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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 02/24/2011

Top Chef All-Stars Ep. 11: There goes my Final Four

By Carol Blymire

We open tonight's episode with the traditional rehash of the previous week's loser. While Mike is still shocked that Angelo was eliminated, Tiffany's even more shocked that she wasn't the one sent home ... as was the rest of America, I think. But you know what? I thought a little bit this week about Tiffany's back story: how she taught herself to cook, working her way up the ranks waiting tables and then cooking at IHOP as a really young teenager, and realized this girl has been working long, hard hours in a restaurant environment for more than half her life. And while I love watching and supporting a chef with raw, innate talent, I also really admire people who bust their butts to work hard and learn and pay their dues. Does it mean I want Tiff to win? Not necessarily. I just wanted to remind myself about the core reason I grew to like her in her original season. The girl works, and works hard, unlike so many people you hear about who pay $60,000 for culinary school and expect a TV show to be handed to them.

Dale talks about how proud he was that he won both challenges in last week's show and "crushed an episode." After a minute or two of scenes from the chefpartment, they suit up and head to the Top Chef kitchen, where the evil Paula Deen awaits. Padma calls her "the queen of southern cooking," and I try not to punch my TV screen. More like the Queen of Heart Disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and Morbid Obesity. You want a queen of southern cooking, you need look no further than Nathalie Dupree. End of story. But she doesn't have a frajillion viewers she can drag from her show to this one, so we're stuck with Paula. As she emits that horrifying cackle of hers, Richard and Dale look really annoyed by the fact that she's there and that they have to look at her, and I now love them eleventy kabillion percent more than the other contestants.

The Quickfire Challenge is all about southern cooking, and the cheftestants are asked to impress Paula with their deep-fryer skills. I officially hate this challenge, so don't expect any deep thoughts or romanticized ideations for the next few minutes. Why? Because Southern food does not have to equal a deep fryer. It's insulting and stereotypical and really, really annoying.

Here's what the cheftestants made to show off their ability to put anything in a basket and lower it into boiling oil:

  • Antonia: fried avocado and fried shrimp with jalapeno, grilled corn, tomatoes and fried herbs
  • Dale: fried steak-wrapped oysters with egg-yolk omelet, parsley tips and chives
  • Blais: fried bacon with fried mayonnaise (BRILLIANT) with tomato and cucumber
  • Tiffany: fried chicken and pickles with honey mustard sauce, and a cilantro-cumin salad
  • Carla: fried catfish with Dijon mustard, hushpuppies, coleslaw with mayo, hot sauce, mint
  • Mike: fried chicken oysters with mustard gravy and oyster liquor (an idea he ripped off from something he saw in Blais's notebook)

The two least popular dishes were Dale's and Carla's. In fact, Paula called Carla's hushpuppies "spitballs." Ouch. Paula and Padma liked Mike's, Richard's and Antonia's dishes the best. Had she plated two servings instead of one (they're a stickler for the rules), Antonia would have been the winner, but instead it's Mike who takes home the $5,000 cash prize.

John Besh then joins Padma and Paula -- and, ultimately, the judging panel -- to announce the Elimination Challenge: cook Gulf coast seafood, Southern-style, for an event to raise money for the Greater New Orleans Foundation (the group that stepped in to help Gulf fishermen and their families after the BP oil spill). Adding John Besh to the mix makes me very happy. He's a nice guy, a great chef, and a solid human being with a big heart. Why Paula is sticking around is beyond me. Gggrrrrr.....

To add a little je ne sais quois to the competition, six eliminated contestants come back as sous chefs, and the current cheftestants have to choose who they want to work with based on what platter of Gulf-coast seafood they're carrying:

  • Mike chooses Tiffani, who has a platter of shrimp

  • Richard chooses Fabio and his red snapper

  • Carla chooses my boyfriend Tre, and his grouper

  • Tiffany chooses Marcel, with his white shrimp

  • Antonia chooses Spike and his crabs

  • Dale gets Angelo with the amberjack

As they plan their dishes, Carla learns that Tre knows absolutely nothing about Southern low-country cooking, and she asks him to turn in his NAACP card. And that sound you just heard was Al Sharpton booking himself on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" to try and raise a stink about the cultural-culinary gap between these two African-American cheftestants. In fact, Carla's surprise that her assumption about Tre's race-based cooking skills was wrong got me thinking about race and cooking in this country. And it made me wonder -- as a white girl -- if there are foods that I assume white people know how to make a certain way. And now I need to take Carla to lunch so we can talk this out, because I'm kind of curious about the assumptions we all make, and how -- or if -- we react when we're wrong. But that's a story for another blog/recap/whatever. Let's get back to the show.

The competitors get $200 to shop at Restaurant Depot, and $500 for a Whole Foods spree. They'll prep in the Top Chef kitchen, and then finish and serve at the presumably contrived fundraising event at the Puck Building in Manhattan.

After the shopping is done, the cheftestants head back to the chefpartment, where they chefeat, cheftalk and chefpickoneachother. Carla, Tiffany, and Antonia say they believe Mike broke "chef's law" in stealing Blais' dish. I say, it just means he was lazy. Or smart. Or both. Because, really, very few dishes are truly original. Every chef is inspired by something or someone else, and so many chefs I know have dishes on their menu that they say are "in the style of" or are "in tribute to" other chefs. Did we learn nothing from "The Social Network"? The best ideas are stolen. But they'll only succeed if they can be executed well. Writers steal from other writers, businesspeople "borrow" ideas from other businesspeople, and chefs take ideas from other chefs. It happens. This whole notion of "chef's law" is kind of silly. If I were Richard, I'd have a whole notebook of really bad ideas that I'd go on and on about in the hopes that people would steal them and screw 'em up because they were bad ideas to begin with. And, yes, that sounded a little too much like Top Chef All-Stars fanfic, didn't it? Oy. Sorry 'bout that.

The next day, they prep in the Top Chef kitchen. While Mike heckles the other cooks, we learn that Tre is unsure about how to make collard greens, which riles up Carla once again. Marcel needles Tiffany about how to cook her shrimp a certain way and won't let it drop; so, she acts like a chef (you know, a leader) and tells him how it's going to be done, and end of conversation. They finish prep in a rush before loading in to cook for the event.

Padma, Tom, Paula and Besh arrive, and go from chef station to chef station to taste the food:

Mike: grits-encrusted shrimp with sour cream and chive potatoes, and a pork-lobster sauce.
Besh loved it. Paula loved it. Tom thought the flavors were "all there."

Richard: crispy gulf snapper with pulled pork and citrus grits (I need to eat this immediately).
The judges seem to like it. As do chef-guests Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto), David Burke (Townhouse) and Carmen Gonzalez (Carmen).

Carla: fried grouper with collard greens, and chow-chow pico de gallo.
Paula hated the greens, while Tom and John thought the entire dish was a bit off.

Tiffany: honey-glazed shrimp and grits with jalapeno and cheese, and shellfish sauce.
The judges thought the shrimp were overcooked, and the sauce too sweet.

Dale: amberjack stew with andouille sausage and potatoes, and a creole mustard crouton.
Everyone noted the undercooked potato, and that the crouton was over-mustarded. And if you rewind and watch it on slo-mo (like I did to make sure I really saw what I did), when Paula says "The stee-ew is nawt bay-uhd" Tom squints and rolls his eyes. HA!

Antonia: crab cake with corn, jalapeno and andouille relish, with crab broth (GIMME).
Besh loves it, Tom loves the sauce. This has the potential to be a winner.

Back in the Stew Room, Padma calls Antonia, Richard and Mike to Judges' Table. Besh compliments Richard on incorporating pulled pork into his dish. Paula loved Mike's grit-covered shrimp. Besh loved Antonia's balance and what the andouille smoke added to the crabcake. And the winner is: Richard.

And the Paula Deen-related rage in my cold, black heart is replaced with a gushing tidal wave of WOOO-HOOOOOOOO for a talented chef, a kind man, and a supportive, teaching leader in the kitchen. Congrats, Blais. In addition to a checkmark in the "win" column, he also snags a trip to Barbados and says he's bringing Fabio along with his family. I hope he has a trusted turtle-sitter.

Up next before Judges' Table are Dale, Carla and Tiffany. The judges critique Tiffany's shrimp, which Marcel cooked, and they hated her sweet sauce, which Marcel also made a batch of. However, she stands up for her dish and takes responsibility for the mistakes. Tom hated Dale's raw potatoes and the overly mustarded crouton, and Tom and Besh hated the fact that you couldn't even taste the fish. Tom and Paula thought Carla's dish made no sense at all, and Tom lamented the fact that the fish was covered in hot sauce unnecessarily.

So, who's going home? Dale.

What WHAT WHAAAATTT???!??!?!?!!?!?!


And, oh no, Dale is crying in his exit interview. I can't take it. I just can't. Dang it. I was really liking him, and loving his food. Crapcrapcrap. Sorry to see you go, Dale.

On next week's show: Padma shows up at the chefpartment, and the chefs cook on a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty where it looks like their family members show up for dinner.

As for the final four -- which we'll know after next week's episode -- I don't even wanna speculate, 'cause if Blais isn't in it, then I'm gonna be one sad chicken. But what the heck, here goes: Blais, Carla, Antonia, and ... I'm gonna go out on a limb here: Tiffany.

By Carol Blymire  | February 24, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Television  | Tags:  Carol Blymire, Television, Top Chef, Top Chef All-Stars  
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I was very sad when Tre left and really sad that Dale was let go last night! I thought for sure it would be one of the girls, probably Tiffany. Mike is a little too "earthy" for me. I don't mind him but I don't know that I really know what kind of chef he is. Now that Dale is gone, not sure who my final four are. Richard for sure and I guess Carla. Not sure about who else!

Posted by: MILWI | February 24, 2011 9:44 AM | Report abuse

What you said about Paula Deen...DELIGHTS me! And I'm from the South.

Posted by: whenpigsfly | February 24, 2011 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Dale wasn't my favorite, but he was much more deserving than Tiffany or Mike. It's frustrating. Though Top Chef last night overall was so great. Loved it all, except Mike. He really needs to go. He’s loud, obnoxious, and now a cheater. So many emotions and only 5 chefs left!

Posted by: BlenderBabe | February 24, 2011 11:42 AM | Report abuse

What Mike Izzy did was bad, but why isn't anyone addressing what Marcel did?? He purposely sabotaged Tiffany's dish...

Posted by: Kenna2 | February 24, 2011 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Hey, commenter above me... why don't you try and pimp your lame blog yet again with another fake name. Sad.

Posted by: holyguacamole | February 25, 2011 9:37 AM | Report abuse

I'm a white, Southern woman who can't stand Paula's current persona, but who knows how to cook collards, turnip greens, etc. Maybe I can get Tre's NAACP card from Carla. lol

I'm rooting for Carla, Richard, Antonia, and Tiffany for the final four, and Carla to win it all.

Posted by: JoyY1 | March 1, 2011 11:10 AM | Report abuse

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