Recap: 'Top Chef All-Stars' - 'New York's Finest'
After Jenâ€™s freak-out, the chefs try to play it safe
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Since we can now watch 3-D television in our homes, I can only hope that someday someone can create taste-o-vision (I’m perfectly happy to skip smell-o-vision, as viewing one episode of “Hoarders” with that sense intact is probably enough to put you off your feed for all eternity). While it’s easy enough to condemn bad dancing or design or even crummy cake decorating, we have to take the judges’ words at face value on “Top Chef.” After last week’s episode, I’m not entirely sure I want to jump on the Crazy Jen bandwagon.
Yes, she acted like a total nutbag, but was her dish truly as lousy as Tom and Gail made it out to be? Yes, Tom Colicchio has won the James Beard Award, so it’s not like he can’t tell fine dining from something whipped up out of a Rachel Ray cookbook. But Jen does work for Eric Ripert, and the man doesn’t hire crap chefs. I find it hard to believe she’d send out something that tasted like an old, wet, bacon-flavored sock and then stubbornly go to the mat for it. And for all the judges’ nattering about how personality and attitude aren’t taken into consideration when cutting a chef, all I say to that is, come on. Taste-o-vision would solve this once and for all.
[Full recap of Wednesday's (Dec. 15) "Top Chef All Stars" after the break...]
Anyway, let’s get to it. David Chang, owner of the Momofuku restaurants, is the judge of the Quickfire Challenge, which Padma describes as a mise-en-place race. I thought that meant David Chang would be walking around, admiring the placement of everyone’s little ramekins of seasonings, but it’s really a speed challenge. Hey, really know how to make something fun sound as exciting as a root canal, “Top Chef.”
I love that Antonia and Jamie are on the same team. Maybe Antonia can cut herself and wrap the wound in duct tape, just to show us how it’s done. But what really kills me is that Antonia doesn’t seem to know how to peel more than one garlic clove at a time. I’m not a professional chef and even I know that you smash ‘em. Of course, Antonia may be hung up on the idea that every clove must be perfectly sliced, but c’mon, the teams get fifteen minutes to cook something – just smash ‘em, woman! I have lost all respect for her, honestly. That’s just a special level of dumb.
Despite Antonia being simple-minded, her team finishes their mise-en-place second. Still, that doesn’t pay off in a winning dish. There’s a lesson to be learned about speed versus quality or haste makes bad tastes or something like that, but the losers are too bummed out about not getting the award of five grand each to really take this as an educational opportunity. Richard (with Tre, Spike and Stephen) wins the challenge, as their lamb dish looks a little weird but spectacular, which is a good summation of everything Richard cooks. He is absolutely the one to beat this season.
For the elimination challenge, each of the four teams will be having dinner at a different but equally amazing New York restaurant -- Ma Peche, Townhouse, Marea or wd-50 – and from that experience, each chef must create a dish that would fit onto that restaurant’s menu. And, oh yeah, it’s a double elimination.
At Ma Peche, Tiffany D. gets bitchy about Angelo talking too much over dinner. Shut up, Tiffany. Unless he’s really full of crap, the guy seems to have an exceptional palate, so maybe Tiffany should listen to what he’s saying and try to apply it to her own cooking, which so far has seemed pretty average. On the other hand, Tre finds Stephen equally annoying, but I get that. Just like Angelo, Stephen likes to talk, but instead of rhapsodizing about the food, Stephen wants to educate everyone to the fact that they are at a Very Important Restaurant in which he eats All The Time. Stephen does not mention the other obvious fact, which is that he is a Very Pretentious Putz.
Although all the food looks insanely good, if I had to pick one restaurant where I’d like to snag a reservation I’d have to choose Townhouse. David Burke is the crazy mad hatter of fine dining, and something has to be said for a chef that sees every dish as a showstopper. That said, I am a little conflicted about the fish swimming around in the bottom of the cocktails, as I read once that women used to do the same thing with clear Lucite platform shoes in the 1970s and things didn’t go well for the fish after a few days. I mean, I eat fish, but I tend not to torture them. Anyway, I think cooking in Burke’s style would be the most fun, and I’m sad Richard didn’t snag Townhouse for the challenge. The marriage of Burke’s style with Richard’s style would be a wonderfully whacked out marriage, sort of like Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley if that had worked out and hadn’t been kind of creepy.
The guest judges are Kate Krader of Food & Wine and, yay, Anthony Bourdain! He may fling out some criticism that border of nonsensical, but he always delivers his verdicts with supreme confidence in a booming voice, so at least he’s entertaining and effectively intimidating. Anyone who makes the chefs shake a little is good by me.
At Marea, Spike’s fish get a thumbs-down for texture, even though the skin is crispy. Richard gets his usual praise and Stephen’s meal tastes, as Bourdain puts it, like “a head shop.” Tre’s fish is deemed simple but tasty. I’m going to guess Stephen is going home. No one survives after their food has been unfavorably compared to weed.
At Ma Peche, Angelo gets universal praise for using white chocolate on fish. That has to be a taste sensation, because on paper it sounds like something I’d eat to make myself throw up after a long night of drinking. Mike gets a solid rating, which is honestly a little surprising since he seems out of his depth when it came to fusion cuisine and the dish itself doesn’t suggest greatness. But Mike still performs far better than Fabio or Tiffany D. Fabio has too much going on in his dish, while Tiffany D. doesn’t have enough. Of course, we knew Fabio was going to struggle with this challenge. If he can’t find a way to Italian it up, he tends to just fling a bunch of ingredients at the wall and hope for the best.
Oooh, Townhouse. This is the one I can’t wait to see. At least everything will look interesting. But Antonia’s dish doesn’t look like much more than peas and carrots, and I’m not sold on Jamie’s bacon and tomato soup, which sounds like something you’d get at an upscale cafeteria, not a great restaurant. Not surprisingly, Bourdain and Burke don’t love the soup. But I’m surprised when Dale L., who seemed so excited for the challenge, crashes and burns. Then again, Casey mentions that his excitement to throw popcorn and peanuts into a dish may have resulted in a mess of flavors no one would want to eat. Poor Dale. The judges deem his French toast is too sweet, and, um, they don’t love that he paired it all with veal. And yeah, that sounds pretty darn revolting. On the other hand, Casey’s meal and Antonia’s meals are proclaimed winners.
Although Casey seems like a sweet Texas belle, I have to wonder – if Dale had her sample every component of his dish, how did he end up with a disgusting mess o’ veal and French toast? I’m hoping we just aren’t seeing the footage of her trying to poke a hole in the balloon of his crazypants idea, but if she just let him go on thinking he was making something tasty Santa should put a lump of kickass in her stocking.
At wd-50, Bourdain thinks Tiffani’s dish is a mess and claims the melon is an intruder at the party, which creates a very entertaining visual, I have to say. Dale T.’s version of breakfast is a big hit, and Tom thinks the broth tastes like breakfast, which isn’t what I look for in a broth, but okay. Carla’s dish is nice but safe, which sounds like something Carla would cook. Ironically, Marcel, who was SO EXCITED to be cooking at wd-50 because it was SO HIM delivers a lamb dish that’s apparently bland and timid. Methinks Marcel is overconfident. And kind of a tool.
It’s all giggles in the back room as the chefs await judgment. But things sober up in a hurry when Padma asks to see Dale T., Angelo, Antonia and Tre. The winner gets a six night trip to New Zealand, which honestly isn’t long enough considering how hellish that flight is (and hello, you’ll want to see more than freakin’ Auckland). But hey, it’s a prize. Sort of.
Anthony asks Dale if he realized that Wylie Dufresne is a notorious egg slut, and Dale says, um, yeah. I think Wylie Dufresne should get a bumper sticker that says that, simply because it would cause traffic accidents. For his broth that tastes like breakfast and gooey egg, Dale wins the trip and bragging rights for a week.
Next up, the losers: Stephen, Tiffani, Fabio and Dale. Half of them are going home, egads. As they trudge out to meet their fate, Antonia urges them, “Don’t pull a Jen.” It’s sad when your name becomes a catchphrase.
Unlike last week, everyone seems to be working very, very hard to keep things civilized – both the judges and the chefs. Fabio admits he overflavored his dish, even though he does try to make the point that all of the ingredients were ones from Ma Peche’s menu. Tom counters by politely stating that the lamb had too much fat and the cassoulet was overreduced. You can tell Fabio wants to argue, but just sucks it up. We may have gotten one great flame-out episode from Jen, but it’s definitely had a chilling effect on the show.
For a moment I think Stephen’s going to go to the mat for his dish (shades of Jen), because he admits he feels frustrated – then quickly explains that he’s just frustrated with himself, because he’s an expert on Italian cuisine. Yes, he’s an expert at eating it on a nightly basis in expensive restaurants. By that measure, Donald Trump should have a Michelin star. Bourdain points out his food tasted like perfume. Big ick.
Tom tells Tiffani her food was watery and mushy, but then we quickly move on. Even though she made a mushy melon dish, I don’t think she’s going home yet.
Dale L. says Townhouse is food with jazz hands, and everyone laughs because everyone loves Dale. But Tom didn’t understand the inspiration. He suggests that just maybe slapping veal on a breakfast dish was not a great idea.
After the chefs are sent out of the room, the judges get to chattin’. But even without witnesses who own sharp knives, their critiques are a little polite and boring. Bourdain says Fabio’s dish lacked confidence. Um, okay. I thought it looked a bit like pre-chewed food, but I’m sure it also lacked confidence. Tom adds that he felt there was too much going on. Bourdain then says Tiffani’s dish was parody instead of homage. Are we talking about food or those Steve Martin “Pink Panther” movies? Where are the pithy comments? Does Bourdain have a head cold or an Ambien hangover or something? Maybe all of the judges are in a carb-induced stupor, but sadly, I think it’s probably just Jen residue.
Then, the judges deliver the verdict. Stephen and Dale L. are given the boot. Really? Dale sucked more than Fabio? Granted, Dale did make veal. With French toast. Okay, maybe Dale really did suck more than Fabio’s pre-chewed foos this week. Stephen, of course, should have left the first week. Or maybe not have even made it onto the show. There’s some truth to it when Stephen admits he was a better chef on his first season, as he hasn’t been in the kitchen much since then. He’s been too busy eating in fine restaurants to dirty his hands with, you know, cooking and stuff.
There’s a great, telling moment when the newly deposed Dale and Stephen walk into the backroom. Stephen announces he’s going and gets no reaction, as everyone’s too busy thinking, “Yeah, about time, you pretentious ninny,” but when Dale says he’s going? Big moan. I loved Dale. He was fun. He was entertaining. And I can’t believe he couldn’t nail David Burke’s style. But then I remember, mmmm, sweets ‘n’ veal.
Someone cuts themselves next week. Maybe that’s the way they need to plug the series, “BLOODIEST ‘TOP CHEF’ EVER!” Hey, whatever gets ratings. Because this week, the passion just wasn’t there for anyone. It almost makes you miss crazy Jen.
Do you think Dale L. deserved to leave? Would you have eaten Tiffani’s mushy melon dish? And do you think Stephen deserved to last longer than Jen?