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Top Chef: "New York's Finest"

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Hello again. After writing about Top Chef for the last four seasons (plus one of Top Chef Masters), I was feeling guilty for not saying a proper farewell before handing the reins over the highly capable Emily Withrow, so I’m very excited to be filling in for a night on All-Stars, which is already leagues more entertaining than last year’s series-worst D.C. season. Before digging into tonight’s stellar episode, a few quick thoughts on the season so far:

• Has there ever been a challenge in Top Chef history as wonderfully diabolical as the Elimination round in Episode One? Making the chefs cook the dish they went out on: Masterstroke. It’s like God making you go back and relive the disastrous date that cost you your first girlfriend. You’re haunted by it anew.


• Having Anthony Bourdain as a regular judge is a glorious development. The chefs tend to harp on his cruelty—and usually (per the overly defensive Fabio in Week One) are out of line doing so—but Bourdain comes to the table with more than just Toby Young-style canned bon mots. He’s passionate about food and can be just as fierce an advocate for a good dish as he is tartly dismissive of a bad one. That’s just great criticism.

• “All-Star” seasons of reality shows are fascinating not only for bringing favorite characters back from different seasons and seeing how they intermingle but also for the obvious fact that the contestants have all had a chance to see themselves on television and often modify their behavior accordingly. Sometimes they’re simply bigger, more cartoonish versions of themselves, like Fabio; sometimes they’re broken down by the stress, as we saw with Jen’s horrible meltdown last week; and sometimes, they seize on the chance to rehabilitate their image. Our friend Linda Holmes of NPR’s Monkey See blog wrote a great post contrasting Jen’s collapse with Tiffani’s more laid-back, agreeable persona—a far cry from the sniping villain role in which she was cast (sometimes unfairly) on Season One.


With that out of the way, let’s break down “New York’s Finest”:


With David Chang looking on, the 16 remaining chefs are divided into groups of four for what appears to be the standard mise en place challenge. But the producers, who again seem freshly inspired this year, up the stakes significantly by making the teams prepare a dish after they’ve finished preparing their mise en place. To make things even more stressful, the first team to finish mise en place hits a red button that starts the clock at 15 minutes for all teams to put out a dish. So if, say, Casey repeats her notoriously meticulous onion-chopping from Season Three, her entire team will be that much more time-restricted in whipping up something involving lamb chops, artichokes, and garlic.

For two of the slow teams, the solution was dangerously simple: Lamb carpaccio. Without the time to cook lamb properly, they have no choice but to serve it raw and hope its elegance (and complementary components) carries it across. Surprisingly, the time restraints didn’t have much of an effect on the final result. The Green team, led by the ever-confident Angelo, finished first, but landed among Chang’s least favorite dishes, despite having the privilege of cooking their lamb with garlic all the way through. On the other hand, the other piece of cooked lamb, from Team Blue (Stephen, Spike, Tre, and the seemingly unstoppable Richard), looked like the most appealing dish by a wide margin and won each of its members $5,000, though not immunity.


Yet another great idea for a challenge: The four teams are treated to dinner at a highly respected New York eatery—Chang’s Má Pêche (French-Vietnamese), Michael White’s Marea (coastal Italian), David Burke’s Townhouse (modern American), and Wylie Dufresne’s wd~50 (molecular gastronomy)—and must come back to the kitchen and prepare a dish that might fit on those respective menus. It’s another stressful challenge on a couple of different levels, since they have to raise their game to the Michelin standards of each restaurant and adapt to genres and styles that are sometimes far outside their comfort zone.


As expected, Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant caused the biggest problems, since of the All-Star cast, only Marcel and Richard have shown much of a passion or skill for food science. (If you’re looking for more information about those accusations of “culinary plagiarism” directed at Marcel by Dufresne’s sous chef, you can find it here. Apparently, Marcel served up a “cyber egg” that was very similar to one on wd~50’s menu.) Ironically, Marcel wound up whiffing the assignment despite being the only team member comfortable in that kitchen. Tiffani tried too hard to push the envelope, winding up with a gruesome-sounding melon dish that Bourdain felt crossed “the fine line between homage and parody.” (Have I mentioned yet in this paragraph how awesome Bourdain is? Because that critique was very nicely put.) The two least comfortable, Carla and Dale T., were smart in not trying to shoehorn Dufresne’s style into their own. Carla was accused of being too simple—though her classical style guaranteed at least the approval of a safe dish—but Dale recalled that Dufresne was, in Bourdain’s words, “an egg slut,” and prepared a breakfast dish with egg dumplings and pork belly that looked delicious, even if it didn’t look like one of Dufresne’s art objects.

As for the rest of the winners and losers, I was surprised to see Dale win the New Zealand trip over Angelo, who took a chance by adding shaved white chocolate to a savory dish and created something that made more sense on Má Pêche’s menu than Dale’s did on wd~50’s. It was surprising also—though in a good way—that Antonia’s pea and carrot puree landed her in the winner’s group, especially when you consider that her restaurant (Burke’s Townhouse) was serving up the most over-the-top and whimsical dishes of any of the four.


The losers’ table, however, left me a little mystified. It was a double elimination—a scarier prospect in an All-Star season, when you’re not waiting for two-thirds of the chaff-filled cast to get cut—and the two who got sent home were the two I felt would survive on the basis of what was said about them. Fabio’s survival was particularly curious. Not one good thing was said about that dish: It looked unappealing, it lacked focus, and it revealed a chef who was entirely at sea when not working with pasta. You could perhaps argue that Tiffani should be given a pass for her ambition, but again, no one said a single nice thing about her trainwreck Dufresne impersonation. On the other side, poor, overmatched Stephen was said to have good components (a well-cooked salmon, for one) in an otherwise uneven dish with bad aromatics (Bourdain: “It tastes like a head shop”). I trust the judges were being honest in letting Stephen and Dale L. (whose weird, breakfast-y roasted veal loin did sound misconceived) go, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in thinking their critiques suggested the other pair.

Stray observations:

  • Some choice bitchiness in the confessionals from the start. Fabio on Angelo: “He wears his pants a little too tight for me.” Spike on Stephen: “He’ll be able to open a bottle of wine for us.”
  • I know he’s the personification of effete, blinkered arrogance, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Stephen. He’s like a Wes Anderson character in the real world, with a gulf between ambition and achievement that resembles Max Fischer’s in Rushmore.
  • Confirmed: Angelo is still a big weirdo. His enthusiasm for Má Pêche might have been infectious were it not for that shot of him sniffing at it like a mouse to cheese.
  • Having the judges scurry from restaurant to restaurant in cabs gives us the image of Padma literally stopping traffic.
  • Lest Bourdain get all the best lines, Tom gets off a good one on Stephen’s dish: “You may have great knowledge of Italian food. I have great knowledge of Led Zeppelin. Doesn’t make me Jimmy Page.”