment that several of their competitors' dishes were inappropriate for breakfast. Say what you want about the quality of the dishes, but I didn't think that gnocchi or gazpacho were ideal breakfast offerings, particularly for kids and their parents. I love gnocchi but there's no way I'm going to eat that for breakfast. Sorry!

As for the winners, I do have to say that Richard, Marcel, and Angelo's dish, the banana parfait with seasonal fruit and tandoori maple, was not only appropriate but looked delicious and absolutely gorgeous. Easily the most well-plated and beautiful of the dishes offered (even after Angelo cut the plums in half, against Marcel's wishes), this dish looked the most befitting a Top Chef: All-Stars challenge.

As for returning judge Katie Lee? She didn't add anything to the proceedings. But then again, she didn't the first time she was on the series...

But I'm curious to know what you thought of this week's episode. Was Jennifer's outburst--and the off-camera breakdown--justified? Should she have been sent home? Did Jamie skate by too easily for adding nothing to the challenge? Did the judges make the right call? Head to the comments to discuss and debate.

Next week on Top Chef: All-Stars ("New Yorkb's Finest"), the chefs pull knives for four teams which will cook in four of the city's best restaurants, but first their knives will be put to use in a Quickfire relay race.

Top Chef: All-Stars Preview: Speed Kills

Top Chef: All-Stars Preview: Starting to Sweat


Ben said…
Again, I thought the right person went home. Bland is death in Top Chef, and when you so vociferously defend your bland dish, it brings your taste into question.

I think good arguments could be made for Jamie and/or Tre to have gone home, too. Too-salty is usually death on Top Chef and Jamie, as she and Jennifer both said, did nothing. With her, though, it's probably an insurance thing where the judges couldn't be seen to be forcing injured chefs to continue or be eliminated.
Hadley said…
I was really sad to see Jen C. go home so early but don't think that her dish was a success. She is a brilliant chef but definitely missed on this challenge and her attitude toward the judges was just embarrassing. I expect it from someone like Fabio but not from someone of her caliber. Just an awful way to go, really.

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