Top Chef All-Stars - Meet the new boss

Marcella: You know, when you start getting invited to your ten year high school reunion, time is catching up.
Martin Blank: Are you talking about a sense of my own mortality, or a fear of death?
Marcella: Well, I never really thought about it quite like that.
Martin: Did you go to yours?
Marcella: Yes, I did. It was just as if everyone had swelled.

Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997


That was the scene my wife referenced not long into the premiere of Top Chef All-Stars, as we were reintroduced to fan favorites and villains from seasons past--and many of them brought more than just emotional baggage back to the TC Kitchen. (I'm looking at you, Isabella!)
 
Along with all these competitors we've met before, we get an official prize sponsor we haven't: Buitoni. Nice to see a food company sponsoring the show's $200,000 megaprize rather than hand soap or snack bags. Not that anyone's rushing to conspicuously throw some Buitoni penne rigate in their skillets ("Oh, look at this Buitoni pasta, I think I'll try some!"); multiple chefs made fresh pasta in this week's episode, and largely to great acclaim.
 
It would appear, from the reactions during everyone's arrival at the apartment, that no one knows who else is coming. I like that. I like even more that no one apparently knew who would be judging this season. Bricks were indeed shat as Padma announced the looming presence of little dark stormcloud Anthony Bourdain. What I find interesting are the faces of the chefs as they re-entered the TC Kitchen; you can tell who's genuinely too crazy to be intimidated (Dale Talde, Fabio), and who's all bluster (still looking at you, Isabella).
 
And names: we've got to set the road rules for our two doppelgängers, the Dales and Tiffani/ys. Dale Talde, the angry one, will be Little Dale, because have you seen Dale Levitsky? My man has been sampling the wares--and I say this with love, because I'm probably only a few pounds behind him. So he'll be Big Dale. And as for the Tiffs, I think you're just going to have to get used to knowing which one has an I (that would be "me me best season original gangster me" Tiffani Faison) and which one's got a Y (Tiffany Derry of Season 7, who has two Y's in her name). There's your mnemonic. And also an indication of which one I like more.
 
Grudges return, as Elia is still bearing ill will (if passive-aggressively) toward Marcel. Also not looking forward to the potential presence of Marcel is Fabio, still stinging from his Very Special Reunion Special rebuffing from Astroboy. Of course, who happens to be on the welcoming committee when the elevator doors open for Fabio? Yep. Pretty awesome, and I'm guessing unscripted.
 
We also got a grim reminder of Top Chefs Past in the disembodied voice of Katie Lee (née Joel), aka the Pre-Padma, from the clips of Tiffani and Harold at the Season 1 finale. Gee, her voice wasn't annoying at all. (Admission: I still haven't watched the first season, mostly because Netflix still has it on my Saved list. But was she always that droningly nasal? ...Checks Wikipedia…yep.)
 
So, black chef coats donned (gotta cop to it, the black gave me the chills a little; I'm a total dork), the chefs get their first Quickfire of their Second Chance Season. Work as a team with your seasonmates, and make a dish that represents your season's city. Winning team gets immunity. It's a good challenge, and you've got to wonder if the other chefs were upset or relieved that they didn't have as many cooks in the kitchen as Season 3's team. Chicago being represented by Little Dale, Antonia, Spike, and Richard--let's say there's not a lot of air left in that room.
 
It's easy to forget that each season of Top Chef has been in a different city. Season 1 (San Francisco) does a cioppino gazpacho with sourdough croutons. Season 2 (Los Angeles) goes for shrimp tacos with an apple "tortilla." Season 3 (Miami) goes Cuban, with pork tenderloin, avocado-lime purée, tostones, and habanero sauce. Season 4 (Chicago) deconstructs a Chicago dog with fresh sausage and savory mustard ice cream; oh, that Richard Blais! Season 5 (New York) splits up for a trio of apple-based dishes (soup, pasta with sausage, and ribeye). Season 6 (Las Vegas) hopes to call to mind mobster food (?) a bacon-lobster carbonara with fresh bucatini; I guess "mobster" rhymes with "lobster," so there's that. Season 7 (Washington, D.C.) goes once more to the crab cakes well, but with essence of crab cakes turned into a brodo for seared rockfish. (Angelo's contender for line of the night, perhaps defending the obviousness of crab cakes: "It's not like I can do an ice carving of George Washington.")
 
Lots of scrambling at the end, including Stephen inadvertently bumping the tray of rockfish out of Angelo's hands, forcing him to cut new filets with minutes to go. In the end, Seasons 2 (bland shrimp, too-thin apple), 1 (way too much raw garlic), 5 (no cohesion), and 7 (a bit too salty) are at the bottom. Besties are Seasons 3 (great flavors, strong representation of the city), 4 (inventive, Tom digs the ice cream), and 6 (great pasta). The winner, which proves to be exceptionally important, is Season 4: Chicago. Isabella's response (other than "fucking motherfucker," under his breath)? "Sausage with mustard? Big whoop." Mmm, that's good sportsmanship.
 
Same as the old boss
 
I had the Elimination Challenge spoiled for me by U-Verse's episode description when I set up the DVR, but it's so deliciously evil that it didn't even matter. Silver serving trays are delivered, and the lids are pulled to reveal the ingredients and description of each of the dishes that got these chefs eliminated the first time. DAMN. Talk about "check your ego at the door." Or, better, "get yourself unfucked," as Bourdain puts it later. The winning effort will retool the sucky original dish without straying too far from the original concept. Three hours tonight, two more tomorrow at the Russian Tea Room.
 
Here's why this challenge is so awesome. First, there are some spectacular flameouts among the chefs represented this season. Jamie's Ripert-fail with the black bass and braised celery, Carla's steak sous vide a la Casey, Spike's frozen scallop debacle in Rick Tramanto's kitchen, and most wonderfully, Little Dale's miso butterscotch scallops--the single worst thing Anthony Bourdain has ever eaten, even though he mistakenly attributed it to Big Dale during his book tour appearance in Madison. Plus, Stephen will have to remake three dishes, none of which were his own, because his failing back in Season 1 was that he ignored his kitchen duties in deference to his oenophilia at the front-of-house for Restaurant Wars. Brutal!
 
Perhaps the best part? The producers gave Spike frozen scallops again. But in case you hadn't put it together, that's two incredibly awful dishes, both featuring scallops, on the team that happened to win immunity during the Quickfire. So Butterscotch Scallops and Frozen Scallops are guaranteed to not be losers this time around. That is amazingly fortunate for Little Dale and Spike, though it turns out they probably didn't need fortune--for different reasons.
 
Elia goes in headstrong, largely ignoring the lessons her original steamed fish disaster should have taught her. Instead, she plows ahead, stopping only to add bacon to the dish--a transparent sop to trendy ingredients. Angelo impresses Richard by his fresh ramen noodle-fu. Little Dale appears to be going a bit loopy in the kitchen, but he's got immunity, as do the lockers in the TC Kitchen. Carla continues to be gracious to Casey's poorly-considered sous vide suggestion during the Season 5 finale, but makes it clear that she's doing her own thing this time around. Classy broad, that Carla.
 
During the mid-break vignette, Elia addresses her part in the infamous Season 2 head-shaving incident. She acknowledges how young and stupid she was then, and that she hopes to bring a new level of maturity to the competition. We'll see how long that lasts.
 
Tom the Knife saunters into the kitchen looking dapper, and informs the chefs that they'll be splitting their work in half. Half will cook, the other half will dine with the judges, and then vice versa. We as viewers gotta know what's coming, even if the chefs don't: closed-circuit televisions in the kitchen come in after the food has gone out. Oh, and the winner gets $10,000.
 
I know Stephen's at a disadvantage cooking dishes that weren't his to begin with, but it really does seem like he's out of practice in the kitchen. Of all the chefs, he seems most ill at ease working with pots and pans rather than schmoozing guests and pouring wine. But perhaps that's fine, since this has always been his failing. As the timer sounds, Richard is still foaming some dishes; other chefs comment out loud on it, but he just wraps up and doesn't appear to notice or care.
 
Out at the table, hey, you guys all know Anthony Bourdain? Yeah? Okay, let's eat.
 
Richard gets props all around for his crusted pork belly. Angelo's ramen and pork belly pleases Tony, but he liked it the first time around as I recall. Little Dale's scallops inspire the "unfucked" line from Bourdain, who infinitely prefers these scallops to the original horror. Tiffany's halibut is a little overcooked for Carla, while Antonia wanted more sugar. Tre's almond toast overpowers the salmon. Tiffani's got an unpleasant flavor to her dish. Stephen's three dishes are all over the place, and Tony takes it to him pretty hard. Fabio's pasta en papillote is bizarre, confusing Antonia and infuriating Bourdain. "It looks like an inside-out animal." (Fabio, meanwhile, sounds like he wants to settle it at 3:30 by the bike racks.) Elia's fish is a bit raw, and Big Dale remarks that she seems to have given up on it. There was also a big scale in Marcel's portion. Ouch.
 
As the second group starts cooking, I wonder something. Jamie's making an Eric Ripert dish, and in the kitchen with her is Jen, who works at an Eric Ripert restaurant. Do you think she should have maybe gone to Jen for a taste-test instead of Casey? Or is there something in the rules that would prohibit that? Anyway, Jamie still hates the dish. Casey is confident she'll show that she can cook pork belly properly. As the chefs in the kitchen learn they were being watched (in horror, natch), we cut to Tom swirling his wine in the background of a shot and sloshing a bunch out. He makes a priceless face, proving that the man is indeed human. Loved it.
 
Antonia's sausage makes Richard and Tre happy, but Tiffany thinks it's incomplete. Spike successfully masks the crappy scallops in his ceviche, prompting a eureka moment from Bourdain as he remembers the original incident. Cut in the action as he asks, "Is this the craftiest motherfucker who's ever been on the show?" In a word, Tony: yes. Jamie manages to pull off Ripert's black bass dish much better this time, prompting kudos from Richard. As opposed to the stanky original, Isabella--you know I mean Mike, right? I still can't call him that--almost makes his leeks melt-in-your-mouth, and at least nails the presentation. Big Dale's lobster makes Little Dale sad, especially the dumpling; Stephen agrees. Carla's non-sous vided steak is pretty good, but Angelo gets a bad cut of meat that is really unpleasant. Casey nails her dish; Gail Simmons says she redeemed herself. Marcel overdoes the vanilla again, and Fabio says it takes balls to put this dish out. Whether that's a compliment or not isn't a question for Marcel, who fist-pumps in response. Lastly, Jen's duck is a technically flawed non-entity and really disappoints Tiffani.
 
As rumbles of Richard's timer violation rumble through the Stew Room (mostly emanating from Tiffani), Padma arrives to call out Spike, Jamie, Angelo…and Richard. At Judges' Table, Tom gets right to it. Richard, you're here because you made a great dish, but you went over your time limit, so you're ineligible to win. That's fair, but I was worried for a second that they were going to boot him. It would have been massively overreactionary, but I was worried. Also, I felt like Richard was bullshitting about not being aware of time expiring.
 
Anyway, Jamie will still absolutely never prepare this dish again if she has a choice. Angelo's watermelon tea, a fascination from the first run of the dish, was perfected in this version. Spike saved a shitty scallop. Hardly seems like a choice, given the various shades of praise here, but in case you hadn't figured it out: Angelo takes the prize. Here we go again!
 
Called out to take their lashings are Fabio, Stephen, and Elia. Stephen basically cops to ignoring the kitchen side of Restaurant Wars back in Season 1, but feels much more strongly about his output tonight than he has any right to. Monochromatic colors and flavors, wildly bad proportions--just, no. Elia chirps that she added fennel to her fish this time around (leaves out the bacon, wisely--either Tom or Tony would have killed her for it), but Gail won't let her skate on the doneness. It was rare. Like, really rare. Elia says she didn't check internal doneness on all of them, but Tom says no, it was rare on the outside. "You were your own worst enemy," says Tony. We are witnessing a Catholic school-style scolding here, folks. Fabio hears his criticisms--overdone, overgloppy, and what's the deal with that paper?--and chooses to focus on perceived ridicule from Bourdain during service. Basically, he says that he'd be giving Tony a real bustafazoo under different circumstances. Before the chefs are sent off to await the verdict, Elia pleads, "Don't eliminate me, I have a lot more to do. I mean it." Okay, someone better put a tail on this girl or she'll be cooking Colicchio's pet rabbit for next week's Quickfire.
 
Thankfully, we don't have to worry about that, because despite Fabio's muddled gumbo-pasta-miasma, and Stephen's total failure to grasp the original concept for retooling (perhaps his saving grace, actually), Elia's locked-in, literal-minded non-improvement gets her the boot. She gets some nice support from the chefs, a fellowship totally unique to this setting of successful peers, and leaves the TC Kitchen as easily the best-dressed loser we've seen in a while. Love those shoes, sister, if it's any consolation.
 
THIS SEASON: Jimmy Fallon, Paula Deen, something that I think is a Jonas, and the chefs finally get to cook against Tom? Sweet! (Hopefully, it'll turn out better than commentator Yukio "Doc" Hattori's epically bad output in Battle Truffle of the original Iron Chef.)