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'Top Chef All-Stars': Tastes like chicken, but is it?

December 1, 2010 | 10:51 pm


When Angelo Sosa won the elimination challenge in Wednesday's premiere of "Top Chef All-Stars," last season's finalist said of his rival cooks, "Some of these chefs are the best in the country." And that is either the show's greatest strength -- or its Achilles' heel.

Part of the perverse joy of watching the regular "Top Chef" is seeing professional chefs suffer epic fails at simple kitchen tasks that you know you can do -- baking a pie, grilling a steak. It's not unlike the guilty pleasure of watching Phil Mickelson shank a drive with a golf tournament on the line; it makes you feel you might have done it better. Remember last season's dreadful dessert from John Somervile? Most of us know we could have whipped up something that wasn't anchored by store-bought pastry dough.

But with an elite ensemble of "Top Chef" runners-up in the new all-star show, the odds of some similar kitchen fiasco are slim. And yet -- these chefs aren't quite as good as the world-class artists in "Top Chef Masters." So we're not going to see the catastrophes, and we're not going to see the virtuoso cooking at the level of "Top Chef Masters" champion Marcus Samuelsson. So what are we going to get?

If the season premiere is any indication, some really good cooking in a really friendly atmosphere. The opening elimination challenge was inspired: to recook the dish that got you kicked off the show. Even though Angelo won for his redo of noodles, pork belly and watermelon tea, the standout was Spike Mendelsohn, who through sufficient sleight of knife was able to disguise his frozen scallops as a legitimate and palatable entree.

Season 4's Richard Blais, who may have lost a few pounds in the interim but already looks like the most competent contestant, was disqualified for some last-minute garnish, and Season 5's Fabio Viviana served up a pasta dish that judge Anthony Bourdain equated to road kill.

But the food was consistently...good. There were no polar extremes of excellence and ineptitude. It was "Top Chef Masters," in other words, but without the same level of mastery, albeit a bit less collegiality. At least we don't have to suffer through "Masters" host Kelly Choi and her impossibly frozen smile.

A flurry of clips from some upcoming episodes suggested that there will be blood -- including a hospital visit for one chef -- and some harsh words between several others. But we remain on the fence about the show's conceit: It's either the best of "Top Chef" and "Top Chef Masters," or the table scraps of both.

-- John Horn

Photo: (From left) Tre Wilcox, Casey Thompson, Dale Levitski, Fabio Viviani, Jamie Lauren, Carla Hall, Stephen Asprinio, Tiffani Faison, Mike Isabella, Jennifer Carroll, Elia Aboumrad, Marcel Vigneron in "Yop Chef." Credit: David Giesbrecht / Bravo