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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 12/16/2010

Top Chef All-Stars Ep. 3: Finally, some food

By Carol Blymire

I'm not the kind of girl who joyfully fist-pumps the air with great enthusiasm or frequency, but opening the episode with David Chang standing next to Padma, ready to judge the chefs on their Quickfire challenge? HELL YEAH. After last week's Joe Jonas-Katie Lee mess, having David Chang's presence brought the show back to where it belongs: chefs and food.

This week's Quickfire challenge is the traditional chef relay, with a twist. The 16 cheftestants split into four groups of four (based on the order they chose to walk into the Top Chef kitchen) and must prep three ingredients -- garlic, lamb and artichokes -- then, as a team, make a dish with those ingredients. The first team to finish prep and get the Chang MomoStamp of Momopproval hits a buzzer to start a kitchen-wide 15-minute countdown clock. Meaning, at that point, there's only 15 minutes left in the whole Quickfire challenge for everyone to complete everything -- finish their prep and cook their dish.

I love this challenge.

Angelo, Mike, Tiffany D., and Fabio blow away the other teams in terms of speed, finishing their prep first and starting the countdown clock. Angelo takes the lead in shaping their dish of thyme and garlic lamb with tandoori-spiced yogurt, served with an artichoke and dill salad. Stephen, Tre, Blais and Spike team finish their prep a few minutes later and have 12 minutes to cook. Blais directs the team to make a crispy lamb chop with raw, crispy and braised artichokes, served with a chili aioli. Upon tasting it, David Chang says, "nice job," and the team can't stop smiling about it. Antonia, Stitch (I mean, Jamie), Casey and Dale L. finish their prep with just under 11 minutes to make their lamb carpaccio with crispy capers, and a salad of garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano and artichoke. Dale T., Carla, Tiffani F., and Marcel bring up the rear with just 8 minutes to cook.They, too, make lamb carpaccio but serve theirs with artichoke chips and raw artichoke salad with garlic oil.

Chang wasn't feeling the love for either the tandoori-yogurt lamb or the carpaccio with crispy capers. He really liked the other two dishes, and chose Blais, Spike, Tre (call me!) and Stephen as the winning team. There's no immunity, but each member of the winning team receives $5,000 cash.

For the Elimination Challenge, the teams stay together, and learn they'll be eating at some of New York's most celebrated restaurants. The next day, working individually and competing against the others on their team, they must each create a dish that that restaurant's chef would be proud to put on their menu.

They draw knives to determine their restaurants:

  • Má Pêche (Angelo, Mike, Fabio, Tiffany D.)

  • Townhouse (Casey, Dale L., Antonia, Stitch)

  • Marea (Stephen, Tre, Blais, Spike)

  • WD-50 (Marcel, Dale T., Carla, Tiffani F.)

It's a double-elimination challenge, with two chefs being sent home at the end of the episode. The pressure is, indeed, on.

After being greeted at Má Pêche by David Chang in chef whites (hot!), Angelo becomes "that guy" about the food. You know the type: the socially retarded guy with culinary verbal diarrhea who over-analyzes and talks about every single ingredient, technique and nuance as he's eating something. It's clearly giving Tiffany D. the stabby thoughts. At Marea, after being welcomed by chef Michael White, Blais admits he needs editing help when it comes to his food, and that he's going to have to show some restraint the next day. Wylie Dufresne greets Marcel and his team at WD-50, where Marcel is giddier than a kid on Christmas morning, and Carla embraces the challenge of marrying her classic approach with Wylie's modern inspiration and style. At Townhouse, chef David Burke overwhelms Antonia and her team with whimsical touches, larger-than-life presentations and challenging ingredient manipulations.

The next day, the cheftestants have two hours to cook their dishes in their respective restaurant's kitchen. Their food will be judged not just by Tom, Padma, Bourdain and guest Food & Wine judge Kate Krader, but also by the chef of the restaurant in which they're cooking.

This is the best challenge Top Chef has ever done -- not just because it provided a legitimate and creative challenge for the cheftestants, but also because having real, working chefs weigh in on the judging is more meaningful than the overly rehearsed witticisms of the Quippy McSoundbites and Lame-o McBookDeals who show up on the judging panel.

I know, I know... ratingsfocusgroupsproductionfavorsfanfavoriteswhatever.

Because this episode was so intensely food-focused, rather than merely summarize what dishes the judges hated and liked, I'm going to list them all for you here. The cheftestants turned out some pretty inspired flavor profiles and ingredient combinations this week that I'm hoping might, in turn, inspire you in your own kitchen. In fact, watching some of them cook these dishes made me really hungry. That rarely happens on Top Chef, so big ups to them for making my belly growl.

Marea (seafood, with modern Italian influences)

  • Tre -- grilled swordfish, artichokes, mushroom panna cotta and basil oil

  • Spike -- seared bronzino with caponata, prosciutto and a spicy vinaigrette

  • Blais -- crudo of Spanish mackerel, braised veal shank and fennel mostarda (nice!)

  • Stephen -- Coho salmon, black mission figs, rapini and fennel pollen

Má Pêche (Vietnamese-French)

  • Fabio -- roasted lamb with hoisin barbecue sauce, corn-tomato salad and lemongrass chevre-ricotta

  • Tiffany -- crudo of summer flounder with pickled radish and peach puree

  • Mike -- sockeye salmon with eggplant, marinated tomatoes and pickled peach (drool)

  • Angelo -- turmeric-marinated fish with dill, cilantro (barf), salmon roe, chorizo and white chocolate (it sounds really gross, but I bet it's awesome)

Townhouse (modern American)

  • Dale L. -- roasted veal loin with peanuts and popcorn, French toast, and corn and thyme caramel

  • Antonia -- pea and carrot purees, topped with a seared scallop, pickled carrot and mint oil (yum)

  • Casey -- coconut-halibut "scallop" with tapioca "caviar" and a ginger-carrot emulsion (double-yum)

  • Jamie -- smoked tomato-bacon soup with an heirloom tomato-smoked burrata salad

(avant-garde interpretations of familiar food)

  • Dale T. -- sunny-side-up egg dumpling with braised pork belly, and milk ramen with bacon, beef and pork (drool; I want this NOW)

  • Tiffani F. -- frozen and crumbled heirloom melons, with powdered ham and taleggio

  • Carla -- poached corn-infused shrimp, grits and okra chips

  • Marcel -- vadouvan lamb with tzatziki, pickled red onion and "anti-flatbread"

After serving their dishes, Padma saunters into the Stew Room and calls Dale T., Angelo, Antonia and Tre to Judges' Table to tell them their dishes best reflected the style and inspiration of the restaurants they cooked in, and also happened to be damn fine plates of food. Tom tells them they impressed the chefs they cooked for, and I can only imagine how good that must feel to hear. The winner is Dale T., whose play on sunny-side-up eggs helped him chalk up his first win as well as a trip to New Zealand.

Appearing before Judges' Table next are Stephen, Tiffani F., Fabio and Dale L., whose dishes were the least favorite. The judges tell Fabio his dish lacked confidence and clarity, was undersauced and just not up to David Chang's standards. They tell Stephen his dish was too aromatic in all the wrong ways, and that he failed to do the fish justice. Tom thinks Tiffani F. got seduced by Wylie's kitchen technology and did technique for technique's sake, instead of just making really good food. Dale L. confesses his dish was inspired by a breakfast dish; the judges think it not only didn't reflect the Townhouse approach or style, it just didn't taste very good.

Two chefs get sent packing: Stephen (understandably so), and Dale Levitsky (boooo; I'm really sad to see him go). Both were gracious and level-headed and all-around good sports about being let go early in the season.

And now, as this cold weather gets colder and visions of snowflakes dance in my head, I'm thinking I need to make Dale T.'s egg dish and Carla's shrimp and grits this weekend to pay homage to an episode that actually made me want to fire up the stove.

Next week, the cheftestants cook at the U.S. Open, where there's blood, pressure-cooker drama and paranoia about Angelo's motives. And, undoubtedly, forced tennis-food puns.

By Carol Blymire  | December 16, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Television  | Tags:  Carol Blymire, Top Chef, television  
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Good to see all three DC-ers are still in it, with my hopes pinned on Carla.

I think Stephen gave one of the most honest and self-aware exit interviews I've seen, and both he and Dale L. showed how it's done. A welcome relief from Elia's and Jen's sour grapes.

Posted by: poordogabone | December 20, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

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