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'Top Chef All-Stars' recap: Who's going to win this thing?

January 20, 2011 |  6:30 am

We’re halfway there. Of the 18 contestants who started “Top Chef All-Stars,” only nine are left. It’s a small miracle that Antonia is still grating cheese, having been in the bottom for the last three elimination challenges, but about time that Marcel, who grew stranger by the week, was finally dispatched.

Wednesday’s “Restaurant Wars” served a greater purpose than thinning the flock. It also revealed which chefs are on the right trajectory toward winning the whole thing, and which cooks are about the width of a sharp paring knife away from crumbling.

What’s surprising is that some chefs have turned the shortcomings that proved costly in earlier seasons to their advantage. Dale was always hot-headed, but now he simply looks intensely focused.

Richard might have been overly inventive in Season 4, but these days he’s channeling his creative technique not into smoke and liquid nitrogen but into plating extraordinarily clean dishes -- including the winning food in “Restaurant Wars.”

At the same time, the cooks who were hobbled by personality quirks -- Fabio’s pride, Carla’s borderline technique -- had better shake their old habits faster than a six-minute egg (which Tiffany couldn’t manage to cook) if they want to be around for the finale.

With the field chopped by 50%, here’s our handicap of the remaining cooks:

1. Richard. Angelo, Carla and Dale have just as many elimination wins with two, and he’s prone to panic away from the kitchen. But at the stove he’s as cool as gazpacho, growing more confident by the week. In the chaos of Wednesday’s episode, he not only kept his composure but sent out a fantastic dish. It’s hard to imagine him not making the final three.

2. Dale. Most people might put Angelo in this slot. But Dale has great technique (he won the Quickfire Challenge because he prepared his fish so beautifully), and a much wider range than in Season 4. He’s daring without being a daredevil -- a vital distinction.

3. Angelo. There’s no question he’s a brilliant chef who rarely makes mistakes -- when he found himself on the losing team Wednesday, it was the first time he wasn’t either the winner or in the winning group. But you can’t shake the feeling that he’s forcing his food (a Mediterranean crudo?) to meet the challenge, rather than letting the challenge dictate the food.

4. Mike. The guy can’t pick his battles very well, and unlike Dale, his irritability seems to create more problems than it solves. He’s consistently solid in the kitchen, though, if steadily unspectacular. Like a thoroughbred who comes off the pace, he might simply be stalking the front-runners.

5. Carla. She filleted her fish Wednesday the way 2-year-olds use crayons -- only a mother could love the picture. While she frequently turns out surprisingly simple but successful meals, she’s inconsistent. And when you’re up against such an elite field, one misstep can prove fatal.

6. Tre. Like Mike, Antonia and Tiffany, the guy hasn’t won an elimination challenge yet. He reminds me of what some bike racing fans call racers who never fall off a fast pace -- sticky booger. Hanging in there is a good survival technique, but it’s an unlikely path toward greater glory. His days feel numbered.

7. Fabio. He’s a winsome personality, and a charming host -- but so is Anderson Cooper, and you don’t necessarily want to eat at his restaurant, do you? Fabio also has shown a very narrow range, and even if he made a great dessert on Wednesday, he’s often swimming if he’s not making pasta.

8. Tiffany. If good judgment is a central ingredient in cooking success, she may need to start making better choices. Her front-of-the-house behavior in “Restaurant Wars” revealed she operates in her own bubble, and if anything, chefs have to listen to their audience.

9. Antonia. She is nice and well-spoken, but that isn’t really what makes for good food, is it? She has shown an amazing ability to keep her head above water, but there’s this creeping feeling that pretty soon she’s going to drown.

-- John Horn

Photo: Richard Blais.Credit: Bravo.