For a season that began as strongly as Top Chef All-Stars did, perhaps it can't help but sputter out here near the end. Watching the third-to-last episode tonight, I couldn't help but think that the show is suffering from what feels like mid-season lull. It's dragging, and we end up like Tiffany twiddling her thumbs, waiting for the judges' decision. We're in the Bahamas for a whopping four episodes—and though Tom Colicchio said in his interview this week with The A.V. Club that he doesn't consider tonight (or the most recent episode for that matter) to be part of the "finale," that's not the way Top Chef played it leading into our "final five." We were amped! For the longest damn denouement in Top Chef history. The momentum the show had built up leading into the Ellis Island challenge has fully dissipated by now: The producers have so fully committed to island time that tonight's episode sauntered along with plenty of room for the judges to ask polite questions about The Nassau Yacht Club and for Gail to reminisce about her childhood boating experiences to uproarious laughter.
That said, the episode also afforded us ample time with the chefs as they cooked. Tonight's elimination challenge was a stretch for them, and I'm glad we ended up with so much footage of their preparation and execution. All the way through plating, asides with the chefs pulled us into the intention and planning behind their dishes. This episode was very much about the food, and the chefs stepped up, which is a welcome followup to last week's disaster of a challenge.
The Quickfire had the chefs cooking for a dining room full of people waiting for some very small plates to arrive. Stipulating one hour and 100 plates, the exercise was branded as a challenge based on consistency and precision, but failed to deliver. The setup was flawed. Blais is absolutely right—consistency is hugely important for a restaurant. Diners want to know that they can expect the same dish at the same quality level when they return. Though the judges choosing random numbers ensured that their plates didn't get special treatment, there was no real challenge to creating a consistent dish, at least where the flavor/quality of the food was concerned. The chefs easily found the path of least resistance—make sure that the hundred plates come from the same batch of food. To really challenge a chef's consistency, the producers could have structured the challenge as it was advertised at the onset: The chefs must cook the same dish twice. Or three times. I'd have been far more interested in that version, especially since the lead-in to the challenge suggested that might have been in store. As it was, Mike and Richard teamed up against Antonia and Tiffany, and each criticized the others' approach as usual. The menfolk accused the women of "slice and serve," an easy way out when serving a hundred people. They opted instead for pasta bolognese—difficult to make in an hour but easy to plate. Guest judge Lorena Garcia sided with the ladies, though, determining that plating four components seemed a tougher challenge. It might lend the chefs some confidence or serve as a good warmup, but any quickfire at this point really does feel like the show's just going through the motions. Nothing is at stake, not compared with the elimination challenge.
Though the pretense for the meal was as lame as they get, a lunch to celebrate the 80th anniversary of The Nassau Yacht Club, the elimination challenge throws the chefs a required ingredient: They must feature conch in their dishes, and, much more ridiculously, they must first dive into the ocean to fetch those conchs. (They must also fight off the lingering image of Padma in a bikini.) In anticipation of the finale, Mike and Blais had researched Bahamian cuisine and had been experimenting with conchs. Though this certainly seemed impressive leading into the challenge, their efforts didn't seem to yield much of an advantage over the other chefs. Conchs might be a bitch to get out of their shells, but the sea snails are mild in flavor and can be eaten raw.
It's interesting to see how the chefs' strategies differ this late in the season. Woeful about the lack of liquid nitrogen, Blais finds another way to be creative, thinly slicing sweet potato to stand in for linguine. After experimenting with conch stateside, he puts out a "Hamptons" dish, only considering at the last minute that maybe he should have made something a little more Caribbean. Mike takes the opposite approach, mentioning "local ingredients" in every other sentence and abandoning anything even vaguely resembling his normal output. He rightly pegged the challenge as a nod to the location, taking the win (again!) with his banana-leaf steamed grouper alongside a savory braised pineapple and conch vinaigrette. The major handicap for the chefs turned out to be not the conchs but the wood-fired grill, which combined with strong wind to produce under-/overcooked proteins for Antonia and Blais. That's usually grounds for dismissal at this stage of the competition, but it can't be outdone by "underdeveloped flavors." That's generally code for bland, or run-of-the-mill. The judges finally sent Tiffany packing, leaving us our final three. Mike Isabella's winning streak continues to surprise me, but maybe that's a good thing. Of our remaining contestants, he's the not-so-affable underdog who really has more to prove, and his performance tonight certainly seemed to sit well above Antonia's and Blais' dishes. Mike has clearly come prepared, and despite tonight's filler of an episode, I'm looking forward to seeing these three cook during the next two episodes.
- Please, no more footage of Richard's whining. It's like the pretty girl at school who can't stop talking about how ugly she is. Glad Antonia's still around with comments like, "Yeah, potato noodles are super classic. What's wrong with you?"
- Another surprise from the interview with Colicchio: Since this is an All-Stars season, these chefs are closer to being the chefs' peers than a normal crop of chefs. Their criticism is more constructive, he says. I guess we can just assume that Anthony Bourdain doesn't feel the same.