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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 12/ 2/2010

Top Chef All-Stars: Episode 1, Redeem Thyself

By Carol Blymire

Oh, "Top Chef."  Please be kind.  I still have post-traumatic winner disorder from the DC season, but I cracked open a bottle of wine and watched some of our favorite and not-so-favorite oldies-but-goodies battle it out in the kitchen once again for what it being billed as an All-Star Season.  You're welcome.

The cast?  The list is here.

The grand prize? $200,000.  >Gulp.<

The judges? Tom Colicchio and Food & Wine's Gail Simmons, joined by Anthony Bourdain. Padma Lakshmi's hosting.

Our time?  Starts now.

Let me just get this out of the way and tell you from the get-go that I'm rooting for Antonia, Angelo, Blais, Carla, and Dale Levitski.  I like their sensibility when it comes to food, and I know they can cook.

The episode starts with Tiffani entering the chef house, joined by Stephen Asprinio, who looks like a culinary Mary Poppins, what with the brolly, pocketwatch chain, vest, and suitcases.  Elia and Marcel (sporting some Gosselin-esque hair) pretend to like each other.  I decide that I want to listen to Tre read the phone book, and squee a little when Dale Levitski and Casey saunter in.  Richard Blais, an A-1 chef and a really great guy, DC homeboy Spike Mendelsohn, Antonia, and Dale Talde arrive.  Then, there's Jamie Lauren and Fabio Viviani, both of whom my grandmother might have said "really think a lot about themselves."  Fabio's got some sort of Don-Draper-on-a-bender growout goin' on, and it really feels like this show should be called "Top Hair."  Rounding out the rest of the cast is the adorable and sweet Carla Hall, Jen Carroll, Mike Isabella, Angelo Sosa, and Tiffany Derry.  Are you hoping for more motivational-talking-to-oneself and late-night calls between Angelo and his mail-order bride?  I sure am.  The man can cook, but the hot factor dropped last season when he let his freak flag fly.

In the intro montage, they all talk about how people told them their season was the best season.  At first, I thought, uh, how arrogant until I realized that every season but the Hosea and the DC season were the best seasons.  They coat up and get to the kitchen where Tom and Padma (who would be eliminated tonight if this was called "Top Hair") await them with their Quickfire Challenge: Chefs team up with others from their season and cook a dish that represents the city where their season took place.   Winning team gets immunity.

Tom and Padma didn't like Marcel and Elia's Los Angeles shrimp tacos, nor Tiffani and Stephen's San Francisco cioppino gazpacho, nor Jamie, Fabio and Carla's New York apple trio.  And, they thought Angelo and Tiffany's DC crapcake (I'm leaving that typo) and rockfish dish was oversalted.  They liked Tre, Casey, and Dale L.'s Miami pork tostones, and Mike and Jen's Las Vegas lobster carbonara, but it's Spike, Dale T., Antonia and Richard's Chicago avant-garde hot dog that's declared the winner, and all four of them have immunity for the elimination challenge.

Out came 18 silver domes of doom, and the chefs were presented with ingredients dominating the dish that got them eliminated in their original season.  The Elimination Challenge?  They have to re-make this dish, staying true to the original concept, but improving upon it as best they can.  Whoever came up with this challenge as the first one out of the gate is a genius.

Stephen has to cook three dishes he's never made because he was eliminated during restaurant wars for focusing too much on service and not food.  Jamie has to ask Blais about how to use a Cryovac, which, really? Even I know how to do that.  And, in the interview sequence, Angelo traded in last season's Hamid Karzai hat for a  Frank Costanza Del Boca Vista tracksuit jacket zipped all the way up to his neck.

They finish their dishes in two groups, with each group getting a chance to eat and comment alongside the judges while -- surprise twist! -- the other team watches the judging process on a TV in the kitchen.  Brilliant.  New Top Chef perma-judge, Anthony Bourdain, sits across from Marcel (in his Phillip Michael Thomas Members Only jacket) and the judging begins.  They taste and trash-talk, and offer compliments where they're due.  Bourdain rips Fabio a new bucatini-hole and says his dish looks like a dead animal turned inside-out.

The chef teams switch places, Tom spills wine as he swirls his glass on the table, and Fabio sits across from Bourdain and acts like a petulant 2-year-old.  They taste and talk and compare notes, and as harsh as they were about Fabio's roadkill dish, I wonder why no one is commenting on Marcel's dish's resemblance to something out of "A Clockwork Orange."  Yowza.  I mean, I know the guy can cook, but that dish made me twitch, and not with pleasure.

In the Stew Room, Padma summons Spike, Jamie, Richard, and Angelo to Judges' Table.  Blais is told he's not being eliminated but is ineligible for the win because he was still plating while the time's-up timer was beeping.  The judges compliment Spike's ability to turn frozen scallops into frozen scallop-ade, and they liked Jamie's improvement on Eric Ripert's (call me!) fish dish.  But, it's Angelo's much-improved ramen with sweet glazed pork belly and watermelon (drool) that wins him not just the challenge, but also $10,000 cash.

In this week's losers' bracket are Fabio, Stephen and Elia.  Fabio is combative with Bourdain about the critique of his crawfish and crab pasta dish (which Bourdain then compares to his last colonoscopy); Stephen shiftlessly listens to the criticism of his lobster, oyster, and crab presentation; and, Elia gets all wobbly and cagey as she insists her steamed fish dish was good despite the fact that she never tasted one before it went out to the judges.  Whoopsie.  They go back to the Stew Room, where Fabio has a hissy fit about people making fun of him, which seems so out of character for the Fabio we knew and loved in his original season.  Unbutton your shirt a little further, dude.  Maybe that'll help.

Even though I thought, for sure, Stephen would be sent home, it's Elia who packs her knives and goes.  And cries.

Before the episode ends, we get a clip montage of what's coming our way this season: 

  • A U.S. Open challenge (in which Fabio leaps over the net, so he's still in play for whenever that episode airs, right?).
  • Cooking at the Museum of Natural History (where I don't see Tre in the group shot).
  • Paula Deen wants to whip someone's "cute little ass."
  • Jimmy Kimmel Fallon eats lunch.
  • We're subjected to a Jonas brother (barf), Elmo and Cookie Monster.
  • The cheftestants have to cook against Colicchio. 

And all throughout, there are people yelling and going to the hospital, stew room smacktalk, eye rolling, and givin' lip to the judges.

Welcome back, "Top Chef."  Looks like you might've successfully improved your own dish, yeah?  Redemption, indeed.

(Follow Blymire on Twitter.)

By Carol Blymire  | December 2, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Television  | Tags:  Carol Blymire, Top Chef  
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Next: Project Downscale: Tamales and refried beans


I'm pretty sure it's Jimmy Fallon they're going to make lunch for, not Kimmel.

Posted by: caslikethat | December 2, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Love the Clockwork Orange reference. His soup was totally swimming with eyeballs.

Posted by: maygunah | December 2, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Last night's episode of Top Chef All-Star was amazing! I'm so happy to see my favorite top chef contestants. Bourdain had me laughing like crazy. I LOVE him and I'm glad he's a judge on the show!

Posted by: OLOGY | December 2, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

@caslikethat -- D'oh! You're totally right. Sorry I got my Jimmies confused. One is married to Nancy Juvonen, and the other one is $(#($ing Ben Affleck. Right? It's fixed now -- thanks for letting us know. :)

Posted by: carolblymire | December 2, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Ummm, could I get some of whatever drugs this writer is using? I need to see the color of her sky.

Posted by: tmkelley | December 2, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Pretty sure the colonoscopy remark was directed at Steven. Something along the lines of "I've been so caught up trashing Fabio's dish that almost forgot about Steven's which reminded me of my last colonoscopy" or words to that effect.

Posted by: Fitzy1 | December 3, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

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