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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 03/ 3/2011

Top Chef All Stars Ep. 12: A Final Five!

By Carol Blymire

Doesn't it seem like years and years ago that Casey, Dale, Stephen and Spike were on the show? This has been a looooong season in some ways, and yet I feel like these past two weeks have flown by and now I'm getting a little sad that “Top Chef All-Stars” is nearly over. As I poured myself a glass of wine and settled into the couch to watch this week's episode, I thought to myself, "They should eliminate two people this week, or just let all five go through. I can't pick a final four. It's too hard."

The show opened up in the abandoned comedy club yet again, and then cut to the chefpartment where The Lakshmi arrives to tell the chefs they need to suit up and meet her on the roof ... which just so happens to overlook the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Padma tells them they're headed to Ellis Island for a challenge. And it's Quickfire time. When they board the ferry, they have to cook a dish using only the food found on the boat -- nachos, hot dogs, shrink-wrapped doughnuts, etc. -- and complete the dish before the boat docks at Ellis Island. They can start when they hear the boat's horn, and must stop when it blows again just before docking. They have no clue how much time they have, and once the horn blows, they scramble around to cook.

After docking at Ellis Island, Padma brings chef Dan Barber aboard to be a guest judge. I love that Mr. Farm-to-Table has to eat Factory-to-Ferry. But what I love more is that he is the kind of chef this show should have every week as a judge, instead of a certain processed food queen from Georgia who supports animal abuse, factory farming and morbid obesity. Ahem. Back to this week. And Dan Barber. Yay for Dan Barber!

The cheftestants served the following:

  • Richard: hot dog beef jerky with jalapeno, pork rinds, lettuce and apple, which he cleverly calls a riff on a banh mi
  • Tiffany: depressing-looking nachos with cheese, lettuce, tomato, jalapeno, banana pepper and sour cream; and, popcorn with candied mangoes and pineapples
  • Mike: "peasant" bread soup with cheddar cheese, sour cream, green chili and pork rinds (which he admits he wouldn't even feed to his cat)
  • Carla: orange and papaya salad with carrot and rosemary juice
  • Antonia: grilled cheese sandwich with apples on raisin bread

Dan called Tiffany's dish "a throwaway" and thought Mike's was pretty awful, too. He loved Richard's dish, called Carla's "refreshing and innovative," and loved the porkiness that showed up in Antonia's sandwich because she grilled it on the hot dog rollers. He proclaims Carla the winner, and Richard seethes and grimaces.

The Elimination Challenge builds on the Ellis Island theme, and asks each chef to draw upon family history to assemble the perfect dish that tells the story of their ancestry. The show hired a genealogical expert to look into their backgrounds to help them drill down on their specific cultural heritage. And just as they start to think about that, in walk their spouses and/or mothers. Carla's husband, Matthew, walks in with Tiffany's mom, Antonia's mom, Mike's mom, and Richard's wife, Jazmin, who was five months pregnant with their second child at the time.

Each of the cheftestants walks off with their respective loved one to sit on a park bench and read over their genealogy reports. Richard learns more about his Irish and English heritage, and discovers he has both a butcher and a chemist in the family tree. Tiffany explores her Texas and Louisiana roots. Carla's great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War and was one of the last slaves to be freed in Tennessee, after which he became an entrepreneur. Mike digs into his Italian family background. Antonia learns she is likely to be distant cousins with Mike, with the same Sicilian family name a few generations back. As they all talk about grandparents and their families, there are some serious tears going on, and I need the editors to just knock it off, because how am I going to mock the show if they're being all mushy and nice to each other?

The cheftestants say goodbye to their loved ones for now, shop at Whole Foods (which I'm thinking is *not* on Ellis Island, right?), then go back to the apartment to talk about their genealogy reports. They look at one another’s photos, and it's impossible not to laugh at one of Mike standing rather proudly in a pink and green jazz pants-leotard combo from a dance recital when he's about 6 years old. Like I wrote on Twitter when the episode aired: I will personally donate $100 to Share Our Strength if Mike wears a replica of that outfit on a live video chat with Joe Yonan and Bonnie Benwick right here on this newspaper's website. (And Joe says he’ll match that donation.) Make it happen, Mike.

The next day, the chefs cook at a restaurant along the river, where their family members will join Padma, Tom, Gail and Dan Barber for dinner. The cheftestants are in the kitchen working diligently on their food. The common theme in all their dishes seems to be braising, which makes me happy because if you can't successfully braise something, you shouldn't be on the show, let alone make it this far in the competition.

Mike is first to present his dish, and gets a little choked up when he approaches the table. Ah, the redemption/softer-side edit. We know it well, Top Chef. It usually happens when someone is about to be sent home. But my fingers are crossed that the editors are just messing with us and Mike isn't going anywhere. Mike's dish is gnocchi with braised pork shank ragu and whipped burrata. And I want to eat every last bit of what's on that plate.

As the judges and family members begin eating and talking about the food, it's clear we're not going to hear what the judges really think. I mean, do you want to criticize a chef's food in front of his wife, or her mom? Not gonna happen.

Next up is Antonia, and we learn she's been cooking since the age of 10, when her family opened a restaurant in Beverly Hills. She serves braised veal with a broccoli rabe leaf and fava bean risotto. This is one good-looking plate of food, and I really want to make it this summer when favas come back in season. Tom says it's "packed with flavor."

As Tiffany is finishing her dish for service, she's stressing out about being in the top five, which is where she was when she got eliminated in her season. She's also a little nervous that she's made okra as part of her dish, knowing full well that Tom loathes it. Her dish is braised short rib with mustard greens, stewed okra and oxtail marmalade. And, sigh ... Tiffany does a poo-looking smear on the plate, which I just can't stand. Everyone at the table loves her dish, and they also seem surprised that they like it. Tom admits that he liked her okra.

Richard says his English-Irish-American Midwest heritage called for a steak and potatoes theme. He serves short ribs, potatoes, fried bone marrow, corn puree and pickled sea beans (glasswort). And as I look at the plate of food and watch him compose the dish, I want to eat this one, too. I'd eat bone marrow every day, if I could. And the pickled sea beans? LOVE.

Carla's the last one to go, and Padma asks her husband, Matthew, how they met. He said they got married eight months after meeting via, and everyone ooohs and aaaahs, while Carla is back in the kitchen feeling nervous and not loving her plate before it goes out. She serves a braised pork shoulder with fried grits, corn and sweet potato hash, plus cheddar biscuits (passed family style down the table). Everyone loves this dish, and there are big old smiles all around as they devour her food.

Antonia's mom asks, "Can't there be a final 5"? And now, I'm wondering if that's what they'll do.

And then, after just a few minutes in the Stew Room, all five cheftestants are called before Judges' Table where we go chef-by-chef to hear their honest feedback on each dish:

  • They all loved Carla's pork dish; Tom loved the broth. Gail loved the biscuits. Tom called it soulful and flavorful.
  • Dan loved Richard's dish and the thoughtfulness in it. Tom thought it made perfect sense, and told a good story.
  • Padma loved Antonia's dish, and Gail loved the veal shank. Tom loved the risotto.
  • Tom confesses to Tiffany that he's an okra convert now. And said the dish was good. And the editing of this makes me think she's going home.
  • Mike's dish is called satisfying, soulful and so simple, honest and good. Mike gets choked up and cries because he hasn't cooked Italian food since his grandmother died. Gail tells him his mom said his gnocchi rivaled his grandmother's, and that Gail thinks he made her proud.

The chefs are dismissed so the judges can deliberate for real, and they confess to having a tough time. Dan Barber says, "each of these dishes was stunning" -- and that is a remarkable compliment, don't you think? They went down the list, rehashing all the dishes and could barely find anything negative to say about any of them.

The chefs are called back to Judges' Table where they learn that in addition to winning a new Toyota Highlander hybrid, the winner will move on to the finals (in the Bahamas. Dan says all the dishes were amazing, but that they had to choose one dish that rose above all the others as the winner, and that dish is: Antonia's.

Mike is told he, too, is safe. He and Antonia celebrate in the Stew Room.

Tom then talks to Tiffany, Carla, and Richard with the dramatic, pensive Top Chef theme music playing in the background.

Padma says, "Richard ... please pack ... your ... knives, you're going to the Bahamas!" Richard is safe, too. WHEW! Though it's quite clear he wants to stab Padma. You can see the daggers in his eyes.

Tiffany and Carla are left standing. The camera cuts from one to the other ... the tense Top Chef theme still playing in the background ... And Padma says, "Carla ... Tiffany ... you're both going to the Bahamas." Tiffany and Carla pretend to look all sad and downtrodden as they go back into the Stew Room, just to mess with the other three, who leap out of their chairs to hug and high-five them when they reveal neither of them was eliminated.

And there it is, kids. It's a final five for Top Chef All-Stars. In the Bahamas. Next week.

How 'bout them apples...?

Next week: Mike drools over Padma in a bikini. The chefs have to cook head-to-head against the chef who won their original season -- the undeserving duo of Kevin Sbraga and Hosea Rosenberg, the awesome Stephanie Izard, and Michael Voltaggio looking hottie-hot-hot with surfer blond hair (Tre who?). The cheftestants also have to dive, snorkel and swim to catch their own food, and somehow there's a fire truck and kitchen evacuation involved. And crying. Oh, with the crying...

By Carol Blymire  | March 3, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Television  | Tags:  Carol Blymire, Top Chef, Top Chef All-Stars, television  
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i thought it was funny that they managed to get a plug in for, but not also, i don't think they were ever going to send anyone home in this challenge. to get people to cook something that emotionally based, then send anyone home for it, would have been cruel.

Posted by: jawjwon | March 3, 2011 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I have been Top Chef aficionado from the start and have seen every single episode of Top Chef and Top Chef-All Stars, but I am loosing interest. The more ridiculous challenges become, the more bored I get. Forcing chefs to use preservative laden processed foods and drinks is equivalent to assuring public that there is nothing wrong with consuming this kind of unhealthy junk food. Makes me wonder if a vending machine owners association of some sort is among Top Chef sponsors.

As to the new Top Chef All-Stars line-up, I am quite au courant when it comes to the food world, but I don't know any of the so called "All-Stars." Might not watch it. At this point I am more interested in dinner Joe Yonan is COOKING? for multitudes at the National Press Club at the end of the month. Details, please! (Price, menu and do you have to be single to attend?)

Posted by: skipper9 | March 3, 2011 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I love this show! I can't wait until the next Top Chef. Some of the quick fires have pushed the envelope, but some of the more talented chefs can take dreck and make good food, plus they are fun to watch! The challenges haven't been silly! Great show, great fun. Glad Marcel is gone!

Posted by: MILWI | March 3, 2011 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Even though there are still 2 episodes left, what was the point of last night's? And what would they have done with the Ellis Island concept if Fabio were there?
Worst Top Chef episode to date.

Posted by: Kenna2 | March 3, 2011 2:40 PM | Report abuse

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