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'Top Chef All-Stars': Are the judges listening to their own rules?

March 17, 2011 |  6:30 am

It’s hard to argue that the “Top Chef All-Star” judges properly picked Tiffany for expulsion Wednesday night, leaving the clearly three best chefs over the last several weeks—Mike, Richard and Antonia—to fight it out in the Bahamas finale.

But shouldn’t the competition be judged on some sort of evenhanded curve?

From the opening Quickfire Challenge, it felt like the rules and the judging criteria were two different beasts. The four chefs were given just an hour to prepare a dish for 100, with the tasting plates selected at random.

The team of Richard and Mike in their scant 60 minutes turned out not only a pork Bolognese sauce, but also homemade pasta.

Tiffany and Antonia were far less ambitious with the limited time, serving a filet of beef salad. But when guest judge Lorena Garcia picked the winner, she completely ignored the draconian time limit, instead singling out Antonia and Tiffany’s simple salad—“slice and serve,” as Richard derisively but accurately called the women’s safe strategy—for its “consistency and flavor.”

One hundred bowls of chicken noodle soup can be consistent and flavorful, but that wasn’t the point of the challenge. Even if Tiffany and Antonia’s salad was good on an absolute scale, the whole point of “Top Chef” is a dish’s relative, not absolute, merits.  In other words, given the crummy cards everyone was dealt, who played the best hand?

If Garcia truly had considered what Richard and Mike were able to accomplish in about the time it takes most people to make a grilled cheese sandwich (and even some amateur chefs to create a beef salad), it seems reasonable to think she would have judged differently. It was understandable when Mike complained, “Are you serious? A beef salad wins?”

Tiffany may have made a grave error in combining a cold ceviche with a warm soup in the Elimination Challenge, but it seems that her real mistake was plating the dish two minutes early—in a kitchen with no heat or gas stove or warming lamps. When the soup arrived cold, Tiffany’s fate was sealed—but expecting a piping hot serving of anything on a remote island seems not just optimistic but unrealistic.

If anyone truly failed to embrace the challenge—the instructions were clear: create an elegant meal featuring conch—it was Antonia. Her grouper dish, with a finely minced conch tartare that looked more like a garnish than a dish component, looked like something you might get at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine.

The judges rightly noted that it was the most conventional offering among the four finalists, but didn’t penalize her minimizing the conch. Mike won for a dish that apparently used the sea snails even less, in a vinaigrette. Sure, it tasted good, but did he follow the rules of the challenge?

Richard didn’t win for his sweet potato linguine, but at least it had conch in it, and Tiffany served conch two ways. Unfortunately for her, the wind was blowing and the soup cooled off. But the judging might have been unnecessarily icy, too.

--John Horn

Photo of Richard, Tiffany, Antonia and Mike in "Top Chef All-Stars": Virginia Sherwood/Bravo