This week on Top Chef All-Stars: EVERYBODY STARTED FREAKING OUT. The aftermath of Dale’s elimination left our five remaining chefs a mess of insecurities, paranoia, and exhaustion, and (at least in Richard’s case) sadness. He also told Tiffany she was “invincible,” which was such a hilariously backhanded compliment, but I think she was too damned tired to be offended. But the energy turned manic when Padma appeared in the chefs’ house to issue their Quickfire Challenge: Board a ferry to Ellis Island, where they would create a dish using only the ingredients found in the dock’s snack bar in the time it took for the ferry to make a trip.
Yes, another dreaded processed food challenge, and not in that entertaining “here’s an entire gas station’s worth of ingredients to choose from” way, but a sad “oh god, there’s cheese and bread and hot dogs” sort of way. The opportunity for truly transforming crap into something that tastes good was slim and I can’t say anyone really went the extra mile on the innovation front. Even Richard, who cooked his dish in an MRE packet and seemed annoyed at the other chefs for a lack of creativity, didn’t really bring a lot of wizadry either. And the judges – Padma and guest judge Dan Barber – weren’t exactly enthusiastic about anything presented to them during the tasting. Barber told Fucking Mike Isabella that his bread and cheese soup (flavored with pork rinds) could have sunk the boat, while Tiffany piled a bunch of crap on nacho chips and threw some candied fruit into popcorn. (I KNOW!) Richard fared better with a bunch of crap MRE’d onto a hot dog, as did Antonia with her grilled cheese sandwich using raisin bread, muenster, and apples. But Carla won the challenge by making the least disgusting dish: A salad – oranges with a rosemary-infused papaya-carrot juice. After all was said done, this challenge was the biggest waste of time we’ve had this season, and was a pit stop on the way to the big event – the last Elimination Challenge in New York City!
Yes, this episode was the last hurrah before the final chefs head to the Bahamas for the big showdown. I thought I wanted Richard to win, and part of me still does, but can I just bask in the epic gloriousness that is Carla for a moment? Carla, with her ridiculous faces and enthusiasm and humor and bullshit-free love of food? Just when I begin to get frustrated with her lack of focus, she seems to remember why she’s there and reels it back in. And did I mention the ridiculous faces? I nearly fell off my couch at, “My plate looked like [FACE CONTORTION].” She’s like an Amazonian dipped in chocolate, sprinkled with love, and wrapped in Christmas. And I feel absolutely no shame in admitting that I adore her without a hint of irony. She would easily be the most charismatic winner in the history of the show, but I’m getting ahead of myself because we have GENEALOGY to discuss.
Yes, you heard me: FAMILY TREE SHENANIGANS. Admittedly, I am muy jealous of the five cheftestants who were each handed a folder detailing their ancestry, researched by a professional genealogist. That’s cool on any level but, in deference to their time on Ellis Island, the Elimination Challenge centered around preparing a dish that captured each chef’s heritage. These are the challenges I love and it was especially poignant because it soon became obvious that each of them had so little knowledge of their family history. Adding to the emotional heft was the arrival of their loved ones – moms for Antonia, F.M.I., and Tiffany, spouses for Richard and Carla. And thank you, show, for acknowledging the immigrant experience was much, much different for Tiffany’s and Carla’s ancestors. Maybe I’m hormonal or hopped up on a Thomas Kinkade/Hallmark eight-ball, but I found this entire segment very emotional – as it was edited to be! I don’t care, especially in light of Antonia’s discovery that SHE AND F.M.I. ARE DISTANT COUSINS. HO HO HO. Antonia made a big deal about F.M.I. being gross and always farting on her, but isn’t that how you know you’re related to someone? My brother once took my favorite Barbie and placed it in the toilet before taking the biggest dump of his then six-year old life. No one does revenge and obnoxiousness like family. What was then almost charming (I know, I just said “charming” in reference to F.M.I. – what is my LIFE?) was the immediate bond this gave Antonia and F.M.I. throughout the rest of the episode. F.M.I. referred to Antonia has his cousin/”cuz” from then on out. Dawwwwww.
But Richard discovering he had chemists in his family? Carla noting that a Civil War-era ancestor established his own business (just like herself) upon becoming a free man? That shit’s amazing, you guys. And listening in as the chefs hashed out a dinner plan with their loved one was also awesome, especially when they mixed what they’d just learned about their heritage with their very personal experience. The challenge seemed to foster good spirits in everyone and that transferred to the food. There was so little drama in the kitchen – and Richard even afforded Carla a compliment on “pushing herself” by using liquid nitrogen – and that good will seemed to transfer to everyone’s food. Seriously – everyone’s.
Now, you could have caught a chill in the foreshadowing happening during the judges’ dinner. With all of the chefs’ family members in attendance, the only suspense was in whether Tom “I hate okra” Colicchio would turn his nose up at Tiffany’s okra with stewed tomatoes. (He liked it and told her that miracles do happen.) The dinner was nothing but raves from the judges – and we’ve seen these people express disappointment about food in front of chefs’ relatives before. That was not it. The dinner was just on, from the first plate to the last. Maybe it was because of all that pork being served – I know that would win me over. F.M.I. channeled his late, beloved grandmother with a “soulful” pork ragout served over gnocchi (which was a stand-out of the night and brought tears to everyone’s eyes, no joke); Antonia’s braised veal served over a risotto with fava beans was praised for its lightness and being packed with flavor; Tiffany’s dish of braised short rib with mustard greens and okra, oxtail marmalade, and a crispy nugget of pig’s feet, had a lot going on but Tom found the entire plate to be “elegant” and a heartfelt expression of Southern cooking; Richard went for “meat and potatoes” in honor of his English and Irish heritage, serving short ribs with potatoes, fried bone marrow, and a corn puree no one could stop talking about; and Carla’s simple dish of pork shoulder, grits, and cheddar biscuits was praised as “fantastic.”
If you didn’t totally call what was going to happen at Judges’ Table after Tom was asked during dinner “Have you ever had a Final Five before?”, then his face toooooootally gave it away during the actual judging. I think that was as close to giddy as I have ever seen Colicchio during a deliberation. Padma graduated with honors in Poker Face, but Colicchio couldn’t quite fight the grin creeping in. While Antonia ultimately won the Elimination Challenge, every chef was a winner – they all made it to the Bahamas because, according to Gale, the deliberation was just too difficult and they couldn’t decide on who to send home. Now, this is a total cop-out, but I’m okay with that if that spells more drama in the Bahamas.
So what do we think of the Final Five? Do they all deserve to make it to the end? Who are we rooting for? And, most importantly, who will I choose as Fan Favorite: Fabio or Carla?!