Top Chef All-Stars - Bang a gong, get it on

First, a hearty welcome to those of you joining for the first time via 77 Square's "Recent Obsessions" column today. (Lindsay, I'm betting I have you to thank.) There may be some inside jokes and "you had to be there" moments in my recaps, but I try to make them at least a little approachable for new readers.

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Well, we knew it would happen at some point in Top Chef All-Stars. A returning chef would insist upon his or her righteousness and, fueled mostly by the bravado of seasons past and the restaurant popularity that followed, go down in a blaze of glory. But be honest: we all kind of expected it to be Fabio, right? Especially after essentially challenging Anthony Bourdain to fisticuffs last week?

An epic, slightly bizarre hissyfit (which we'll get to at the end) was entirely appropriate in an episode so focused on the fickleness of children. After a cold open that put us right in the Stew Room following Elia's dismissal--wherein the chefs just then realized that anyone could go home at any time (Did any of them talk to Tre about that? He knew.)--we're introduced to this Joe Jonas fellow. Some of you may have heard of him. Not Little Dale, who remarked, "I thought he might be a pastry chef…?"

No, young Joe Jonas is here as a surprise guest for a sleepover at the American Museum of Natural History. The Quickfire Challenge, which Joe will weigh in on, asks the chefs to create the midnight snack for the little rugrats. It's got to be brown paper bag-ready, and can't require utensils. There will be immunity for the winner, plus an advantage in the Elimination Challenge.

Richard's smart, and notes that it would be wise to make the dish appealing to Joe, too, since he's judging. Big Dale just goes all-sugar for his snack; "basically, I'm making crack for small children." In the kitchen, Little Dale isn't ingratiating himself to this crop of chefs, having taken the entire container of sugar and left it sitting at his station. Isabella's sweating his dish as the clock ticks down, but of course he turns down an offer of assistance from Antonia; you all remember how lovely he was with female competition in his season, yes?

This being a supersized episode, we got a close-up on every single QF dish. Some, like Spike's potato and carrot chips with mascarpone-marshmallow dip and Tiffany's coconut rice pudding with grapefruit sauce, seemed like odd combinations. A few chefs chose to include bacon, mostly to their detriment; Tre's cracker with cranberry and cherry jam and apple-smoked bacon was pretty uninspired, while Jennifer's bacon ginger taffy looked like congealed bacon fat. And I can't tell if Angelo was joking when he initially called his fried dough, white pepper, old bay, and cheddar crumb dish "Cheese Crisps 2010: The New Evolution." Something tells me that was a shot at Kevin's Singapore Sling 2010 from last season's finale. If so, nicely played. If not? Sigh.

At the bottom: Tiffany's messy rice pudding, Isabella's chocolate coconut corn bars with coconut horchata chaser (a nice idea, but when you can't drive home the chocolateyness, you're hurting), and Stephen's snickerdoodle sandwich with white chocolate, coconut ganache, apricot and mint (the latter ingredient too weak in an already-off combination).

The tops: Spike, and Tiffani's rice crispy treat snowball with malted milk and graham crackers. And surprise surprise, the kids will pick the winner in a taste test. The rest of the chefs are selected playground style to be the prep teams for each of the top two (Fabio picked last), and set to work politicking with the kids to curry favor. The clear star? This kid, who I'm quite certain enjoyed Tiffani's sugarbomb, and would have exploded had Big Dale's "caveman boulders" of pretzels, Whoppers, and cinnamon graham crackers been a top-two dish.

KID SMASH!! GRAAHHH!!!

No shock, Tiffani gets the win. By a landslide.

As the chefs are left to clean up after the whirlwind of prepubescence, Tom strolls in and informs the chefs that the Elimination Challenge starts now. You're joining the sleepover. Create a breakfast for the kids and their parents; service will start at 7:30 in the morning. Museum kitchen supplies only, and the teams will be differentiated by the two skeletons in this room: brontosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex. One team can use only animal products, the other only plant. Tiffani gets to pick, as the QF winner, and she goes with T-rex. Only when they get to the kitchen does she realize she hadn't really been paying attention to Tom's instructions; she thought she got to use everything. This means their herbs and baking concepts are all out the window.

Some of the chefs set to take a power nap on their cots in the Hall of North American Mammals (Stephen bemoaning the step down from his posh Manhattan loft, Tre noting that he won't be able to sleep in the nude like he usually does), while others (the boys) go on a flashlight tour of the museum. At 3:45, everyone's up and moving, and mostly happy when they arrive at the very well-appointed museum kitchen. The teams have both grouped off internally, with clusters of two chefs working on dishes together.

Stephen and Fabio set to work on gnocchi without eggs or cream (a tough sell for breakfast and a tough task for only two hours). Little Dale and Isabella's polenta cakes aren't setting, so they're going with straight-up polenta. Tiffany and Antonia struggle with a balky oven, which is hampering their ability to cook frittatas evenly. And then Jamie slices her thumb while working on a slab of bacon. The on-site medic says she needs stitches, so off she goes. This doesn't sit well with Fabio (who broke his thumb during a challenge in his season, and stayed), and other chefs are equally dubious. Casey's dubious, too--but of that bacon Jamie was working on. Jennifer's final product doesn't seem to impress.

Service is outdoors, so the chefs load up and move out. Casey doesn't leave herself time to taste Tre's sauce, which he acknowledges is a little spicy; this is usually trouble. One thing I was most intrigued to see was Angelo pulling his usual "just let me do this for you" routine on their fruit parfait, having Carla quarter some plums that Marcel wanted halved. This shtick won't work with a master manipulator like Marcel, so I'll be interested to see how this develops; does Angelo have the chops to push Marcel around? And speaking of chops, Jamie's back--with two stitches. This doesn't help her reputation with her teammates.

No Bourdain this week (which is too bad, since he has a little daughter and would probably have some good perspective on this challenge); instead, we bear witness to the return of Katie Lee. It's the reunion no one was waiting for! Yay!

Team Brontosaurus

Little Dale and Isabella: Corn grits, stewed peppers, salsa verde. Gail finds it creative, while the young museum staffers don't enjoy the texture.

Marcel, Richard, and Angelo: Banana parfait with seasonal fruit and tandoori maple. The kids all like the banana, and Gail thinks it's presented beautifully.

Carla and Spike: "V9," or gazpacho with fruits and vegetables. It's a bit spicy for the kids, and the yellow peppers stand out in a bad way.

Fabio and Stephen: Potato gnocchi with leeks, spinach, and mushrooms. Katie likes the flavor profile, and perhaps most importantly, Tom is impressed that the gnocchi are actually soft. (The mid-commercial break vignette sequence shows Fabio pimping his gnocchi hard to all the adults, and most of the kids. Spike says he's "kind of like a car salesman." Richard, with a grin: "Vote for Fabio.")


Team T-Rex

Antonia and Tiffany: Frittata trio (bacon/cheddar, ham/cheese, chêvre). As suspected, the doneness is uneven. Katie's is nearly uncooked at the center.

Tre and Casey: Coho salmon with shrimp-smoked bacon sauce. A good team, but a poor effort. Tre's sauce is terminally salty, and though the fish is cooked well, there are still some bones.

Jennifer and Jamie: Braised bacon topped with hard-boiled eggs. The bacon is chewy, and the eggs are flavorless. Jamie notes before service that, as a result of her absence, this wasn't what "her dish" looked like.

Big Dale and Tiffani: Steak and parmesan eggs with smoked paprika crème fraiche hollandaise. The steak is good, the sauce is great.

Padma visits the Stew Room and calls out Team Brontosaurus. After they leave, T-Rex badmouths their choices. Jennifer says she stopped cooking for the diners in these challenges a long time ago, and that it's just for her and for the judges in her mind. Big Dale points out that's a little selfish, but Jen doesn't really seem to care.

At Judges Table, the Chefs Brontosaurus learn they're the winning team. While Stephen and Fabio's gnocchi dish earns praise (good rebound for both of them), it's the elegant and tasty parfait constructed by Marcel, Richard, and Angelo that takes the win. Another win for Angelo, but Marcel tells the confessional camera that he probably would have gotten the win had it been one chef selected. The feud deepens…

Team T-Rex goes out to take their punishment, and Tiffani keeps on going with the "I thought T-rexes were omnivores" routine. Tom knows he was clear with the instructions, so it's a done deal. Steak and eggs: they were good, but hardly a challenge. Tre doesn't have a great defense of his sauce, especially when he says that he knew it was probably over-reducing yet didn't take steps to fix it. Jennifer's making a lot of faces at the criticisms leveled, and Padma notes that she looks pissed off. She is. She doesn't think she or the team belong in this situation. She makes some snide noises at Gail. Tom asks why the team chose to plate everything on one big plate. Jennifer says (and we saw this in the promo following last week's episode) that the judges are smart; why didn't they just ask for fresh plates? Tom's in no mood to be sidetracked, and says that someone on the team should have been smart enough to see the error.

This is pretty much where it all falls apart.

Antonia doesn't mince words about Jamie's lack of toughness, saying that basically the entire team agrees that she abandoned her duties for no good reason. Jen goes on to say that she disagrees completely with all the complaints about their dishes, and hers in particular. She is manic, vociferous. This isn't an angry defense of a misjudged dish; this is a dissociative meltdown. Other Judges Table fracases have been fun to watch, but this was just kind of uncomfortable.

The team is sent back while the judges deliberate; Tom's got too level a head to get upset about this. He says the loser's going to go home for bad food, not for mouthing off. When the chefs come back out, Tiffani and Dale are excused as safe. Though Antonia and Tiffany are better chefs than their frittata output, and Casey and Tre should have taken more steps to ensure the quality of their product, it is the steak and eggs dish that gets the stinkiest of eyes. Since everyone on the team said they didn't miss Jamie at all (really--they all said that), it's Jennifer who takes the fall and is shown the door.

She laughs the irrational laugh of someone who has separated completely from responsibility and, I'd say, reality. The other chefs seem totally blown away; Tom tweeted before the show aired that the ending of this episode would be "shocking." The only shock I felt was that Jen had gone off the rails so far, so fast. She says her goodbyes to a stunned Stew Room, then blows up in a burst of profanity outside the room, just off-camera. To the confessional, with a frightening seriousness, she says, "The judges got it wrong."

No, they really didn't. I hope Eric Ripert gave you a good talking-to when you got back to work, Jen. Your reputation took a well-earned shot this week.


NEXT: A double elimination, Tiffani freezes her melons, and Marcel versus Wiley Dufresne.