Top Chef All Stars: Give Me Your Huddled Masses

E: Now that’s what I’m talking about.

M: Seriously, in the entire time I’ve been watching Top Chef there have been very few times where every single contestant nailed their dish in the elimination challenge. Even in the best seasons, even in finales, even in Top Chef Masters. In fact, the only other time I can think of was the finale of the first round of Masters.

E: It’s so exciting, isn’t it?  You want to feel like everyone’s doing the best that they’re capable of.  Like a sporting event, the fans get the most out of it when everyone raises their game.

M: Exactly, you want to see the best at their best, and that’s what we’re getting!  However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s back up to the start. The episode started with Antonia having a psychic moment. As the contestants hovered around the kitchen in their apartment Richard asked her what she thought was going to happen because she “has an intuition about those things”. She replied that Padma would probably show up in the apartment, and before she even finished saying it, POOF, there’s Padma in the doorway!

E: That was kind of hilarious.  I can only think of one time when she appeared to the contestants (season three’s breakfast challenge) though there have been specific “please Padma” challenges along the way as well.

M: She let them know they’d be taking a ferry to Ellis Island, where they would get their next challenge. As always, there was a twist, this time it was a double whammy.

E: Harkening back to the gas station challenge, the cheftestants…

M: BOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

E: …are tasked with making snacks for Padma and a mystery guest judge out of whatever they could find in the ferry’s snack bar.

M: Not only that, but they only have the time that the ferry will take to get from Manhattan to Ellis Island, and none of them know how long that is.

E: I can’t even imagine how annoying that bit must have been.

M: It was so bad, they kept peeking out the window to guess how close the island was, it was hilarious.  As for the contents of the snack bar….  wow they were sparse. The vending machine and gas station challenges weren’t as restrictive as this was. They had a few bags of chips, some hot dogs, buns, raisin bread, nachos, cheese, some juice drinks, and some oranges. That was about it.

E: Yeah. That was really stretching it. Very little of what came out of there qualifies as real food, but worse than that, there was just so little to choose from. There wasn’t even a selection of chips or candy bars, which they might have been able to do something with.  The guest judge – just to add insult to injury – turned out to be Dan Barber, who you might remember from the terrible case of Arianne and the slaughtered lamb.

M: Oddly, I don’t remember that at all, but it plays in well, since Mike slaughtered the “soup” he tried to make.

E: You don’t remember the group challenge at the restaurant/farm with Leah and Hosea, where Arianne “tenderized” the lamb? Where Leah and Hosea both knew how to butcher but made Arianne (who really didn’t) do it, and she went home for wrecking it? I’m still annoyed with that. It’s was as horrific as Mike’s sour cream and hot dog bun soup, which obviously is saying a lot.

M: I read a recap of, but I think I either missed it or have since blocked it out.  Anyway, Tiffany, lets be honest, barely tried. She made nachos and some popcorn. Weak. Antonia made some raisin bread grilled cheese and cooked it on the hot dog grill, which made it taste “meaty”. I’m not sure if that was a good or bad thing, but it didn’t seem overly good. Richard made some sort of avant garde hot dog slider type things, and then got upset that Carla won for making a “salad” of sliced oranges, candied papaya and some V8 papaya-carrot juice. He didn’t think she did enough, but when the judge is a big fresh/sustainable food proponent, you’ve got to think the only food not based on something that could survive a nuclear war is going to be the winner, right?

E: I get a little annoyed with Richard sometimes when he gets all judgey.  Like you said, DUH.  Of course Carla’s going to win.  As fancy as Richard’s technique was, as hard as they tried, pretty much everything they served was going to bite. 

M: After the challenge, they landed on Ellis Island to find family members waiting there for them, as well as a family history prepared by a leading genealogist.  That lead to a big surprise.

E: I’ll say!  Antonia and Mike are distantly related?  Get out of town.  What the heck are the chances of that?  And yet, it makes a certain amount of sense.  It certainly mellowed their stand on each other; Mike now wants her to succeed, while she’s a little bit more tolerant of his booger flicking.

M: I have to say, based on what they were saying it seems like the relation is so distant they don’t have it nailed down to one person they share heritage with, but more that they shared a family name in Sicily way back when.

E: Probably.

M: That said, even though it’s very distant, it’s very cool! Speaking of cool, the challenge was to cook a dish that represented their family history, incorporating it into how they became the chef they are. I love challenges like that, and it again hearkened back to the finale of the first Top Chef Masters.

E: This didn’t exactly turn out how I expected it to – it was more about childhood memories than it was about long lost ancestors. Richard was really the only one who tried to do something reflective of a cultural background he was unfamiliar with .  Maybe that was partly because you had two African American chefs?   I must confess, I was hoping for Carla to pull out another recipe like her African ground nut soup.  But maybe that was too much to hope for ?  In the end, I love that people cooked food that they were deeply connected to, and I think it showed.

M: I agree, I was expecting more ancestral food rather than memory food, like when Marcus Samuelsson made the Ethiopian tartars in the last season of Masters.  Still it was very, very personal, which always leads to good food.  I also think it would have been really funny if Antonia either made, or told everyone she was going to make, steamed mussels.

E: I don’t know about you, but I was utterly terrified for Carla.  She was going last, they loved what everyone else made, and she wasn’t happy with her biscuits.  Her husband (meaty where Carla is lean) was sweating bullets.

M: I was right there with you.  I was really afraid for Richard, too, as he was doing his usual grousing over every detail and then thinking the worst and coming up with reasons he might get eliminated. How great was it, though, to see them with their family? To find out interesting tidbits, like Richard’s wife being more competitive than him (wow!), Carla and her husband meeting on Match.com, or the whole thing with Mike and not cooking Italian professionally because the memories of his grandmother are too painful.

E: It boggles my mind about Richard’s wife, it really does.  And it’s awesome that she’s pregnant again – she was pregnant during his original season.  As for Mike and his beloved grandmother – I’m a total sucker for a man who cries.  Even if he’s Mike Isabella.

M: An like we said at the top, every dish was amazing. I was just as baffled going into Judge’s Table about who would win as who would leave.

E: Oh, me too.

M: In the end, Tiffany got Tom to like okra, Mike made perfect gnocchi, Carla (despite her concerns) knocked her cheddar biscuits out of the park, Richard put the English-Irish parts of his history into perfect harmony with the chemists in his ancestry, making a molecular-gastronomy version of meat and potatoes in which, as Tom put it “it’s all right. Not ‘alright’, ALL right.'”, and Antonia took home the win daring to make risotto and totally nailing it (even though it didn’t look to me like it “spread out across the plate”).

E: Finally Antonia wins a challenge with an actual prize!  And if she wasn’t going to win the 30 thou, this is the next best thing; a hybrid suv, which can’t be cheap.  I’m sure the single mom could really use a nice new vehicle, and I bet her daughter’s going to love all the crazy neat features.

M: After the win was announced Padma pulled the nastiest joke ever by telling Richard to pack his knives….  because he was going to the finale.

E: That was awful.  Of all people to do that to – I thought he was going to have a heart attack.

M: He almost told her off on the spot, but composed himself.

E: His reaction was pretty entertaining, I must admit.

M: Then the judges did the right thing and didn’t eliminate anyone, sending all five on to the finale in the Bahamas.

E: How great is that?  Apparently they had to argue long and hard with the producers to let them do it.  I have to say, I guessed that it was going to happen based on Tom’s face as they put people through; he couldn’t look sufficiently stern.

M: And their reactions when they all found out? All so genuinely happy for each other, jumping up and down and hugging? That was great. It goes back to our point at the top about wanting to see the best at their best, I love it when the best want to BEAT the best when everyone is at their best.  Love it!

E: They really do all deserve it, and it’s so nice: Carla and Richard made the top three of their seasons (but both felt they dropped the ball on the day), Antonia came in fourth and didn’t get to cook that all important final meal, while Mike and Tiffany both came in fifth, getting knifed right before the finale.  All in all, I’m really happy for them.

M: Me too!

E: Let’s hope things go just as well for the finale…

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