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'Top Chef All-Stars' reaches fork in road, takes it

March 3, 2011 |  6:30 am


I would have punted, too.

Faced with five remarkable dishes and one impossible decision, the judges for “Top Chef All-Stars” reached the unexpected but wholly defensible decision of eliminating no one Wednesday night, setting up a finale with an extra contestant. But they delivered the news as dramatically (or cynically) as possible, scaring countless viewers just a little less than Richard.

Rarely has a “Top Chef” episode forced viewers to struggle so hard to spot the shortcomings in any of the chef’s dishes. When at the dinner inspired by the cooks’ family histories Antonia’s mother suggested to Padma, Gail, Tom and guest judge Dan Barber that they take all five chefs to the Bahamas, it sounded like nothing more than a protective parent looking after a child. 

After all five plates came out, you started thinking that maybe she was on to something.
“We couldn’t decide,” Padma told the two chefs left in the lurch the longest, Tiffany and Carla, moments after Padma nearly sent Richard into ventricular fibrillation by telling him to pack his knives—for the finale.  “It was just too tough,” Tom said of finding a chef to cast out. “We just couldn’t say goodbye to either of you.”

Given professionally researched genealogies to help guide their culinary choices, the chefs remained remarkably true to the rules of conduct, with some (Carla and Antonia, in particular) daring to prepare food they knew could go off the rails in an instant.

Tre was sent home in the eighth episode for his grilled vegetable risotto, but Antonia didn’t back away from the dish, winning the Elimination Challenge for her braised veal risotto.

Tiffany knows that Tom is repelled by okra’s inherent sliminess, yet nevertheless served him braised short ribs, mustard greens and, yes, okra.

Carla, a stranger to molecular gastronomy, pulled out a bottled of liquid nitrogen to help set her grits before frying. If any chef played it safe, it was Mike, who made gnocchi, but anyone who has eaten good and bad gnocchi knows the difference between the two is as distinct as “The King’s Speech” and “Piranha 3D.”

Mike and Tiffany have yet to win a single challenge this season, and their dishes in the cooking-from-the-snack-bar Quickfire challenge—Mike made a soup that looked like wet cardboard, and Tiffany served nachos, which showed no ambition or creativity—suggest they enter the last two episodes as underdogs.

But there was no denying that all of their dinners looked good enough to jump on a plane, fly to New York and gulp down.  “I want their job to be hard,” Carla said. And she wasn’t kidding.
“This was an incredible dinner filled with impressive dishes,” guest judge Barber said. Added Tom: “I don’t know even where to begin….I hate to see any of you go home for this.”

As it turned out, he didn’t. Call it chicken (free range, please). Call it a Solomonic decision. Whatever the name, it was the right thing to do.
--John Horn

Photo of Richard, Mike, Tiffany, Antonia and Carla in "Top Chef All-Stars": Bravo TV.