Top Chef All-Stars - Mise en someone else's place

Sorry for my lateness. I had to bust some chops in state government this week, and the recap got back-burnered.

Looks like this season will have each episode start with that cool shot of the empty judges' table and a snippet of conversation in the Stew Room post-dismissal. I dig it. The chefs kind of take shots at Jamie for leaving with her insignificant injury--though to their credit, they mostly do it to her face--and we're off for the races on another week of Top Chef All-Stars.

Supertrendychef David Chang joins Padma in greeting the competitors to the kitchen. Their random order of entry will group them into four teams of four. The Quickfire Challenge? A simultaneous mise en place race--three ingredients to be prepped by the team--and then creating a dish based on those ingredients. The catch: the first team to finish the mise en race sets the 15 minute timer for the rest of the teams to finish their dish prep. You fall behind, you're boned.

With no immunity but $5,000 per winning team member on the line, the chefs get to work. Racks of ribs are broken down, garlic is minced, artichokes are peeled. Team Green (Angelo, Fabio, Tiffany, and Isabella) are smoking, while Team White (Little Dale, Carla, Marcel, and Tiffani) are struggling in spite of Marcel's rib-frenching confidence.

Team Blue (Stephen, Richard, Tre, and Spike) get nitpicked by Chang on the fineness and neatness of their garlic mince; they eventually get enough done, well enough. Team Red (Antonia, Jamie, Casey, and Big Dale) are just happy that there aren't any onions in this race. (Video evidence is presented, reminding everyone how excruciatingly slowly Casey dices an onion.) At the end of the race, with Team Green setting the pace for the dish prep portion, two teams are left so far back that they're forced to do a carpaccio to save time.

After sampling all the dishes, Chang's bottom two teams are the speedy Greens--whose dill and thyme blew out the rest of the flavors in their lamb with garlic and tandoor yogurt-- and the time-pressed Reds and their carpaccio sans nuance. At the top, the Whites crafted another carpaccio so good that Chang called it "unique." But the winning team is the Blues, and their crispy fried lamb chop with artichoke served three ways and chili aioli--bold and tasty.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs get to learn what it would have been like if they'd parlayed their original run on Top Chef into massive fame and success. Each team will hit a top-class restaurant in New York and create a dish that would be worthy of placement on the menu there. Green: Chang's Má Pêche (no Michelin stars, but two from the New York Times). Red: David Burke's Townhouse (no Michelin stars, but two NYT stars for its previous incarnation as David Burke and Donatella). Blue: Michael White's Marea (two Michelin stars, three NYT stars). White: Wylie Dufresne's wd~50 (one Michelin star, three NYT stars).

The chefs will compete within their respective kitchens, as opposed to working as a team, and the BUM-BUM-BUMMMM of this week is that two chefs will be going home. Fabio, always one to keep his eyes on the ball, is rendered speechless not by the increased chance of being eliminated, but in having to cook French-Vietnamese food in Ma Peche's kitchen.

At Má Pêche, everyone gets annoyed with Angelo's over-opinionating. (I know the feeling, buddy.) Stephen, who eats at Marea all the time you know, grates on Tre for much the same reason. Wiley Dufresne appears to halt a bit upon seeing Marcel in his dining room. Everyone at Townhouse is terrified by the wackiness--except for Big Dale, who is thrilled at the apparent license to let his freak flag fly.

Grocery shopping continues to go largely unshown, but at least we got to see the Whole Foods logo, amirite?? In the kitchens, Isabella is, amazingly, totally dismissive of Tiffany's crudo concept but very confident in his own. Broads, man--thinkin' they can be all competitive and capable an' shit. Carla busts out the nitro, trying to show that she can go outside her comfort zone in her own way and still succeed. Stephen's spazzing a bit; Richard notes that he seems out of his element. And it's possible that Tre has gone a bit bye-bye since his last run on the show. Lots of manic laughter that I don't remember from before.

Kate Krader of Food and Wine is along for the dine, and each restaurant's real chef also joins at the table. We get to see the chefs chit-chatting in the car between restaurants, which is a fun change of pace. The meals!

Marea

Tre: Grilled swordfish, braised artichoke, mushroom panna cotta, basil oil. In short: he nails it. Elegant simplicity, and a tasty panna cotta.
Spike: Seared branzino caponata, spicy prosciutto vinaigrette. The skin has a nice crispy texture, but in calling his condiment a caponata, Spike draws criticism for it being dry and loose.
Richard: Crudo of Spanish mackerel, braised veal shank, fennel mostarda. Elegant, delicious. The chefs all like it; Richard's introspection about self-editing while dining at Marea appears to have paid off.
Stephen: Coho salmon condito, black mission figs, broccoli rapini, fennel pollen. Bourdain's bon mot ("it tastes like a headshop") summarizes in his unique way what others also find: the pollen flavor is a bit aggressive.


Má Pêche

Fabio: Roasted lamb, hoisin plum barbecue sauce, corn tomato salad, lemongrass chèvre ricotta. Always a bad sign, Colicchio is bewildered by this dish. So too is Chang, who would never combine these components. Bourdain thinks Fabio is "lost in the woods" on this one.
Tiffany: Crudo of summer flounder, pickled radish, peach purée. It's missing something: likely the flair that would make it a fit on a Chang menu. Chang says this is something you could find at Daniel or something. Probably not meant as a dig at Chef Boulud, but it came off as one anyway.
Isabella: Cured sockeye salmon (warm), charcoal eggplant, marinated tomatoes, pickled peach. It's not over-the-top wacky, and Tom loves the eggplant.
Angelo: Turmeric-marinated fish (unspecified), dill, cilantro, salmon roe, chorizo, white chocolate. Angelo wants to make a splash with the white chocolate inclusion, and he succeeds. Krader finds the flavor combination exciting, and Chang hails it as innovative.


Townhouse

Big Dale: Roasted veal loin, peanuts, popcorn, french toast, corn, thyme caramel. In the kitchen, Dale was constantly asking Casey for her opinion. My opinion upon seeing the dish? The judges are either going to LOVE it or HATE it. And indeed, while the diners comment on the creativity of the concept, they all agree that it was way too sweet.
Antonia: Pea purée, carrot purée, seared scallop, pickled carrot, mint oil. While she wasn't shy with the salt shaker, Antonia's playful take on peas and carrots pleases Burke.
Casey: Coconut halibut "scallop," tapioca "caviar," ginger carrot emulsion. Lots of " " in there, but Burke loves it.
Jamie: Smoked tomato and bacon soup, heirloom tomato salad, smoked burrata, charred onion vinaigrette. The smoke is insignificant. There's no "wow" from Burke on this one. Did Jamie really think that soup and salad would amaze anyone? I fail to understand the people who are Jamie fans. Never saw anything from her that really seemed impressive.


wd~50

Little Dale: Sunny side up egg dumpling, braised pork belly, milk-style ramen with bacon, beef, and pork. Dale knows that Wylie loves eggs (he's been paying attention), and his dumpling looks like just the right balance between sumptuous and overwrought for a mad scientist like Wylie. Dale also notes that you're not going to win over the chef by doing a poor approximation of his techniques, so he's not trying to go all MG for no good reason. Bourdain and Colicchio both love it, hailing the complexity of the flavors.
Tiffani: Broken summer heirloom melon, powdered ham and taleggio. Compare Dale's restraint with Tiffani's runaway train of molecular gastronomy. Her pre-frozen melons come out watery and intrusively bad. A murky composition.
Carla: Poached shrimp, grits, okra chips. While Carla's attitude was also good going into this challenge, I don't really see how this fits with a wd~50 aesthetic. The diners note that it's a bit safe, but technically impressive and a smart tack to take considering her traditional background.
Marcel: Vadouvan lamb, tzatziki, pickled red onion, anti-flatbread (inspired by Dufresne's aerated foie gras). Marcel was the star of the mid-break vignette, narrated partially by Little Dale. Dale describes the alleged beef between a wd~50 sous chef/line cook and Marcel, related to alleged plagiarism of a dish. Marcel comments to the confessional camera about the so-perfect-you-couldn't-write-it drama of him cooking in wd~50's kitchen. The camera catches Marcel looking at the camera during a non-competitive moment--and the showrunners brilliantly chose to close the segment with it. Kind of makes it seem like Marcel wants drama, but I have to admit I've been appreciating his presence this season. Not so much the diners with this dish. Bourdain notes that it's a bit restrained for Marcel, and Dufresne wonders if Marcel's MG technique skill was applied in a way that improved the dish. Ironic, considering Marcel was questioning Tiffani's application of MG technique on her dish.

Carla is charmingly self-deprecating about her use of an immersion circulator as Padma arrives at the Stew Room and calls out Little Dale, Angelo, Antonia, and Tre. They are, as you can surmise from the above commentary, the top chefs from each restaurant. The winner's going to get six nights in New Zealand along with airfare.

Antonia gets props for her peas-n-carrots riff. Angelo's white chocolate was "kind of genius." Tre's swordfish was a perfectly-done star turn. But Little Dale, who looks like he's about to fire up the bus for a tour at the zoo with that shorts and hat combo, takes the win for balancing respectable technical flourish with unimpeachable quality. Little guy's going to the land of hobbits! And the Angelo winning streak is over at 2.

Stephen, Tiffani, Fabio and Big Dale get called out. "Fight hard, but not too hard," says Carla. "Don't pull a Jen," advises Antonia, coining a new phrase in the Top Chef lexicon.

Fabio is dinged for overpainting on his canvas. Too much fat, the cassoulet was over-reduced; he appears to take it well this time. Stephen claims Italian expertise (Fabio raises an eyebrow high enough the camera almost has to track up to follow it), but his dish had an unpleasant perfumey taste that bothered Bourdain more than the well-cooked salmon pleased him. Tiffani acknowledges that she over-reached. Big Dale tells the judges that his inspiration wasn't so much Chef Burke's menu, but a breakfast dish off of his own menu. The judges note that this indeed felt like a breakfast dish + veal. Bleh.

Tiffani crossed the line between homage and parody--ouch! Stephen was too excited by his surroundings, but did parts well; that's bad enough for a dismissal. Fabio's dish lacked both Asianness and confidence, but he stays. Big Dale, despite cooking and seasoning his veal well, turned his dish into a circus act and gets the boot. I picked the complete opposite of this result before the end of Judges Table, and I'm still a little bewildered by Stephen and Big Dale going home. To his credit, Stephen subtly acknowledges that he's not really a kitchen chef anymore, and it was fun to go back. A classy exit. But Big Dale--we'll miss you, ya big goofball.

NEXT: The US Open, another finger slice, and Angelo appears to be dusting off the Svengali persona.