Top Chef All-Stars - Unforced errors

[A]s of now it's very, very painful to watch her showing no skills of leadership. So therefore, if you cannot be a leader, you cannot be a chef. She has no good technique or skills, so she cannot be a cook. So what are you doing on Top Chef?

That was Eric Ripert on BravoTV.com, talking about a chef who is not going home at the end of this recap. We'll get back to it, but I just wanted to put this out there now. If Eric "The Sweetest Man in Cuisine" Ripert has this much to cut out of you--really, how bad are you?

This week's show starts with the chefs getting a bar to themselves, and ordering tea and crudite platters; let it not be said that these chefs don't know how to party. When the next day's competition starts, former Top Chef Masters competitor Tony Mantuano is there waiting with Padma. Chef Mantuano wants the competitors to know that what he really likes around the holidays is stuffing. Good story, Tony!

No, really, chefs. Make stuffing. That's your challenge. Use Swanson Broth maybe if you want to perhaps. But no utensils. Pots and pans and your inborn creativity only. I'm less than thrilled about this challenge, because it distracts from the kitchen ingenuity and puts too much emphasis on finding bizarre implements by which to pit an olive or some shit. See: Fabio grating parmesan on a metal storage rack.

So it's particularly grating (see what I did there) that this challenge is not only an immunity challenge, but one that'll put $20,000 in the pocket of the winner. Quick! Someone MacGyver me a way into this can of San Marzanos!

Casey and Carla both step aside in the interest of self-preservation, while everyone else makes like a British soccer match trying to get to the easily-accessed ingredients. As a result, Carla ends up with black quinoa--a grain she knows will be nearly impossible to cook properly in 45 minutes. She brilliantly and charmingly refers to it as "un-done-te quinoa" when Tony and Padma come around. Casey at least gets chicken livers.

I thought this was going to be Richard's first misstep, but his sea slug-looking pressure-cooked onion stuffed with raisins and pine nuts garnered neither tops nor bottoms. Similarly, Dale's (I guess I don't have to call him Little anymore) Spanish-influenced crab and oyster stuffing didn't get the praise I thought it would. And Angelo, Isabella, Antonia, and Tiffany didn't even get screen time for their dishes.

Tony singles out Carla's obviously undercooked quinoa, Tiffani's oversweet soy maple stuffing with quail (a flaw she acknowledged before judging), and Casey's un-stuffing-esque mushrooms and crispy chicken livers as the bottom three dishes. Tops are Tre's spicy but well-balanced Southwestern stuffing with apple-smoked bacon (yes, Tre, we get it) and cheddar, and Marcel's delicious-sounding whole squab stuffed with raisin brioche, cherries, currants and ras al hanout gravy. I'm at a loss as to how Tre's pedestrian Tex-Mex takes the win over Marcel's dish, but it does. Tre gets to cash out, and goes so far as to run up and hug Tony and Padma. Between that and the laugh, I think Tre really has gone bonkers.

After the very timely and seasonal Quickfire Challenge of making stuffing (a holiday tradition, dontchaknow), the chefs learn that their Elimination Challenge will be….at the summer New York tennis classic, the U.S. Open! Hooray for chronological dissonance! They'll have to cook relatively healthy food, with high energy content. Yellow and Orange tennis balls separate the chefs into two teams. Team Yellow: Angelo, Spike, Tiffany, Tre, Tiffani, Casey, Jamie. Team Orange: Richard, Dale, Carla, Isabella, Marcel, Fabio, Antonia.
 
Teams will serve one dish at a time, head-to-head style, and winning dishes will accrue points in the tennis style (0-15-30-40-win).
 
The teams get 15 minutes to plan. Yellow wants to put their weakest dish up first, thinking that Orange will put their strongest dish forward to establish momentum--thereby wasting it. Okay, but a point's a point, guys. Carla sticks to her guns despite Dale's pooh-poohing, and will make a peanut stew; she's a runner, and knows her energy foods. Antonia, on the other hand, acknowledges that she smoked a lot of pot in high school rather than playing sports. Look for some sort of Frito-based dish from her.
 
Fabio still has a culinary boner for gnocchi, but without the right implements he's forced to make them by hand. More power to ya, buddy. Angelo's fish turns out to be slimy and gross; he hits up Tre for some salmon, but he declines. Tiffany assents, and hands over some tuna.
 
Tom arrives in his chefly vestments, and encounters a lot of cloak-and-dagger about Team Yellow's strategy. Angelo and Spike, safely ensconced in the back of the kitchen away from prying ears, finally give up the plan. Tom is, appropriately, bemused. And after the shark finishes circling, Carla draws blood; she chops a chunk of her fingertip (or nail) off. The medics advise a hospital trip, but Carla asks what they'll be able to do--she's already made a clean cut. She tapes it up, puts on a glove, and gets back to work while the camera lingers on morose Jamie, trying to disappear in her pot of hardly-cooked chickpeas.
 
As the chefs arrive at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Spike is pressing for Jamie to go first because her dish doesn't appear to have a chance of A) winning a point, B) being done, or C) being good. She was never really keen on this "weakest first" plan (to be honest, I thought it'd be a tough sell to whomever was picked as "weakest"), and refuses. They're all standing around as Padma yells at them to put someone forward, so Casey just speaks up and there you go. She'll be up against Fabio, who has "the best gnocchi in town." (Said in inimitable Fabio fashion.)
 
 
Fabio v. Casey
Whole wheat egg white gnocchi, pork loin ragout, caramelized fennel, zucchini goes up against grilled brined pork tenderloin salad with farro, cherries, sugar snap peas, and a vinaigrette. Fabio's gnocchi are going over well, especially with Tom. Casey's dish, though nominally a salad, is too heavy. Fabio takes the point, and goes apeshit--in a fairly charming way. Casey actually looks hurt.
 
15-0, Orange
 
Dale v. Tiffani
Edamame dumpling, spicy carrot froth, crispy soy nuts goes up against black bass sashimi, avocado, and ponzu vinaigrette. Padma is the lone holdout for Dale; the rest all prefer Tiffani's bass, and she takes the point. Prior to this matchup, Angelo proclaims that now, with the Big Plan out the window, they just need to go for the win. Good plan!
 
15-15
 
Angelo v. Marcel
Smoked tuna, yuzu gelée, red onion, capers, camphor foam goes up against cauliflower couscous, pomegranate seeds, golden raisins, and yellowfin tuna. Who knew camphor foam was something edible? Angelo's got almost all the makings of a great bagel and smoked fish platter in Montreal, and Marcel…well, Marcel's got nothing in this one. The judges run with Angelo's dish all the way.
 
30-15, Yellow
 
Tiffany v. Antonia
Spiced tuna (fennel, peppercorn, coriander seeds), lentil salad, mustard vinaigrette goes up against scallop, Indian lentil purée, mint, dandelion (misspelled on-screen) greens, cilantro, chives. Both of these sound pretty good, and the judging bears out the tough call. Tom breaks the tie for the Black Hammer; Antonia takes the point.
 
30-30
 
Spike v. Richard
Tomato tamarind soup, olive oil poached shrimp, pineapple, tomato, dill (and a dab of yuzu gelée that Angelo and Tiffani decided was really vital to Spike's dish, without Spike's explicit approval) goes up against "Thai-bouleh" with lamb, herbs, and yogurt. Neither protein really wows Mantuano, which is bad for Richard since Spike's was a last-minute recook. Tom loves Spike's soup but hates the shrimp. Richard doesn't exactly plate a behemoth, but he takes the win in decisive fashion.
 
40-30, Orange
 
[At this point, it's worth noting a couple things. 1) In tennis, the next point after 40 wins the game. That makes the upcoming pairing a match point scenario. 2) You'll also note that there are two pairings yet to serve. If Team Orange wins the next point, the match is over with two chefs never having plated. 3) Only the point losers from the losing team are up for elimination, while only the point winners from the winning team are up for the big win. And 4) Jamie is literally hiding crouched behind her beanpot as her teammates decide who's up next.]
 
Carla v. Tre
African groundnut soup, baked sweet potatoes, adzuki beans, peanuts goes up against Coho salmon (cooked by Angelo to "assist," though Casey thought it might be a little overdone), parsnip purée, olive oil sauce with citrus, tomatoes, and olives. You'll note that Tre has immunity, and is still being put up in the decisive pairing. This should make it clear how tiny Jamie is trying to make herself behind those awful, awful chickpeas. The judges still split, with Gail preferring spicy stew over crispy/overdone fish. That gives Carla--and Team Orange--the win. Isabella and Jamie are left out of the competition, for both victory and elimination. Had Jamie lost the last point instead of Tre, she'd be heading to Judges' Table.
 
But first, the top four. Fabio, Carla, Richard, and Antonia--the winning team's point-winners--head out to see who gets a trip to Italy from Terlato.