After far, far too brief a hiatus, Top Chef returned last night, with a merry band of All-Stars in tow. “All-Stars,” of course, is very convenient shorthand for “prior contestants suffering from various degrees of bitterness, self-delusion, and a disproportionate need for vengeance.” Everyone here bears an uncanny resemblance to a bride left at the altar, albeit one with sleeve tattoos and a God complex.
Our All-Stars, of course, are competing in New York, which Padma’s voiceover tells us is the “culinary capital of the United States.” Aw, thanks. It is also, as we will find out later in the episode, synonymous with apples, “apples, apples, apples.”
To get things rolling, we’re re-introduced to the contestants as they arrive in the glittering Brooklyn loft where they’ll be
incarcerated living for the season. Almost every last contestant reminds us that they’re competitive and here to win, a sentiment driven home by Season 3’s Tre Wilcox: “I ain’t playing around with this motherfucker,” he proclaims. “I was kind of seen as a threat,” Season 2’s Marcel Vigneron gloats, but whether that was because of cooking prowess or the flammability of his hair products is anybody’s guess.
Here’s Spike Mendelsohn, a former kitchen rat who’s “bloomed”; smug Jamie Lauren, “here to kick ass”; gentle, alien-like Carla Hall, whose “challenge is to cook from my heart”; Richard Blaise, who has his eye on Jen Carroll’s “massive pedigree”; Mike Isabella, who’s put on a few pounds since Season 6; Elia Aboumrad, who warns us that — spoiler alert! — “this time, I’ll win”; and blustery Fabio Vivani, who, as he rides the elevator to the loft, mutters, “We’re going up, but it feels like we’re going to hell.” So true.
And then it’s time for the Quickfire Challenge, presided over by ever-suave Tom and the thoughtfully styled Padma, mercifully sans pirate frills and hooker business-casual attire.
The first order of business, other than plugging the G.E. MONOGRAMMED KITCHEN, is for the chefs to split into teams by season to make a dish that will represent the city where their season took place. The winning team gets immunity, and “bragging rights” that their season was the bestest ever.
Season 1’s Stephen and Tiffany make cioppino to represent San Francisco; Season 2’s Marcel and Elia make shrimp tacos to represent L.A.; Season 3’s Dale L., Casey, and Tre make pork with tostones and mango-habanero salsa; Season 4’s Antonia, Richard, Spike, and Dale T. make homemade sausages with mustard gelato to represent Chicago; Season 5’s Jamie, Fabio, and Carla make a trio of apple dishes to represent — heh! — the Big Apple; Season 6’s Jen and Mike make bucatini with bacon carbonara to represent the fact that Las Vegas “doesn’t have a lot of culture” but does have a history of Italian mobsters; and Season 7’s Angelo and Tiffany make crab cakes to represent D.C.
And Chicago wins, thanks in part to Professor Blaise’s use of a liquid nitrogen canister to represent the city’s avant-garde. “I’m back, son, this is how we do it!” Dale T. gloats, while Mike I. stares at the camera and says, “Sausage with mustard. Big whoop.”
And for their next act? The Elimination Challenge, Padma announces, clearly relishing her role as the ringleader of this protracted S&M spectacle, will require the contestants to “make the dish that sent you packing, but this time, make it great.” Spike once again confronts the specter of frozen scallops, while Jamie wonders if she can finally do justice to Eric Ripert’s sea bass with celery, and Stephen realizes that he’ll actually have to spend time in the kitchen, rather than quaffing wine in the front of the house. “I don’t think he came out of the trenches,” Tre observes of Stephen. “I think he came out of the Macy’s Day Parade.”
The chefs retreat to the kitchen, where they’ll have two hours of prep time before returning the next day to serve their resurrected wrecks in the Russian Tea Room. And then we’re treated to a flashback to the episode where Elia shaved her head, which — da-da-DAHHH — isn’t the last humiliation she’ll suffer on this episode.
In the Russian Tea Room kitchen, Tom splits the contestants into two groups, each of which will eat the other’s dishes with the judges … and have their disparaging comments aired on what Tiffany calls “big-ass television” in the middle of the kitchen.
In the first round, the chefs sit down with Tom, Padma, Gail, and a smirking Anthony Bourdain. Angelo’s ramen, Richard’s pork belly, and Dale T.’s butterscotch scallops earn approval, with Bourdain noting that Dale “unfucked” his dish. Not as lucky are Elia’s steamed snapper, Stephen’s unfocused trio of something involving an oyster sabyon, and Fabio’s handmade cerecci, which is served on paper. “It’s if you want to roll it up and smoke it,” Tom says, while Bourdain is a little more blunt: “I really, really hate it. It looks like an inside-out animal.” In the kitchen, Fabio’s nostrils flare. And then Padma commands everyone to get the hell out of her sight and back in the kitchen, where they belong, or something to that effect.
In Round 2, everyone oohs and ahhs approvingly over Antonia’s sausage and cilantro — except Tiffany, who, obviously still smarting from the previous round, notes that it just doesn’t work for her. Angelo gets a bite of nerve ending in Carla’s grilled strip steak, while Bourdain observes that the “only thing wrong with Jen’s duck is the duck.” He’s more approving of Spike’s scallops, all but hidden in a ceviche, crowing that “this is the craftiest motherfucker who’s ever been on this show.”
And then it’s off to the broom closet, until Padma appears to summon Spike, Jamie, Angelo, and Richard. They have all absolved themselves, the judges announce. But sadly, Richard is disqualified from winning the round because he went over his time limit in the kitchen — “I actually saw the tapes,” Tom says, sounding like a disappointed schoolmarm. And so Angelo is proclaimed the winner of the evening, as well as $10,000. Notably, he seems far less annoying than he did on Season 7, but that may be because he’s surrounded by people with far more glaring personality defects.
On the losing end of the spectrum are Elia, Stephen, and Fabio. Elia’s way undercooked fish leads Gail to all but scream in frustration, “You didn’t have to steam it!” The unfocused, badly proportioned mess that Stephen calls a soup dumpling leads Bourdain to ask, deadpan, “Ever have a good soup dumpling?” And Fabio is called upon to defend his use of paper, a defense that mainly consists of his berating Bourdain’s attitude. “I agree to be criticized in a constructive way, but I don’t like to be made fun of, and that’s what you did throughout the meal,” he says, as Bourdain looks on impassively.
“Don’t eliminate me — I have a lot more to do,” Elia entreats the judges, who just look at her like, yeah, whatever. And even though Bourdain notes that Stephen’s oyster sabayon made his mind drift “back fondly to my last colonoscopy,” the judges don’t have any pity for a woman who made them choke down raw fish. And so Elia is the first to go home, and, boy, do the cameras have fun lingering on her as she wipes tears from her eyes. “It’s almost not worth it,” she says of her very brief stay on the show. In the realm of televised cooking competitions, truer words have rarely been spoken.
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