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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 12/23/2010

Top Chef All-Stars Ep. 4: Game, set, match. Hootie.

By Carol Blymire

The episode opens in what looks like an abandoned comedy club, where the cheftestants eat fruit (I swear), drink coffee (boring) and awkwardly rehash the most recent elimination challenge (wake me when this part's over).

Tony Mantuano, chef-owner of Spiaggia in Chicago, is on hand to judge this week's Quickfire Challenge. The cheftestants are asked to make "one of America's classic seasonal dishes: stuffing." Um, okay.

Let's bring in an award-winning Italian chef from Chicago to judge stuffing. Sure, that sounds about right. There's a lot of blah-blah-blah-ing about regional influence and home and family and whose mom's stuffing is better, and then we find out they have to pull off this challenge without knives or kitchen tools. The prize? Immunity for the Elimination Challenge and $20,000 in cold, hard cash.

As one might expect with big bucks on the line, the cheftestants knock each other over as they race toward the ingredients, and yet the shelf of sponsor Swanson's broth goes untouched. Nice camera work, Magical Elves. Carla and Casey decide that keeping their teeth intact is more desirable, so they avoid the fray and take their time pulling ingredients, saying they'll be content with whatever is left for them to use.

Sans regular utensils, the chefs MacGyver their way through the challenge. Blais makes a spoon out of a can lid. Tiffani butchers a quail with the knobby end of a pepper grinder. Fabio grates cheese on a wire shelving rack and annoyingly proclaims himself a genius. Antonia stirs what's in her pot with the stem end of a corncob. Tre uses liquid nitrogen to freeze his ingredients just so he can smash them into bits before cooking them, which makes him even more dreamy than before.

Padma and Tony go 'round the room for a taste. They didn't like Casey's wood-ear mushroom stuffing with crispy chicken liver, miso cake and mushroom dashi. Nor did they like Carla's Thai-inspired vegetable stuffing with "undone-te" black quinoa salad or Tiffani's soy-maple stuffing with quail, grilled mushrooms and grapes. I thought for sure that Dale's Spanish-style stuffing with crab, oysters, chili-lemon aioli, grapes and olive would take top prize. But instead, Tony and Padma liked Marcel's squab with raisin brioche, cherries, currants and a ras el hanout gravy, as well as Tre's Southwestern stuffing with bacon, cheddar cheese, bell pepper, cilantro and chili powder. Tre wins the challenge, and gets immunity and the $20,000.

The Elimination Challenge will take place at Arthur Ashe stadium, home of the U.S. Open. The cheftestants each select a can of tennis balls, and are then grouped into two teams based on the color of their balls. Their tennis balls, you sickos.

Team Yellow is Tiffany, Tre, Angelo, Tiffani, Spike, Jamie and Casey. Team Orange is Fabio, Carla, Marcel, Richard, Dale, Antonia and Mike. Carla's not loving her team because she doesn't jive with Fabio. Spike's not loving his team because all his buds are on the other team. It's at this point that I know who the winner and loser are. Editing dead giveaway. Man, I wish they'd stop that.

The chefs will serve their dishes head to head, and the winning dish in each face-off gets a point. Or 15 points. Or however tennis is scored. The first team with four wins takes the match. Players with point-winning dishes are up for the win, and players whose dishes lose are up for elimination. The food has to be high-energy and nutritious and work within a tennis player's diet.

The Orange Team plans its strategy with a focus on flavor. The Yellow Team members try to figure out how to sync up what they think their good and bad dishes will be vis-a-vis the other team's dishes, which seems like a colossally bad idea. They shop at Whole Foods and head over to the stadium to prep and cook.

Angelo claims his mackerel somehow went bad, and tries to snag some of Tre's salmon. Tre tells him that's not an option. Instead, Tiffany gives Angelo some of her tuna. Jamie pretends she can't figure out why her chickpeas aren't cooking, and I'm thinking to myself, "Even I know how to cook dried chickpeas, so you're clearly up to something, Stitchy McGee." Spike overcooks his shrimp and uses the last 10 minutes to pull together another batch. While finishing her prep work, Carla cuts off her a chunk of her finger and much of her fingernail, and gets it wrapped and gloved. She keeps on prepping and cooking. Team Carla!

They head out onto the courts to serve, where they're met by Tom, Gail, Tony (not Bourdain) and tennis player Taylor Dent, a guest judge. Padma's outfit makes me wonder whether she just came from a Nair commercial audition.

Up first: Fabio (whole-wheat gnocchi with pork loin) vs. Casey (pork tenderloin with farro salad).

This matchup angers Spike, because the Yellow Team members agreed that they were going to put forth their worst dish first, to make the other team give up a win early on. Or something like that. The strategy never really made sense to me, but I think the whole point of it is, that Jamie, once again, did not have to participate in this challenge and is never called out for it.

Fabio wins. (Win #1 for the Orange Team.)

Angelo decides they're throwing their "strategy" out the window.

Dale (edamame dumpling) vs. Tiffani (sashimi of black bass with avocado).
Tiffani wins. (Win #1 for the Yellow Team.)

Angelo (smoked tuna with yuzu) vs. Marcel (cauliflower couscous with
Angelo wins (Win #2 for the Yellow Team.)

Antonia (scallop with lentils) vs. Tiffany (tuna with fennel).
Antonia wins. (Win #2 for the Orange Team.)

Both teams have won twice, so they're tied.

Blais (Thai lamb, herbs, and yogurt) vs. Spike (tomato-tamarind soup with shrimp).
As they're plating Spike's dish, Angelo and Tiffani kind of take over and Angelo adds yuzu gelee to Spike's soup. Richard wins. (Win #3 for the Orange Team.)

Tre goes next even though he has immunity, and Angelo "helps" Tre by overcooking his fish. Stitch just hides her sorry ass in the background, saying she really doesn't want to go at all because her dish is terrible and she'll lose. My question is: Why does no one stand up to her? Why does her team let her pull this crap?

Tre (salmon with parsnip puree) vs. Carla (African groundnut soup).
Carla wins (Win #4 for the Orange Team.)

And with that, the Orange Team wins the Elimination Challenge, meaning Fabio, Carla, Richard and Antonia -- those who made the team's four winning dishes -- are up for the win. As they assemble before Judges' Table, Gail tells them their dishes are some of the best food the judges have eaten in any of the seasons of the show. There's great praise all around, and local D.C. gal Carla is named the winner. She wins not just the challenge, but also a trip to Italy.

Up for elimination are the Yellow Team cheftestants whose dishes lost: Casey, Tiffany, Tre and Spike. As those four file out of the Stew Room and head toward Judges' Table, Blais calls out Jamie for not having cooked in yet another challenge, and I sit on the couch cheering him on, even though this is a TV show and he can't hear me. As Casey, Tiffany, Tre and Spike stand before Judges' Table, it bums me out that none of them had the cojones to stand up to Jamie and force her to serve her dish. Being a chef means being a leader, and because none of them effectively led any of the team's decisions, they all deserve to be there. Sad, but true.

Spike's dish is criticized because the flavor balance was off and Tre's dish is criticized for the fish being overcooked and oily. Spike gets sent home because, ultimately, he didn't take control of his dish, or his team, and the final result suffered.

In the next episode: The cheftestants cook head-to-head against Tom Colicchio in the Quickfire, and serve what sounds like really bad dim sum to disgruntled, angry diners in Chinatown. This might be a good one, kids.

By Carol Blymire  | December 23, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chefs, Television  | Tags:  Carol Blymire, Chefs, Television  
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Top Chef All Stars will be improved when Jamie is gone. Just like Stephen from last week. I can't stand her.

Posted by: BrokenClipboard | December 23, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

so, not only did everyone run past the swanson broth in the quickfire, but at whole foods, when carla was shopping, she was clearly hanging out and choosing something from a large pacific display. carla was making soup, and won. pacific only sells broths and soups. so either carla eschewed the free pantry sponsor stock back at the tc:as kitchen, or she bought soup as an ingredient for her soup. maybe it was actually caprial pence that won this challenge.

Posted by: jawjwon | December 24, 2010 1:38 AM | Report abuse

I clearly saw some Whole Foods 365 brand cartons of broth; guess that's okay even if not Swanson since a boatload of Whole Foods money goes into each and every episode of TC.

Posted by: poordogabone | December 29, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

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