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'Top Chef All-Stars' recap: Contestants show their (in)flexibility

December 16, 2010 |  6:30 am

Fabio It seems a simple enough instruction: Cook food that could be served in a restaurant with a distinct personality. But if “Top Chef” has proven anything over the years, it’s that many cooks under pressure resort to their own style of food preparation, even if it’s totally off beam for the task at hand.

Wednesday’s third episode of “Top Chef All-Stars” featured one of the better Quickfire creations in recent memory, a speedy trial that tested the contestants’ basic knife skills (neatly preparing garlic, artichokes and a rack of lamb as fast as possible) with the nearly impossible challenge of putting it all together on the plate in 15 minutes (and less) for guest judge David Chang of Momofuku.

Although that initial blitz might have been entertaining, the Elimination Challenge, where the chefs were asked to cook dishes that would fit into a specific restaurant’s menu, was illuminating, as it showed which chefs were -- and, more important, were not -- adaptable.

Dale T. won for having the nerve to cook egg dumplings for molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne, who apparently lives for cage-free orbs. Dale didn’t try to slam his Asian-influenced palate into Dufresne’s liquid-nitrogen theatrics. Instead, he followed Dufresne’s model of presenting simple ingredients in novel formats. Tiffani, who decided to mimic Dufresne’s mad-scientist wizardry far too closely, nearly was sent home for trying (and largely failing) to freeze melons.

Even though Fabio survived another close brush with a sendoff, it’s evident his range is as limited as a Hummer with half a gallon of gas in the tank. Cooking in Chang’s Má Pêche, which tilts toward elegant French Vietnamese cuisine, Fabio sent out a hunk of roasted lamb that looked like something you’d get in a New Zealand backcountry lodge. It’s unclear if he’s being kept around just for his attitude, but if he doesn’t open his ears pretty soon, he’ll be back dishing up malfatti at his Toluca Lake restaurant, Firenze Osteria.

The chefs who fared the best -- Dale T., Tre, Antonia and Angelo -- showed that they could shape their cooking to fit the menu. Tre, who admits to be being more comfortable around steak, prepared swordfish as if it were a cut of beef, and did it with such expertise his dish was judged better than kitchen mates Richard and Spike. Antonia’s pea-and-carrot puree was equally proper to her venue, even if lead judge Tom Colicchio found it too salty, which must mean it had enough sodium in it to change the chemistry of the Dead Sea.

As for the two people eliminated? Stephen finally will have more time to shop for ties and get facials thanks to his overly aromatic salmon, and Dale L., one of the more likable cast members, was inexplicably nicked instead of Tiffani and Fabio for his veal loin that pretended to be breakfast. Given that Dale L. was cooking in Townhouse, where live goldfish are sadistically squished into tiny water bowls for the sake of a whimsical presentation, his mixed meals seemed totally fitting.

That wasn’t the only suspect judging on the show. The producers of “Top Chef All-Stars” also have some explaining to do at this judge’s table. 

Of the four “New York’s Finest” restaurants in the episode, only one venue -- Michael White’s Marea -- scored an average of four stars from Yelp, which we consider the most democratic and reliable rating guide. Although the reviews were largely very positive for the three remaining restaurants -- David Burke’s Townhouse, Dufresne’s wd-50 and Chang’s Má Pêche -- any number of Yelp diners had some truly bad meals at what were presented in “Top Chef” as some of Manhattan’s top eating establishments. (Lead judge Tom Colicchio’s new New York restaurant, Colicchio & Sons, has the same 3 1/2 stars as Townhouse, wd-50 and Má Pêche, while Colicchio’s Craft has four stars.)

So as long as the “Top Chef” judges are slamming the chefs, here’s what some real diners had to say about the restaurants of the show’s elite cooks:

wd-50:  “My girlfriend ordered the arctic char - that was ABSOLUTELY REVOLTING!! (I don't think it was even safe to serve, but they did anyway). She took a few bites, then I tried it and gagged.  It was honestly the worst most fishy seafood I've had in the U.S. Needless to say, my girlfriend didn't finish it - the staff asked if she wanted something else to eat, but by then she felt sick and we decided to get the check and get out.”

Townhouse: “We sat in the corner booth area, and I noticed (without looking closely), how dusty and grimy the ledges behind us were. There is a copper pot sitting on the ledge, and it looks like it has NEVER been dusted. GAG. My trip to the restroom was not so pleasant either. It smelled like a Port-O-John, and it had the flying bugs you would see in one to go with it!”

Má Pêche: “Fried cauliflower was downright inedible: soggy, over cooked, over salted (yes I understand the sauce was made with fish sauce, but still) ever so slightly livened with mint and Thai chilis. My beef is this: why call it ‘fried’ cauliflower when you're going to douse it in sauce and eliminate any semblance of ‘fried’ in the dish? To me the word ‘fried’ brings to mind an image of crunch/crisp something, right? Wish I had more hands to give this dish more than two thumbs down.”

-- John Horn

Photo: Fabio Viviani. Credit: Barbara Nitke / Bravo