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'Top Chef All-Stars': The pressure is cooking the chefs

March 10, 2011 |  6:45 am

Cooks are using to cracking things—eggs, pepper corns, chicken bones, the occasional mixing bowl. But as the first installment in the “Top Chef All-Stars” finale proved, they are prone to cracking up themselves.

There’s no doubt the remaining five chefs must feel like a veal chop hammered into scaloppini.  Even though it takes Bravo months to show all of the episodes, the series is actually filmed in a matter of weeks, and by the time the season winds down so, too, have the chefs’ stamina—not to mention their mental health.
Chef300 As past finales have dramatized, the winning chefs don’t always triumph just by cooking the best dishes.

They prevail because their rivals panic, outthink themselves, and start pulling out kitchen tools they’ve never used before, the case in Season 5 when Casey disastrously persuaded Carla to cook sous vide for the first time in her life.

The victors, like marathoners focused only on maintaining a steady pace all the way to the finish line, don’t alter their course, confident in their culinary skills.

All of which makes us very worried about Richard.
Mike, especially after topping superstar Michael Voltaggio in Wednesday’s Quickfire challenge, might believe otherwise, but Richard has been and still is the best cook in this season’s “Top Chef.” But he’s starting to become unhinged, a troubling development. 

“Honestly, I hate everything I do,” Richard said after serving a lamb dish the judges mostly loved. He looks like a guy convinced his airplane is going to crash, his wife is going to leave him for George Clooney, his child is going to join a permanent Santa Cruz drum circle. He’s not quite ready for a culinary intervention, but if he doesn’t relax—recall that he lost in the fourth season when he “choked,” as he put it, in the finals—Richard won’t be around much longer.

Meanwhile, the season’s totemic tower of positive thinking, Carla, was sent home for serving up pork so rare it looked like an invitation to an upcoming trichinosis convention—stay cool in the sun!—in the Bahamas.

Anyone who has been near those cooking schools that seem to be popping up on every corner has seen the student chefs milling about—with their checked pants, their clogs, and their stupid pocket thermometers.

Pork is done but still pink around 150 degrees, and can be served a few degrees cooler. Carla’s meat looked like the same temperature of melted ice cream, and even if Tiffany or Antonia could have been sent home for their uninspired food, some of Carla’s pork was inedible—not a great attribute when everything is on the line.

Carla’s inexorable grace and liveliness will be missed as much by viewers as it might be by Richard. Without a steadying, supportive influence in the kitchen—and that certainly won’t be Mike—Richard could very well fall apart as fast as an overcooked pot roast. We hope he pulls it together, fast.

--John Horn


Photo of Richard Blais in “Top Chef”: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

 
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