Welcome!

This blog is inspired by Dominic Armato and his terrific site Skillet Doux. I have been reading Dom's Top Chef Power Rankings since he started posting them and his analysis of the show is first rate.

I have created this little blog as a way of reviewing and posting of my own rankings - and not by way of competition with Dom, who is in his own league. Read him first and always and think of my own rankings as a bit of counterpoint.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Introduction to Top Chef Season 4

I recently purchased the DVD set for Top Chef Season 4, which has remained my personal favorite of all (presently) eight seasons of the show.
    
Produced by Magical Elves Productions (the little critters will be referenced a great deal in all of my reviews) and aired by Bravo TV, this series caught my interest from the very beginning.
         

Sometime in the spring of 2006, I was flipping channels one weekend and ran into a marathon of Season 1 episodes on Bravo.  I found myself immediately caught up in the terrific challenges and backbiting between the chefs.  This, I thought, is good television.  It turned out that the season was not over yet, so, being caught up with the series, I began to watch the new episodes airing on Wednesday nights.  At this point, I admit that I am a junkie.
Anyway, I was of course disappointed in both Season 2 and Season 3.  S2 had a lot of drama, but generally the quality of chefs was down from S1.  And I thought S3 was a total disaster.  I was ready to give up on a show that I thought was quite promising.  Suffice it to say, I’m glad that I stayed with it.
    
Season 4 was a knockout.
    
First of all, I think that the cast for Season 4 overall was one of the best ever, not just from a cooking perspective, but because there was a great mix of personalities among the chefs.
    
You had the brilliance of Richard Blais, who at that time was an exuberant food nerd, part chemist, part playful sprite and a proponent of Molecular Gastronomy.  Almost from the beginning, his presence created anticipation in viewers from episode to episode as to what new, interesting, even bizarre concept that he would come up with to wow the judges.  And he was fun to watch – sometimes way too nerdy, sometimes hilarious in his clunky humor.  But you could always count on him to think a challenge through, to approach a problem from a new and surprising angle, to create flavor combinations that startled even the most jaded of judges and to assist his fellow competitors in their own search for success. 
    
In terms of terrific cooking, Stephanie, Dale and Antonia were nearly his equals.
     
Stephanie Izard was a strong chef with a great personality.  Although she didn’t show the creativity that Blais did, she consistently won Elimination Challenges with dishes that were among the strongest on the show.  On almost every challenge, she was a bundle of nerves and it was easy to identify with her angst.  She took her losses in Quickfire Challenges with a dose of humor.  And when she won, she was almost always surprised and laughing.  She was fun to watch and to root for all the way through.  And in the end, she was named both Fan Favorite AND Top Chef.  She was really good.
    
Antonia Lofaso had a very relaxed personality and really enjoyed the challenges because they were fun.  A young, single mother from Los Angeles, viewers were able to identify with her struggle to raise a child and excel as a chef.  And where some chefs come across as pretentious, Antonia was the complete opposite: relaxed, focused and in control.  When Dale or someone else really went off, Antonia was just as apt to roll her eyes and smile.  And, during the course of the season, she acquired the nickname "The Black Hammer" because people who ended up on the bottom with her were inevitably sent home.  Was it a curse?  Who knows.
    
Dale Talde was an early favorite along with Blais.  A serious student of Asian cuisine, Dale was a perfectionist who was uninhibited in his reaction, glowing when he won and gnashing and cursing when he lost.  But it was obvious to everyone that Dale was the most serious competition for Richard when it came to the area of creativity.  And, not surprisingly, he worked extremely well with Richard throughout the competition.
    
And then there was Lisa Fernandez, who received the “villain edit” from the Elves as a reward for her mugging, profanity, and arrogance.  Add to this her tendency to barely survive elimination by not cooking the worst dish of any one challenge.  To her credit, she did cook a few really good dishes, but her tendency to be a bottom-dweller swelled viewers’ negative perceptions of her.  She was the chef that people loved to hate; and the longer she survived, the more they hated her.  The blogging was almost more entertaining than the shows when Lisa was being discussed.
    
Then there were a few strong cooks with equally strong and highly entertaining personalities, most notably Evangelos "Spike" Mendelsohn and Andrew D'Ambrosi.  They were both a little weird and – like Richard, but for different reasons – you never quite knew what they were going to come up with, especially behind the scenes.  Spike was a real player, seemingly always trying to manipulate the system to win and not caring who noticed.  He also had a rather inflated view of himself (“I’m a cool dude”).  Sometimes (to the viewers’ amusement) this backfired on him, but he was always entertaining.  Andrew had a stronger personality and also thought that he was far and away the best chef cooking, but that also got in his way.  As a self-proclaimed health nut, his focus was on “showing these people who is the best.”  Even though he seemed to take himself very seriously, it was impossible for the viewers to take him seriously.
    
Finally, there was a supporting cast of cooks who were just plain interesting, in and of themselves.  They were all fun to watch: there was the Lesbian couple from San Francisco, Jennifer Biesty and Zoi Antonitsas, there was a motor-mouth California treat, Ryan Scott, a cheeky New Zealander, Mark Simmons, who actually brought his own didgeridoo, there was Nikki Cascone, the pasta queen, and Manuel Trevino, a nice, apparently stable, Hispanic man in the middle of this madness.  The cast was very well filled out with interesting characters and every episode was fun to watch.
   
Complimenting this great cast was the assortment of regular and guest judges.  The series was – and is – hosted by the lovely Padma Lakshmi, who not only has a great background in food and culture, but who was also once married to the incredible writer, Salman Rushdie.  Head Judge Tom Colicchio of Craft has a pretty mellow personality and a great knowledge of cooking, but is definitely not afraid to express his true feelings.  If he has a downside, it is that he occasionally has trouble accepting really spicy foods.  He’d have a hard time of it here in New Mexico.  Third of the regular judges is my favorite, Gail Simmons, of Food and Wine Magazine.  Although Gail really knows her cooking, she has a most engaging personality and can actually see the humor in much of the competition.  In addition, I think she has a great sense of fairness, balancing the quality of the cooking against the difficulty of the challenges.  And the Guest Judge for the season was the always-admirable Ted Allen, of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and currently of Chopped.  Ted has a great sense of humor and really knows his food.  Fun to watch!

    
            
(It was during Season 4 that I caught a reference from Ted Allen at the Bravo site that there was a great blog offering Top Chef Power Rankings.  That site was – and still is – www.skilletdoux.com - the wonderful web site of Dominic Armato.  I still recommend it as anyone’s first stop on the road to understanding and appreciating Top Chef.  In addition, Dom has gained an amazing group of followers who post stimulating insights to the program.  It is a must read for TC junkies.)
    
The other guest judges who moved through various episodes included Rocco DiSpirito, Anthony Bourdain, Wylie Dufresne, Rick Bayless, Daniel Boulud, Ming Tsai, Johnny Iuzzini, Art Smith, José Andrés, and Eric Ripert.
     
As I make my way through the episodes on DVD, I’ll drop back here and post some reviews.  Maybe I’ll group a series of episodes together and maybe I’ll do some individual episode reviews as well.  I’m looking forward to experiencing Season 4 all over again and sharing my thoughts.
    
Until then, Guten Appetit!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Top Chef All Stars: Post Season Rankings


Walking The Line

Before getting on with the ranking, I must say that I was very impressed by the final episode of the season.  It was a straight up competition where each of the two remaining chefs were asked to create their own restaurant tasting menu of four courses.  Each chef was also given the aid of three sous chefs, competitors from All Stars, chosen by the two chefs in a blind taste test. 

Who could ask for more than that?  There were no limitations on the cuisine and the time limitation was completely reasonable.

In the blind tasting, Richard Blais selected Spike Mendelsohn, Angelo Sosa, and Antonia Lofaso.  I thought it was fascinating that he picked two of the three competitors from Season 4.  He was probably close to getting Dale Talde as well, if they had been picking four instead of three.  Michael Isabella picked Tiffani Faison, Jamie Lauren, and Carla Hall, three of the best chefs in the competition.  I thought it was particularly ironic that he picked Jamie and it speaks volumes about how a blind tasting eliminates all personality decisions and brings it down to the food.  Thank goodness!

The menu for each restaurant was superb and the dishes were apparently nearly flawless (except for the elusive dessert course).  Although Mike was his blustery self and Richard was his worried self, both performed at extremely high levels, with Richard pulling out the narrow win.  It was redemption for him and I can understand how he felt. 

Some critics have made much of Richard’s “posing” as Hamlet and even over-rating himself.  I don’t believe that – all along I have believed that Richard was the best chef in Season 4, even though he didn’t win – and I’m not the only one who feels that way.  No offense to Stephanie Izard - she was magnificent and wonderful.  It's just that I thought Richard was a better overall chef.

At any rate, I was extremely happy for him and for the producers for bringing off a great end to a terrific season.

The following ranking is based on the order that I feel best represents the true position of these eighteen individuals as chefs.  It is not based on the order of elimination.  I have taken into account the chefs’ strengths and weaknesses, as I perceive them, including four specific areas of concern: knowledge, technical skill, leadership and creativity.  I have also considered the performance of each chef during Top Chef All Stars – sometimes that has had a large impact on this ranking and sometimes none at all.  I am not so knowledgeable myself in the culinary field that I can be completely objective. 

I have tried to be as objective as possible, but in this kind of evaluation there are always subjective influences.   So please accept this as a flawed, but well-meaning analysis.

1.           Richard Blais.  Preseason 1.

Considering all criteria, Blais grades out first, as he had with most viewers and other bloggers since the beginning of the season.  At different points, he was surpassed by others, Angelo at the beginning and later by Dale Talde and perhaps near the end by Mike, but as Tom Colicchio said, he was steady throughout.  His knowledge, from traditional through cutting edge concepts is very full and he has the technical skill to compete with nearly anyone.  His leadership is inspiring, steady and gets the best out of any chef who works with him and there is no doubting that his creativity and whimsy were the strongest among the eighteen chefs competing.

2.           Michael Isabella.  Preseason 14.

This is by far the largest jump I had from preseason rankings to postseason.  I had Mike pegged for middle or lower for most of the season and I thought that his inclusion in the Finale was unfortunate, considering that there were chefs that I thought better who had already been eliminated.  But between the regular season and the finals, Mike put his time to good use, staging at various restaurants and learning from excellent chefs.  In addition, he came prepared.  He had practiced cooking island food, developing different flavor profiles and finally finding the unique style that sets him apart from others.  He surprised a number of people, including me and he came extremely close to winning Top Chef.  With that kind of performance, I believe that he moved ahead of some other chefs that I would have put before him earlier.  He increased his knowledge and technical skill and projected himself as a confident leader throughout the final episode.  He also increased his creativity to the point where he was toe to toe with Richard Blais and he must be given extra credit for that.  I'm very impressed and I'm letting that impression show with his ranking.

3.      Dale Talde.  Preseason 5.
Despite being eliminated prior to the finals, Dale showed extraordinary composure and depth in the dishes he planned and executed this season.  I was impressed with his performance in many of the challenges toward the end of the season when he showed consistency in a number of wins.  He was the executive chef on the winning Restaurant Wars team and his skill with seafood was a joy to watch.  Although his knowledge of the craft is excellent, he does lose some focus when he has to work outside his comfort zone and this makes for consistency issues.  However, his technical skill is virtually unmatched among these eighteen chefs, his leadership is excellent and he has shown time and again that he can design extremely creative dishes.

4.          Angelo Sosa.  Preseason 3.

Fatigue may have been a factor in Angelo's performance during this season because he went so deep into the previous season.  Even so, he started out very strong.  It was only toward the end that he began to falter and make mistakes in judgement that cost him a longer run in the show.  His knowledge level is very high and his technical skills are amazing.  I think that leadership is a problem for him and that he works better on his own or when serving as a sous chef.  However, he cannot be faulted for creativity.  And he also gets points for being chosen by Richard in the blind taste test and apparently performed extremely well in that role.

5.      Carla Hall.  Preseason 9.

Fan favorite Carla Hall is an extremely good chef.  On the surface, it feels like she specializes in "comfort food", but it would be an injustice to characterize her food in that way.  It is far more complex.  With her classical training, she has always been able to elevate a dish the way few other chefs could.  Her knowledge is extremely high, while her skill level remains very good.  She might have a few leadership issues because she seems to lose composure a little when put under pressure.  I doubt that it is a serious issue other than on a reality television show.  I feel that her endearment to others would be a serious asset in a real kitchen.   She also has a good level of creativity that sometimes falls a little short in the execution.  She gets extra points for being picked blind by Mike and adding so well to his team.

6.          Antonia Lofaso.  Preseason 10.

Although I originally had Antonia ranked in the lower middle of the group, she showed us a lot this year.  Among a group of chefs where ego was a high motivator, Antonia stayed on an even keel all season long.  Initially, she came out toward the bottom because of team challenges, but in individual challenges she shined and from the middle of the competition to the end, she stepped up her game and showed that she was deserving of high ranking by battling all the way through to the penultimate episode.  Her knowledge, skill level and creativity were very high this season, but she proved herself to be a very good teammate in critical challenges.  Her food tended toward the comfort side, but she rose to the challenge and delivered complexity when it was not expected.  Once more, she gets points for being chosen by Richard in the blind taste test.
7.      Tiffani Faison.  Preseason 2.

Because of her extraordinary performance in the first season of Top Chef, I started her out very high, but early in the season, she stumbled a few times and that moved her down.  Although her personality played negatively during her season, the first in Top Chef history, she showed that she was an excellent chef by producing consistently terrific dishes.  Going into All Stars, she seemed much more subdued and far less creative and I think that hurt her performance.  Nevertheless, Tiffani still retains all of those skills that she brought to the first season and she has increased them.  Her knowledge is very good and her technical skill is terrific.  Leadership is still a problem, but her creativity is still very high, so I am keeping her slightly above some of the middle chefs.

8.  Jennifer Carroll.  Preseason 7.

I may have a few people disagree with me on this one.  Jen was eliminated in the second episode of the season and we didn't have an opportunity to see the serious skills that she can bring to the kitchen.  Although she failed to play the game well, there can be no doubting that she is among the top eight in this group.  Her training and knowledge are very high and she has terrific technical skills.  During her season, she brought some excellent leadership skills, but I can't give her high marks here.  Her reaction to losing was embarrassing and her beliefs about winning and losing are positively medieval.  I also think there are issues concerning her level of creativity.  Training and working with great chefs cannot by itself instill a sense of creativity.

9.          Tiffany Derry.  Preseason 8.

Tiffany is a problem for me.  In the preseason, I had her ranked eighth because of her strong finish to the previous season.  Even then, it nagged at me that there just didn't seem to be an impressive level of creativity and I wondered just how memorable her food really was.  So then she goes out in All Stars and performs beyond everyone's expectations by finishing fourth, yet I bump her all the way down to ninth.  I’m still asking myself why I would do that.  Maybe it’s due to the fact that throughout the season, she was just barely handing on, like one of those Garfield window dolls.  Her food never seemed to elevate, although she kept it just good enough to keep from being eliminated.  Knowledge, technical skill and creativity all fall short for me and I have seen no signs of leadership.  No matter where I put her, I am uncomfortable about it.

10.    Jamie Lauren.  Preseason 6.

Jamie also performed very poorly in All Stars and she was also given a bad edit.  But as both Dominic Armato and I can testify, the food she puts out in her restaurants is heavenly.  So perhaps I bring a bit of a personal bias into this ranking.  Personally, I think she is a much better chef than Tiffany.  Maybe she should be lower than tenth, but every time I think back to my meal at Absinthe in San Francisco, I just have to keep her to at least this level.  Her knowledge is very high and her technical skill is excellent.  I can't gauge her leadership skill, but based on her performance in All Stars, I have to put it fairly low.  In spite of that, her creativity level is actually very high and it would be impossible for me to rank her any lower.  It speaks well of her that her dish was chosen by Mike in a blind taste test - and it is even better that she performed extremely well as sous chef for him.

11.          Casey Thompson.  Preseason 11.

Dominic had much greater confidence in Casey than I did to start the season.  But I warmed to her as Dom's confidence waned.  I think that she is a pretty darn good chef and certainly better than her performance on the show would indicate.  Her knowledge level is high, her technical skills are good, and she would seem to make a good leader, although I don't have any evidence of that.  I do think that she has some problems with creativity and with consistency.

12.    Tre Wilcox.  Preseason 16.

Obviously, my confidence in Tre to start the season was fairly low.  I thought he was a talented cook, but did not feel confident in his skills with this amazingly high level of competition.  I was wrong.  Tre was a very strong competitor for much of the season and really knocked out some good dishes, so I had to move him up four spots from my preseason thinking.  His knowledge is good.  His technical skill is very good, but I think he has issues with kitchen leadership and with creativity in designing his dishes.

13.          Marcel Vigneron.  Preseason 4.

What was I thinking in my preseason rankings?  Well, I was thinking that Marcel was very skilled during Season 2 (I thought he should have won) and that he must have improved across the board during the intervening time.  I was banking on his skills and maturity evolving from promising to flourishing.  Unfortunately, I was very wrong and I feel badly for Marcel.  He certainly showed during Restaurant Wars that he is not a leader at all.  In the kitchen, the chef must be able to inspire confidence in those working for him, to lead by example and to lead by pure creativity and inspiration.  He failed all of those tests badly.  To make it even worse, he just doesn’t get it.  I was extremely disappointed in Marcel.  Even with that being said, his knowledge and technical skills are very high, but creativity is also an issue for him.  Although he likes to think of himself as being original, I didn’t see anything this season that knocked me out – rather the opposite, most of his dishes seemed to be knock-offs.

14.    Fabio Viviandi.  Preseason 13.

For all of Fabio’s wonderful personality and charm and even his ability to make a few dishes that are absolutely wonderful, I cannot sense in him the deep knowledge, skills, leadership or creativity to make him a serious competitor in this group of highly talented chefs.  Fabio, I love you, I’d love to eat in your restaurant, but I can’t elevate you beyond this point.  Sorry.

15.    Spike Mendelsohn.  Preseason 17.

Personally, I like Spike.  I always have, from the beginning of Season 4 onwards.  And I’m sure that he is a decent chef, but as with Fabio, this competition was brutal, with so many terrific, inspired chefs in the mix, I don’t think Spike had much of a shot.  I don’t believe that the knowledge level is sufficiently high, I don’t think there is much at all in the way of leadership and Spike is virtually bankrupt in the creativity department.  He does have terrific technical skills and that alone elevates him above the bottom three.

16.    Dale Levitski.  Preseason 12.

Honestly, I thought Dale was going to do much better in this competition.  He seems like a creative person and I have always assumed his skills, but I didn’t see anything here that would cause me to move him up even to Spike’s level.  From what I’ve seen, I have to grade him out fairly low.

17.   

17.   Elia Aboumrad.  Preseason 15.

Well, here we have a promising chef who decided to explode a bomb on her career first by performing so badly that she was eliminated before any of the other seventeen chefs – and then capping it off by insulting Tom Colicchio more than once after she left the show.  I had been willing initially to give her a break, but more than anyone else, she just doesn’t seem to understand what is going on – and that is much worse than understanding and admitting your failure.  The only thing keeping her from the bottom spot is the fact that Stephen Asprinio doesn’t really cook any more.

18.          Stephen Asprinio.  Preseason 18.

Stephen decided to become a first class sommelier, manager and restaurateur, so he allowed his cooking skills to diminsh.  It does say something that he outlasted both Elia and Jen in this competition, but that says more about how Top Chef works than about Stephen’s abilities.

 

 


I welcome comments and would be happy to participate in a discussion about these selections, so if anyone is interested in participating, please log a comment below.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Top Chef All Stars, Season Finale, Part 3: Review and Rankings

Mikey Goes After Antonia

I don’t know if I’m just getting used to the fact that Quickfire Challenges have completely gone down the tubes or if I was genuinely entertained by this QF farce.

When the remaining three chefs (Richard Blais, Mike Isabella and Antonia Lofaso) arrived at the kitchen, Wolfgang Puck was waiting with Padma.  They were prepared to lead the chefs on a nasty trip down memory lane.  The focus of the QF was to bring back seven “classic” QF challenges and have the chefs choose among them for the other chefs.  Since Mikey won the EC last episode, he got to pick first.  Rather than going after Richard, however, Mike decided to bring down Antonia, his “cousin”.

He made his reasoning abundantly clear: he thinks that she is the weakest link and if he brings her down, then he will go to the final to face Richard.  Antonia saw this immediately and reacted accordingly.

This brings up once again the reprehensible streak of misogyny that Mike has shown ever since Season 6 when he mercilessly attacked Robin.  We have seen it again this season over and over.  Mike obviously doesn’t see it.  He acts as if he speaks for everyone.  It is sad, especially in relation to Antonia, who has been one of the most likeable competitors in the history of the show (Carla Hall notwithstanding).

The seven “classic” QF challenges were represented in: hot dogs, tacos, potatoes, one-pot wonder, canned and dry goods, desserts and pasta.

Mike immediately assigned Antonia canned and dry goods, a difficult challenge, but not as bad as it might seem.  Antonia then gave Richard hot dogs and Richard gave Mike the one-pot wonder.  Antonia was quite surprised by this, saying that it left the entire spectrum of food open to him.  While this is true, Mike also flourishes on composed dishes and this is slightly out of his wheel-house.

After the cooking started, Padma returned and announced that they were now going to add in a classic QF “twist”.  Uh-oh.  Dumb and Dumber.  The three twists, assigned in reverse order were:  Richard assigned Mike the twist of cooking with no utensils, Antonia gave Richard cooking with one hand, and that left Antonia to cook tied together with someone else, who turned out to be Carla.  If the twist had happened earlier, Mike would have been the one with the biggest disadvantage, but since he’d already finished all of his chopping, he was able to just stand around and gloat at the others.  Very annoying.  Richard probably had the most difficult time of the three and it seems rather obvious to me that he had the worst dish of the three.

What I found amazing is that Mike completely ignored doing a one-pot wonder.  Okay, he did braise his pork in a pressure cooker, but he clearly had a second pot cooking and the salad was composed completely separately.  In other words, he did not produce a one-pot dish and should have been automatically disqualified from the win.  I guess it just shows how much contempt the producers have for the QF challenge that they don’t even care if someone breaks the rules.  This is odd, since they actually enforced the rules earlier in the season.  You’d think that rules would be even more important at this point.  But, oh well.

The EC was another challenge brought back from the past:  cook a great chef what they would wish as their last supper (the final meal of their lives). 

Once again, with the QF win, Mikey gets to pick and plunges the dagger into Antonia up to the hilt.  He assigned her Morimoto, a highly regarded Japanese chef.  Japanese food is not in Antonia’s comfort zone.  While many American chefs who have trained can cook good Japanese food, someone who has not studied it is at an extreme disadvantage.  And then later, he had the guts to tell her that he thought she had the easiest assignment. Kudos to Antonia for laughing in MIkey's face.

He assigned Richard Wolfgang Puck and he himself took Michelle Bernstein (“one of the greatest women chefs in America”).

Surprisingly, Michelle Bernstein chose fried chicken, with biscuits and gravy.  That really threw me off and I’m sure it also caught Mike off guard.  Wolfgang Puck, of course, went with goulash with spätzle and apple strudel.

Although Richard worried about his strudel, it wasn’t that far off from his comfort zone and he nailed everything but the spätzle, which was a little dry.  Having been married to a German woman, I know that the spätzle is a very important part of the recipe, but even so, the other successes outweighed the one flaw and got Richard the win.

So, even though Antonia had the most difficult time with her Janapese plate, it was pre-ordained that the bottom two would have a cook-off to determine who was moving on with Richard.  Both Mike and Antonia were asked to create a “bite” of food to determine the winner.

I was really happy that this twist put an unbalanced challenge back on pace and gave Antonia a chance to knock out Mike.  At that point, I was openly rooting for her to kick his butt – and the results were very close indeed.  However, Antonia was eliminated.

I’ve got to say that I really feel badly for her.  She made a great run and really performed above her level in Season 4, when she also made the finals.  I really wish her nothing but the best and I hope that she wins fan favorite.

So now, Mike and Richard move on and my rankings shouldn’t be a surprise, especially with only two to rank.

1.    Richard Blais.

I think that Blais is clearly the best, on any level that you might put out there.

2.   Mike Isabella.

He has brought a lot to the finals and has been much more impressive than ever before.  Unfortunately, that isn’t really saying a lot.  While it’s possible that he may cook one meal better than Blais and win, I really doubt that he will ever be half the chef.

_____________________

Next week, I will give my season-ending rankings of the chefs.  This will not be in the order in which they were eliminated, but in the order that I think they probably should be ranked, independently of any reality television show.  It will be somewhat subjective, but I will also present solid reasons that I believe in the rankings.  There will certainly be some changes from the pre-seasons rankings – and those changes are a direct result of the performance in the show, but overall, it will simply be my subjective rankings.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Top Chef All Stars, Season Finale, Part 2: Review and Rankings


In a Funk

I am unsure of what to think about this last episode.  Maybe the finale is just running too long, but I couldn’t get excited about either challenge.

Most bizarre comment came from Mike:  “I’m finally getting back on track.”  Um, Mike, the only track you have ever spent much time on was in the middle of the pack.  He makes it sound like he once had this great run and then kind of slipped a little and now he’s back on top.  No.  It didn’t happen that way, either in your season or in this one.  You are riding high for the FIRST time, dude.

My love of Season 4 has been somewhat justified in seeing four selected to compete in this All Stars Season (Spike went off the trail early), including three who went way deep in the competition (Dale was a favorite up until a few weeks ago) and two in the final three, Antonia and Richard.

It was a real ho-hum Quickfire.  Make a hundred plates that all look and taste exactly the same.  Other than the time pressure, I found nothing particularly creative or even amusing about this challenge.  I mean, Antonia and Tiffany split $5,000 for a seared tenderloin with a chimichurri salad and lentils while Mike and Richard made pork Bolognese with macaroni and groused about the women winning.  Yeah, okay, it was hard to make macaroni in an hour, but it was also hard to plate 100 times 4 items.

This was not inspiring at all.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were required to cook conch on a beach for the rich old members of the Nassau Yacht Club who are celebrating the 80th Anniversary of their founding by more extremely wealthy (mostly white) old people.  Another huge ho-hum.  I just expect a lot more out of the finals, but I’m probably expecting way too much.

The season has gone on long enough already.  Let’s have a winner.

Speaking of winners, Mike won again.  The way that he is mugging for the camera and looking all Spanky, I wonder if they didn’t tell him in advance, “Look Mike, you’re going to win this thing so gloat as much as you want.”

In what was clearly a major anti-climax, Tiffany was eliminated, something that should have happened at least six episodes ago.

Let’s get it over with!

1.    Richard Blais.

Mike may be winning most of these challenges, but Richard is still the better chef, more creative, with a broader base of knowledge and deeper pure skill.  Until Mike actually snatches the final win away, Richard simply must be ranked first.

2.   Mike Isabella.

I’m really tired of this guy.  He’s brought some serious preparation skills to this thing, but I’d still like nothing better than to have him fall on his Spanky face.

3.   Antonia Lofaso.

I still love Antonia and wish her the very best.  If I had my choice, she would win this thing, but I have my doubts that she can stand up to Mike and Richard.  Sorry.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Top Chef All Stars, Season Finale, Part 1: Review and Rankings

A Meal fit for a King (Of Junkanoo)  Welcome to the Bahamas

The finale took place in the beautiful Bahamas, starting with this first episode in Nassau.  Antonia arrived first, followed by Richard, Carla, Mike and Tiffany.  Richard had a small beard, which he said he wouldn't shave until he won.  His wife, Jazmin, was at that time about to have a baby girl named Embry.  Richard said the worst that could happen would be that he lost TC AND missed the birth of his baby.  Mike revealed that he had been sitting in at various DC restaurants, training and learning – and now believes he is a much better chef than when he left.

They arrived at Fort Charlotte (the largest of three forts located in Nassau) and Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Eric Ripert were waiting for them, along with past TC winners Michael Voltaggio, from Mike's Season 6, Kevin Sbraga, from Tiffany's S7, Stephanie Izard, from Richard and Antonia's S4, and Hosea Rosenberg, from Carla's S5.  The Quickfire Challenge was for the chefs to cook against their season winner head to head, with the winner of each contest winning $10,000.  Tom chose the proteins for the challenge and said that he wanted to see them featured.

When they opened their boxes, the S4 competitors had a rack of veal, S6 had a whole duck, S5 a leg of lamb and S7 pork hindquarters.  They were required to butcher the meat down and cook in 45 minutes.

Head to head, Kevin made Barbeque Pork, with Cilantro, Celery, Shaved Onion and a Citrus Salad, while Tiffany made Pork Stew, with Potatoes, Peppers, Citrus and Allspice.  The two dishes were very close in quality, but Tiffany was given the win.  ("I needed this! She tells Kevin")  From S5, Hosea made Braised Lamb in Red Chili Broth, with Olive, Mint, Goat Cheese and Rosemary Polenta, while Carla made Jollof Rice and Harisa Lamb, with Peppers, Onions and Lime.  Her rice was undercooked because of difficulty with the equipment.  She put it in with her soup and it didn't finish in time.  Hosea easily got the win.

From S4, Stephanie made Veal Scallopini, with Tapenade and a Poached Egg, while Antonia (who also had equipment issues) made Roasted Veal, Leek and Almond Puree, with Sauteed Mushrooms, Arugala, and Raisins.  Although there were problems with both dishes, Stephanie was given the win, in spite of her over-busy plate, because Antonia's meat was a little tough.  Richard made Seared Veal Loin and Braised Veal Cap, with Raisins, Carrots, Potatoes and Mushrooms and easily bested Stephanie's over-complicated dish.

Last of all, from S6, Michael V. made Duck Breast, with Duck Leg in Bacon Vinaigrette, with Burnt Leek and Coffee Pesto to go against Mike I. with Cashew-Dusted Spiced Duck Breast with Duck Leg and Mushroom Jus.  In a very close call, Mike I. was given the win.  In the aside interview, Mike was already beginning to crow over an impending victory over Blais.  Likewise, Richard seems to be worried about Mike I. beating Michael Voltaggio (which was actually quite a strong accomplishment).

The Elimination Challenge would happen the next day when the chefs were told that they would cook a meal for "Bahamian Royalty".   It is obvious that the contestants did not read up on the Bahamas before coming or they would have learned that the form of government is a constitutional parliamentary democracy.  There is no "Bahamian Royalty".   Nevertheless, all five chefs prepared as if they were cooking for it.  That evening, the chefs checked into their hotel and relaxed a little bit.  They stayed at The Cover Atlantis, a posh resort hotel near the beach.  One presumes this is also where their kitchen and Judge's Table were located, but no reference was made to that.  Richard revealed that if he were to win, he would like to start the restaurant of his dreams.  I had rather thought that he must be doing significantly well as a consultant and television personality, but we shall see which road his life follows.

The next day, the chefs were given two and a half hours to prep.  Richard, Mike and Antonia had planned refined meals, while Carla and Tiffany opted for simpler meals.  No big surprise there, but Mikey somehow used up all of the good karma he won in Episode 12 by demeaning Carla, Tiffany AND Antonia for cooking simple foods all season just to get to the finals.  Someone should give him a copy of the season just so that he can figure out what actually happened.

In the kitchen, Carla and Antonia shared a unguarded moment when Carla told Antonia, "I psyche myself out."  She went on to say (almost tearfully) that she does much better as an underdog and is cooking for all of the underdogs in the world.

When prep was finished, they were picked up with a police escort, sirens screaming.  They expected to be taken to a palace, but instead arrived in a restaurant district and stop at a noisy celebration.  It turned out that this was the end of Junkanoo, a Bahamian celebration similar to Carnival.  After an abortive attempt at dancing by Mike and a successful one by Carla, Tom showed up and revealed that the "royalty" they would be cooking for was the King of Junkanoo and his entourage and that they would be cooking in a small restaurant, Twin Brothers.  Tiffany thought that this change of plans would work to her advantage since she had planned a simpler dish all along.

I’m sure the producers were pleased with this swicheroo, but it didn’t resonate with me.  They’ve now had so many bait and switch situations that they are so old as to hardly be noticeable, just perhaps a bit annoying sometimes.  This one was not annoying, but it wasn’t inspired either.  A miss.

The chefs had one hour to cook at Twin Brothers, preparing for fifty diners.  Things went well until Antonia noticed one of the deep fryers smoking.  Carla tried to turn it down, but it caught fire and so the Nassau FD showed up to spray chemicals over stuff and ruin the food (although the smoke would have probably been enough to do that).  Waiting in a booth to find out what was going on, Richard grilled Antonia, who said flatly that she didn’t do anything.  In an aside interview, Richard revealed that he was trying to get into Antonia’s head and psyche her out a bit.  Bad form, but well… it is a game.  Richard just hasn’t played this way before and it was a disappointment to me.

Tom explained to them that the kitchen would have to be scrubbed down and that while that was going on, they would go back to the kitchen and re-prep with fresh ingredients.  Richard asked if they could change their dishes and Tom said that they could.  This amounted to a complete re-set of the challenge and put them all back on equal footing, something that Tiffany didn’t like.  I was happy with the change, however.

When they returned to the kitchen, Richard and Antonia decided to go with completely different dishes more appropriate to the diners, while Mike, Carla and Tiffany decided to stick with their original ideas.  Back at Twin Brothers, we discovered that Carla actually did decide to change her dish a little.  Instead of cooking medallions of pork, she decided to fry the entire tenderloin and then cut it to portions.  It became obvious that the exhaustion was beginning to catch up with everyone at this point and it became a matter of survival to deal with it.  Carla’s tenderloin came out raw in the middle, so she cut it and began trying to finish it on the grill.  It looked to me that the portions were way too big to be successful with that – I thought she should have cut the portions smaller (closer to what was actually on the plate).

When service was started, we were given descriptions of each dish and Gail Simmons joined the judges and the King for dinner.  Carla started the meal with Fried Pork Medallion, with Sweet Potato Puree, Apple Sauce and Apple Chip.   Ripert thought it was too sweet, more like a dessert, but Gail turned her medallion over and it was raw in the center.  Not good at all.

Antonia next served Crispy Shrimp and Grits, with Cilantro and Pickled Vegetables.  Ripert remarked that the shrimp was overcooked and Tom made a remark about Howard Johnson’s wanting their garnish back.  Gail thought the shrimp was buried and tasteless.  Once again, not a good reception.  Next, Mikey presented Sous Vide Chicken with Mushrooms, Yams, Lobster Sauce and Lobster Hash.  This dish was received well by everyone.  Richard followed with Roasted Lamb Loin and Malted Braised Leg with Pickled Turnip and Mustard.  The dish also featured a cannelloni wrapping lamb and it was also well-recieived, but Ripert did not like the cannelloni.

Tiffany served last with Roasted Spiced Pork Tenderloin, Dirty Rice, Curried Slaw and Tomato Jam.  While everything tasted okay, the judges felt there was a lack of inspiration and finesse in the dish.  Simple was what Tiffany went for, but it was too simple.

Dominic Armato has discussed his feeling that the judges have been moving away from creativity and toward taste as the final determination of success, but this decision on Tiffany, putting her in the bottom for a dish that essentially had nothing wrong with it but a lack of creativity makes me wonder if they are moving the creative aspect back for the finals.

In a cutaway between commercials, they showed the chefs discussing Richard’s theory about nuts.  He was comparing them to musical genres and offered the following comparisons:  Peanuts are like rock n’ roll, walnuts are like British rock, almonds are like ballet or classical and pistachios are like pop music and finally, that hazelnuts are “hippy nuts.”

I’ve actually given Richard’s Nut Theory a little thought while writing the first draft of this review and it seems to me that peanuts are rather more like folk music, rooted deeply in all the people.  I would say that walnuts could be rock, with pecans as British rock.  I can accept almonds as classical and hazelnuts as psychedelic rock, but I think that pistachios are probably closer to being experimental music.  What was really missing is that Cashews are definitely jazz.  I would also say that Brazil nuts were salsa or samba music.

While waiting for Judge’s Table, the chefs looked exhausted and mostly defeated.  Only Mike seemed to be pretty happy with where he was at.  Richard said that he hated everything that he was cooking and couldn’t tell if a dish was bad or good anymore.

It seems to me like he has let the show get into his head, much as he was trying to get into Antonia’s head.  Antonia, however, knew her dish had serious problems.  Carla also felt terrible, but since everyone else was feeling so bad, she tried to shake it off, saying that she just needed to keep doing her cooking.  Antonia stared down and remarked that that was her problem – this dish didn’t really represent her cooking.

As expected, at JT it was Carla, Antonia and Tiffany on the bottom and Richard and Mike on the top.  Mikey won the EC (no prizes this time), with Richard second.  When the three ladies were brought out at the end, the flaws in their dishes were rehashed and it was announced that Carla would go home.  Antonia dodged a bullet and somehow Tiffany survived yet again with a completely uninspiring dish.

Carla was tearful in her exit interviews, but she knew that the tenderloin was not acceptable and that her time had come.  She is one of those chefs who has a great comfort zone, a remarkable sweet spot as a cook, complex yet homey enough for anyone to want to eat.  But this is now the second time that she has tried to do something outside of that comfort zone, particularly by trying something new.  In the finals of S5, she had allowed Casey to talk her into doing something unfamiliar with the same result.  At one point, Carla even asked herself, “Why do I keep doing this?”

One of the major differences between Carla and Richard is that Richard thrives on inventing new dishes off the cuff and part of his strategy on TC is to pull stuff out of the air.  He did that again this episode by completely changing his dish before the second preparation.  I must say that I think it was this strategy that brought him down at the end of S4.  That season, I had expected him to arrive in the Bahamas with winning dishes ready at his fingertips, but in the end, he tried to pull something out of the air and had a bad day.  I don’t mean any offense to Stephanie, who is a terrific chef, but Richard was more creative than her and probably deserved TC that season.  He did choke.

Now we see Mikey coming in with recipes in his head, ready to execute them and Richard appears to be sticking with his strategy of invention.  These two must now be considered the favorites and it will be interesting in the final two episodes to see which will prevail.  Although it is still possible that Antonia will suddenly show up and blow something out of the water, it looks more and more like a showdown between Mike and Richard.

What IS Tiffany still doing here?

Next week, diving for ingredients and beach cooking.  YUM!

1.    Richard Blais.

Richard beat Stephanie head to head in the QF, with a dish that was considered quite superior, then managed to finish a strong second in the EC.  Creatively, I put him ahead of everyone left, but it remains to be seen if his psyche will be his undoing.  All of this talk of hating his food and not being able to tell if it is good or not shows me that he is very close to unraveling.  And with his strategy of pulling rabbits out of hats, it is very possible that he might come up empty at any moment.

2.   Mike Isabella.

That tendency of Richard’s to work off his cuff might turn to Mike’s advantage.  It appears that he worked hard during the period before the finale and has some recipes up his sleeve.  He may be a better game player than he appeared to be during the regular season.  But Mike also has this tendency to blank out mentally sometimes and do something dumb.  We’ll see which Mike makes it to the next episode.

3.   Antonia Lofaso.

Maybe Richard is in her head, maybe not, but she definitely blew both challenges this time out and put the great finish to the regular season in jeopardy.  She is definitely going to have to bring it this next episode just to survive and knock Tiffany out.  It is still possible that she will bust out a great meal and move back ahead of Mike, but for now, she must be considered third. 

4.   Tiffany Derry.

Well, you have to give Tiffany some credit for beating Kevin, but you really can’t give her that much.  It was a close call.  And after finally busting out a great dish to end the regular season, she moved back again with an uninspiring dish in the EC.  I’m afraid that when I do my final rankings of the 18 chefs based on creativity, knowledge, and technique, she will be ranked fairly low.