It seems even Top Chef All-Stars isn't immune to the standard Top Chef mid-season lull. It's not that we're sitting around waiting for the obviously lesser chefs to go home; looking at our remaining lineup, I'd be hard-pressed to predict our final three at this point. (Though, seriously, Mike Isabella's still around talking about gay fondue parties?) But the inspiration that has marked this season's challenges has been on leave the past two episodes, and tonight, we return to another Top Chef standby: cook for some random celebrity.
But before we get into that, first, the Quickfire: Hung on the concept of a fondue party, this week's challenge invited the chefs to create a fondue. They're asked to provide their own bent on fondue—no '70s-era bananas dipped in chocolate, though perhaps that would have proved more appealing than some of the dishes that came out. Blais immediately runs to do what's verboten, leaning on his science kit to pull fondue into modern times. It's a nice concept, flipping fondue on its head; instead of cooking the food at the table with heat, he has everyone freeze their food with liquid nitrogen. While I'm normally a huge Blais fan and I'd certainly get a kick out of freezing food tableside, Blais' arrogance was a little much tonight. What a brat, chalking up his non-win to the other chefs' intimidation at his technique. Yes, Blais, they don't like you because they don't understand you or your rubber gloves and goggles. Or maybe your chocolate and bananas weren't very good.
The producers made a curious choice here, having the chefs judge the quickfire but pulling back from having them comment outright on each others' dishes. When Padma called Dale out for putting Mike on the bottom, I thought we were heading into promising territory: I really wanted to see the judges (or the editors) give us a little more about which chefs voted for whom, and why. Plus, this episode could have used a small injection of drama. But we stop there—I suspect the footage was there but didn't make it into the episode—with Dale giggling about Mike's failed lamb kebabs and cutaways to Blais calling Tiffany's fondue "pedestrian." Dale's phondue, which was perhaps the most creative spin, won him the opportunity to awkwardly grip a giant bottle of Terlato wine… just a small foreshadowing of the forced awkwardness of that Buitoni spot. In your best robot voice, please repeat: "I am going to make some lobster and shrimp ravioli." "I love lobster and shrimp ravioli." Is there anything sadder than the image of a bunch of Top Chef contestants pretending to drool over stuffed pasta from a box?
On to the elimination challenge, in which the chefs cook a birthday lunch for Jimmy Fallon. His list of restrictions is friendlier than Zooey Deschanel's: He doesn't like mushrooms, mayonnaise, or eggplant. At the onset, this challenge had potential. With the exception of beef tongue, everything on the agenda was comfort food: ramen, chicken pot pie, hamburger, and fries. It's always fun to see chefs be playful with familiar food. How are they able to improve on a dish that's become so ubiquitous because it's so ubiquitously good? Looking at the reaction of the judges today, I couldn't help but think about the uncanny valley. Each person eating a well-known dish has a certain set of expectations about what it should taste like—so dangerous for the chefs. Deconstruct the hell out of a dish but keep the flavors, and people go nuts for it. It's different enough that we can still love it. Screw with it just a little, though, and we hate it because it's not true to the original. (Back when truffle oil was being added to anything and everything here in Chicago a couple of years ago, I kept thinking, this would be great [macaroni and cheese], if there weren't something horribly wrong with it. But head over to Alinea and eat powdered freeze-dried cheese with macaroni particles, and it seems brilliant.)
Fallon wanted Blais to come out with laser beams and smoke machines, but instead he got a bowl of ramen. Tiffany's Southwestern spin on chicken and dumplings read too spicy, and, well, not enough like chicken and dumplings. When things went wrong for the chefs tonight, the judges kept saying it just didn't taste like it was supposed to taste. I thought the elimination challenge, in the end, suffered because of this. I'm sure Carla's pot pie was kickass (in fact I'm really hoping Bravo publishes the recipe for that one online). It apparently had crust at the bottom, but other than that, it looked like a chicken pot pie. Angelo's dish was the only one that truly intrigued me. The judges are right; combining coffee, dill, and cilantro sounds like a dare and a cruel one at that. I'd love to taste the combination that had everyone swooning; it's nearly impossible to imagine. On the other side, Fabio's meatloaf hambooger certainly seems horrific; he's shouting on Twitter about how he now has a hamburger on his menu and how it's amazing. I'm sorry to see him go, if only for his antics.
- Coming back into the stew room, the losing three report that "it's nitpicking time." All the chefs nod, like, yes, we're at the point in the season where tiny mistakes really matter. That might be true, but tonight's losing dishes certainly didn't read like small mistakes. They read like "salt monster, curdled/grainy cheese, and flat dumplings." That's a far cry from "you could have added a little more salt." From the sound of it, I thought Dale was going home.
- The chefs only had two hours for this elimination challenge. That's awfully short for eliminations this late in the game.
- Next week's challenge appears to be at Target, and appears to be a challenge. And, yes, more Bourdain!
- Jimmy Fallon sure does love baseball metaphors.