Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Now it's your turn to do the roasting."

Thursday, January 6, 2011

*Note: The following two paragraphs were hastily written OVER A MONTH ago. I have the best of excuses for getting around to this post now, some adorable and perfect, and some Christmas festivities- and family holiday-related. I fully intend to get back on track, long before there are SIX episodes of TC in the proverbial can.

We are currently twelve days into December, and I only have two measly blog posts to show for it. I can't say that I or my loyal few are really surprised, particularly considering that I've just finished fall quarter at grad school. You might think of this last week as my resting-on-my-laurels-though-entirely-undeserved period. It's completely normal for me at the end of a quarter. I casually research and do bits of reading and outlining here and there in the weeks leading up to a paper, then work manically on it in the 48 hours before the due date. I breathlessly e-mail the paper an hour or two before it's due, and then heave a huge sigh of relief and spend the next seven days or so in self-satisfied bliss, as though I have just achieved a tremendous accomplishment. I'm not proud. It's shameful behavior, really.

What is perhaps most shameful about this particular occasion is that I have allowed not just one, but TWO episodes of what could very well be the most entertaining, shocking, and delicious season of Top Chef pass by.

And now I shall return to my regularly scheduled programming :)

Opening scenes:
Top Chef: All Stars has thus far been an extremely satisfying, if shocking season. I was thrilled by the group thrown together. Who wouldn't want to hear more of Fabio's confusing analogies? Or witness Angelo's shenanigans and cringe at his sexual food references? Or heartily cheer on the most adorable Tre, so wrongfully eliminated in Season 3 after a particularly stressful Restaurant Wars? I wasn't especially happy to see Marcel, who hasn't changed one single bit and is still reeking of immaturity, or the prone-to-ferocious-bouts-of-anger Dale Talde, but I was consoled by the fact that at least they're all quite talented.

The first episode began in a typical all-stars fashion, with the chefs listing various reasons why they're back to win, interspersed with glimpses of upcoming episodes. Padma, clad in an odd, geometric-patterned black and white dress, delivered her usual spiel with aplomb, sharing the exciting news that the winner would receive $200,000 (instead of the usual $100K) furnished by Buitoni. At least this time, the sponsor is actually related to food, unlike last season's Palmolive disaster.

Tiffani Faison (Season 1 runner-up) was the first to arrive at the fab apartment in NYC, and the remaining chefs trickle in, in order of their seasons. The drama is immediately notched up when we get back footage of Marcel and his behavior from Season 2. He acts like someone who wants to be friends with those guys from Jersey Shore. The Season 3 contestants are all bound to be fan favorites, Casey, Tre, and Dale L. They're sweet, and not the back-stabbing types. I'm a bit worried that they'll be able to hold their own against the likes of the Vegas cast and Angelo.

Not surprisingly, Richard Blais, the runner-up from Season 4, is the first chef to arrive from the Chicago cast. In not one minute, I found myself loathing him, because the first words out of his mouth were something along the lines of "I think the only reason anyone remembers my season is because I didn't win." While I was attempting to recover from my disgust at his arrogance, I looked up his bio, discovering that he has done virtually nothing of significance since his season aired, and in fact losing over a million on one restaurant venture. Stephanie Izard, his season's winner (and the only female winner thus far), has patiently worked on the establishment of her first solo restaurant over the past two years, and has seen great success. It was recently written up in the New York Times. Take that, Blais. His mentality is disappointing, because he is indeed quite talented, and displayed humble and generous behavior during his original season.

The Chicago cast is rounded out with three other contestants, Spike Mendelsohn (also more successful than Richard), Dale Talde, and Antonia Lofaso. Antonia I love. I'm praying she doesn't meet any pigeon peas this time around.

New York is represented by Jamie "This is Top Chef, not Top Scallop" Lauren and Fabio Viviani, the "good Italian dog." Apparently, he has had problems in the past with both Jamie and Marcel, who the producers shove in front of the elevator to greet him as soon as he arrives. Kindly, mother-hen Carla is also amongst the mix.

Jen and Mike Isabella are the representatives from the Vegas cast, arguably the most talented group in the history of the show. Though I initially disliked Jen, she is an AMAZING chef, with good delegating skills and a tough skin. Mike is a good example of a dark horse; he initially doesn't seem like much, but every so often, he delivers with something really great.

There is no way the All Stars season would have been able to pass up giving Angelo a second opportunity to take the prize, so it's no surprise seeing him arrive last, with Tiffany Derry, Season 7's fan favorite, who just missed the Singapore finale. As a whole, the whole group is very, very strong.

To demonstrate the special nature of the season, the Bravo producers have provided especially sleek black chef coats. The chefs nervously don the jackets, and get ready to head to the Calphalon, GE, and Glad-stocked Top Chef kitchen. Let the games begin!

Quickfire challenge:
I'm always happy to see Tom, who stands with an elegant Padma in the kitchen. She quickly reminds them that NONE of them took home the final prize. Always has a slight edge, that Padma. I do love her delicate gold necklace, though. The first challenge is a creative spin on figuring out which season is best. The chefs have to work with other chefs from their season to create a dish that represents their city. Already I'm dreaming about what pork deliciousness will come from Team Miami.

Richard decides to make mustard ice cream with a gourmet hot dog, utilizing his liquid nitrogen skills. Of course.

Team New York decides to make a trio of apple. Jamie, who is rather catty, immediately separates from her team, because she's so sure that she's better than both of them. Ironic, considering that Carla and Fabio lasted longer than she did.

Marcel's apple-wrapper for the fish tacos he's making with Elia seems strange. I don't think I would like apple with my avocado and fish. Tiffany and Stephen work on a cioppino to represent San Francisco, and immediately the viewers are treated to a sweating Stephen working slowly and painstakingly on the dish. He's a sommelier, people, not really a chef!

Tom and Padma determine that the San Francisco cioppino is overwhelmed with raw garlic garnish. As I predicted, the fish tacos are a disaster. I'm sensing a trend of weaker earlier seasons. New York's trio strategy also falters, though Jamie's soup was singled out as solid. Of course she was thrilled by that. Angelo and Tiffany were also criticized, though I'm sure Angelo blamed everything on the fish he dropped on the floor after a run-in with the hapless Stephen.

Miami's pork tenderloin with mango-habanero sauce, Chicago's sausage with mustard gelato, and Vegas' lobster and bucatini were selected as the strongest dishes, to no real surprise. I could have devoured each one of those dishes in about two minutes. Team Chicago was declared the winner, much to Mike Isabella's chagrin. I have to say I think it truly looked the best.

Elimination challenge:
After the Chicagoans gleefully celebrate their victory, a group of staff arrives in the kitchen, carrying ominous covered silver platters. Their hearts quickening, the chefs lift the covers to reveal the dishes that sent them home. I am LOVING these challenge ideas! Points for creativity, Bravo! As if they weren't already petrified, Padma reveals the identify of the new guest judge, the master of acerbic wit, Anthony Bourdain.

Some of the chefs have greater challenges to get over than others. Spike still has to use frozen scallops in his dish. Dale Talde has to figure out a way to redeem butterscotch scallops. Stephen was eliminated for his poor front-of-house performance, so has to prepare dishes that he never made in the first place. I'm worried about him-he looks entirely out of place next to the other chefs.

Jamie has met her nemesis, black bass with braised celery, once more. It was that particular challenge that made me dislike her the first time, when she arrogantly informed ERIC RIPERT, of all the chefs, that she never liked his dish in the first place. As if that is an excuse for making it poorly. I'm so glad she has to make it again. She is in sore need of humility.

The chefs are serving at the Russian Team Room, and when they arrive, Tom informs them they'll be cooking in two groups of nine. When they're not cooking, the chefs will be dining with the judges. Always fun. They're relentless when it comes to judging their competitors.

It appears that Stephen isn't ready within ten seconds of plating time. Richard give me further reason to dislike him when he continues to plate after time is called. Everyone gives him the evil eye as the ticking of the timer sounds loudly in the background. A sneaky producer directs the chefs in the kitchen to a television displaying the second group of chefs and the judges preparing to dine.

Elia sits in a corner while the chefs and judges begin to eat, avoiding the judgment and harsh criticisms. Padma immediately finds a tiny scale in one of the dishes. Angelo, Richard, and Dale are all successful at their attempts to improve their dishes. Fabio's pasta is universally panned, especially for its presentation on paper. He immediately develops animosity for Anthony Bourdain, who refers to it as "an inside-out animal." Elia's dish is also loathed, though to Marcel's credit, he doesn't participate in the slam.

Group 2 has the advantage of knowing what half their competition has put forward, giving them renewed vigor in the kitchen. Group 1 is much more subdued arriving at the table, considering they've already heard all the comments.

Spike is celebrated for his craftiness in hiding his frozen scallops, earning high praise from Anthony Bourdain. Mike Isabella, who had a particularly difficult challenge given he had to make a vegetable dish, also made a great dish. Casey also redeemed herself. Marcel, Jen, and Dale were all given poor reviews.

Judges' table is always interesting in these situations, because the judges usually have a slightly different view of the dishes, less guided by personal issues. Padma called out Spike, Jamie, Richard, and Angelo as the top four dishes, though Richard is eliminated from consideration because of his timing error. Thanks for following the rules, judges! Annoyingly, he feigned ignorance, which I simply don't believe. This isn't his first Top Chef rodeo. Angelo is declared the winner, and he continued his habit of appearing shocked at hearing of his victory. Dale Talde had his first rage-fueled moment, expressing extreme displeasure that Richard didn't win. I'd like to see what Dale would have done if the clock had run out on a contestant not from his season.

Stephen, Fabio, and Elia made the least favorite dishes of the evening. Bless Stephen's heart and tie pin. I'm not sure if he's prepared to handle the intensity of Top Chef. Elia committed the unforgivable error of completely raw, unseasoned fish. Fabio can barely control his Italian anger, which is kind of like a small kitten pawing at a large dog. All he can focus on is how much Anthony Bourdain hated his paper-plated pasta. Despite his bitterness and misery, Elia is the first elimination. Besides the inherent problem of raw fish, she had opted to do practically nothing to improve the dish, feeling that it was solid the first time around. Lesson learned, Elia. You don't know better than the judges.

Whew! One done, four to go!

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