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Chopping Block: Knives Out for Start of Top Chef: All Stars

And that's how you start a season of Top Chef. While there was heated drama and some tears, the focus was once again on the innate talent and staggering skill sets of these fierce competitors.

While I already shared my pre-air thoughts about the season opener of Top Chef: All-Stars, now that the episode ("History Never Repeats") has aired, we can discuss specifics of this fantastic installment, which saw some fan-favorites return for another shot at Top Chef glory and what might just be the very best Elimination Challenge to date (which is what I told executive producers Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth when I saw them the other night).

Forcing the chefs to redo the dishes that got them sent home the first time they were on Top Chef was a stroke of genius that played up to the chef's egos and their nerves. Would they be able to overcome what sunk them last time around? Would they redeem themselves or fail again?

And which of the chefs would be forced to bear the burden of being the first one sent packing?

On that last note, I have to say that I was really sad to see Elia go home, especially as I thought that Stephen and Fabio both performed worse than Elia. Perhaps it was her nerves, her memories, or her lack of concept, but Elia was sent home twice for making the same dish. She didn't quite grasp that she needed to improve the dish, rather than reproduce it. Her changes were so slight, her execution so similar to the first time around that she was doomed to fail where some of the other contestants soared.

But I wrongly assumed that the judges would spare Elia, especially given the travesty that was Fabio's dish, its slick greasiness making me as queasy as Anthony Bourdain, its use of paper rather head-scratching and odd. And, sorry, Stephen, but I already feel as though you are way out of your element. I think you've got a great palate, consummate wine knowledge, and a polished presence in the front of house, but I don't think that you're as strong as many of these contestants. Which is why I was shocked that he wasn't made the sacrificial lamb here.

But I've been wrong before.

As for what the chefs made, they had to get through a team-based Quickfire Challenge (no small feat, considering the egos involved and it was their first challenge), in which they had to collectively create a dish that summed up the city where their season took place.

So what did they make? Let's take a look:
  • Washington D.C. (Angelo, Tiffany): crab cake essence with rockfish, lemongrass, jalapeno, Old Bay
  • San Francisco (Tiffani, Stephen): cioppino gazpacho with sourdough
  • New York (Jamie, Fabio, Carla): curried apple soup, pasta with caramelized apple, rib eye with apple
  • Miami (Tre, Dale, Casey): pork tenderloin, avocado lime puree, tostones, habanero sauce
  • Los Angeles (Marcel, Elia): shrimp tacos with guacamole in an apple wrapper
  • Las Vegas (Mike, Jennifer): bucatini with bacon lobster carbonara
  • Chicago (Dale, Richard, Antonia, Spike): pork and black pepper sausage, mustard ice cream

I had a feeling that the Chicago team had won as soon as Richard Blais whipped out the liquid nitrogen to create some mustard gelato, an inspired take on a Chicago classic that summed up the city while also showcasing Chicago's "avant garde" nature. I also knew that Marcel and Elia would end up in the bottom as the apple wrappers for their tacos were too thin and the entire dish looked messy and impossible to pick up and eat with one's hands. New York should have made one dish rather than three, really. But I want to commend Mike Isabella for making that sumptuous buccatini with Jennifer; the pasta looked so lush and tender and I wanted to eat a bit bowl of it straightaway.

For the Elimination Challenge, there was the aforementioned "historic" trip down memory lane as the chefs had the opportunity to redeem themselves by perfecting the dishes that got them sent home. It was an inspired challenge that raised the stakes and offered the audience a chance to see them put through their paces by revisiting the ingredients that undid them the first time they competed.

Here's what they made:
  • Elia: red snapper steamed in ti with snapper jus
  • Tre: cured wild King salmon, grapefruit gelee, salted macadamia cookie
  • Fabio: handmade caserecci, crawfish and crab stew
  • Stephen: lobster harumaki, hibiscus ponzu, and coriander; soup dumplings; egg rolls
  • Tiffany: pan-seared halibut, coconut curry, steamed rice balls, pea tendrils
  • Tiffani: crispy branzino, black olive pappardelle, and spicy fennel
  • Dale: butterscotch miso scallops with crispy long beans and spicy eggplant
  • Richard: pork belly with bread and butter radishes, mirin, and cheddar
  • Angelo: homemade ramen with sweet glazed pork belly and watermelon
  • Marcel: uni and caviar, Meyer lemon gelee, fennel cream, and kalamata olive dust
  • Spike: pickled mushrooms, scallops, lime dressing with hearts of palm salad
  • Jennifer: duck, squash, foie gras, apple cider vinaigrette, micro arugula
  • Carla: grilled strip steak, smashed potatoes, tarragon butter, red wine sauce
  • Antonia: sausage with cilantro, pigeon pea puree, roasted cherry blossoms
  • Mike: melted leeks, carrot puree, salt-crusted potatoes
  • Casey: molasses-glazed pork belly, pickled peaches, whipped creme fraiche
  • Jamie: pan-seared black bass, celery, green peppercorn sauce, herb salad
  • Dale: curry-poached lobster dumplings, chanterelles, corn, and bacon

Whew.

Given how many chefs there are in the game at this point, I didn't expect that each of them would get reactions from the diners and the chefs but I do wish that they would have focused on the dishes a little more, especially as this was an extended-length episode. As it were, I can't seem to remember whether all of them even appeared on-screen for more than a second.

Having said that, there were some definite stand-outs. I do believe Richard Blais may have won if it hadn't been for the fact that he was still plating when the timer went off. I don't think for a second that there was anything malicious going on here in the least. He's often so focused on the task at hand that he seems closed off to what's going on around him. It's his laser-like intensity that has made this chef a force to be reckoned with but it was his undoing here. As it was, he was disqualified from the win, even after scoring one of the top dishes. Alas, rules are rules.

Kudos to Jamie for reinventing Eric Ripert's dish which got her eliminated last time; I thought she did a remarkable job taking the essence of Ripert's dish and elevating it into something different and unique to her, transforming her failure last time into a victory here. Well done.

While Marcel's dish wasn't singled out for praise, I do have to say that it was the most visually stunning plate on display here. Slightly alien and undersea-like, it was a sight to behold, a carefully plated masterpiece of abstract art that intrigued and repelled at the same time.

Spike did a fantastic job concealing those frozen scallops; so much so that Bourdain noted that the scallops were superfluous on the plate. Bingo. Always crafty, Spike wisely disguised the scallops' frozen nature and offered a ceviche rather than seared scallops and a lime vinaigrette that distracted entirely and made the scallops all but disappear from the plate. Sneaky, sneaky.

It was obvious that Elia, Fabio (that awful dish!), and Stephen would land in the bottom and, as I said earlier, I'm surprised that it was Elia who was sent packing, rather than one of the other two. Especially as Fabio's specialty is Italian and he failed to score well this week after making TWO pasta dishes.

What did you think of the judges' decision? Should Elia have been set packing? Who are you rooting for this season? Head to the comments section to discuss and debate.

Next week on Top Chef: All-Stars ("Night at the Museum"), the chefs visit the American Museum of Natural History to cater a snack for a group of children spending the night there.

Top Chef: All-Stars Preview: Sugar Hoarder


Top Chef: All-Stars Preview: Angelo's Intentions

Comments

Ben said…
Really just a fantastic episode. It feels so good to get back to real Top Chef after the disappointing Just Desserts.

I think that the judges were right to send Elia home. Out of all of them, she missed the mark on the challenge the most, which was to improve on the dish. As you mention, she basically just made the same dish over again. As bad as Fabio and Stephen's dishes were, at least they attempted to change the dish.

Also, I'm glad that they didn't send Stephen home because I want to see some more interaction between him and season 2's Stephen, Marcel. :)
Ben said…
Oh yeah, completely agree that Richard would've won if not for missing the fact that time was up. It's interesting to see that he and Angelo are already becoming the ones to beat.

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