For one thing, we don't have to spend the first few episodes figuring out who's who. On last night's debut, Top Chef All-Stars (season eight), I recognized most of the contestants immediately, and have some idea of how they cook -- and whether I like them or not.
It's going to be interesting watching them work with and against each other, and seeing how they've changed over time. They're further along in their careers now, most of them executive chefs and/or restaurant owners, which means they're seasoned, cockier than before, aware of how the show functions and less afraid of the judges -- who are also more respectful toward them.
It was a lot of fun to see Fabio, from season five, squaring off against Anthony Bourdain and practically offering to meet him behind the schoolyard after Bourdain compared his pasta dish for the Elimination to an inside-out animal. Bourdain even expressed a little regret later on his blog, attributing some of his loose-lipped venom to gin.
For the Quickfire, the contestants were separated into their seasons and asked to create a dish reminiscent of the city in which that particular season had taken place. Chicago, which was represented by a deconstructed hot dog, won -- in large part courtesy of nitrogen-whiz Richard Blais's mustard gelato.
And the Elimination Challenge was pretty clever. The chefs were given platters of ingredients and told to re-create the dishes that had gotten them sent home. Obviously, there's some emotional resonance there. To add to the stress, they cooked in two groups, with each group sitting and eating with the judges and commenting on their rivals' food.
Spike had screwed up his original entry by using sub-par frozen scallops. Confronted with frozen scallops again, however, he added pickled mushrooms, lime dressing and hearts of palm salad, and ended up in the top four. In all honesty, he pointed out to the judges, those scallops shouldn't have been knocking around in the Top Chef kitchen the first time (told you the cooks were feistier now). And, Colicchio responded, you could have chosen not to use them.
Others in the top tier were Richard, Jamie and Angelo, but after being commended for his dish, Richard was told he wouldn't be considered for the win because he'd continued plating after the time was up. (On the video, Richard was clearly concentrating so hard he didn't hear the call.) Angelo won for homemade ramen with glazed pork belly and watermelon, an upgrade of the already fine version he'd prepared in Singapore.
On the bottom: Elia, who had re-created her original failing effort pretty much to the letter -- and was sent home for undercooked fish. Fabio was criticized for his pasta. (I can't help feeling he's in All Stars as much for his sex appeal as for his culinary talent.) Elia's sad plate of fish was Stephen's good fortune: His murky three-dish offering would have got him sent home on any other night. Stephen is also one of the more irritating of the contestants -- though not quite as irritating as thin-skinned Marcel, with his self-righteous rages and improbable hair.
But there are also several people it's a pleasure to see again -- and this should be a fascinating season.