Word of Mouth

Top Chef All Star Restaurant Wars

I've always been a little suspicious of Fabio's charm, his hand-kissing, and constant assertion of his Italianness, but he sure hit his stride this week in the Top Chef All Star Restaurant Wars. As his team's maitre d', he was warm, stylish, and intensely competent, charming the customers and displaying the kind of leadership with the waitstaff that we all want from our bosses: clear, firm and respectful. He even kindly rebuked team leader Dale for going off on one of the waiters -- and irritable Dale accepted the rebuke with grace. For this alone -- plus the fact that his dessert was apparently orgasmically delicious -- I'd like to have seen Fabio win the evening.

But the entire team was clicking along with astonishing focus as they created their smart-casual restaurant, Bodega, and the win went to the always-exemplary Richard. Ultimately, I'd say he's the man to beat this season if it weren't for the fact that these contests are always unpredictable, and there's so much talent on side: Carla, Dale, Angelo (sorry--I know he irritates a lot of viewers, but I love his thoughtfulness, his compulsion toward endless anlysis and the odd combination of toughness and insecurity he displays) have all had their wins, and Antonia, Tre and Mike Isabella have also had moments of glory.

On the other hand, I can't help joining the chorus of rejoicing at the elimination of Marcel, who headed the other team. Their restaurant, Etch, was a disaster from the beginning. No one could even figure out what to call it, or fix on a cuisine. Antonia was the only member who remotely kept her cool -- and even she over-reduced her sauce and produced a too-salty dish. Normally I enjoy Tiffany's warmth and dignity, but she was way out of her element as maitre d', and her attempts to ingratiate herself with customers and constant loud laughter were cringe-making. Angelo kept to the background, perhaps because he'd been reproached so often for sticking his fingers into other people's food. But his dish was unimpressive too. As the supposed leader, Marcel was peevish, self-involved, unwilling to listen to his teammates, and equally unable to stay away from those damn foams he sticks on everything. The outburst of rage that came his way from his fellow chefs -- spearheaded by Mike -- as they stood before the judges was more than well-deserved. Even after elimination, Marcel couldn't muster an ounce of self-criticism. It was just that he'd picked the wrong team, he concluded.

For the Quickfire that began the evening, Anthony Bourdain introduced Justo Thomas who butchers hundreds of pounds of fish daily for Le Bernardin. I liked the show's acknowledgement of the serious, painstaking craft practiced behind the scenes in restaurants, beyond the flashy bios of famous chefs. The contestants had very little time to bone and cut up their own fish, wasting nothing and producing beautiful filets with not a whisper of scale left on them. Those who excelled, Marcel, Dale, Richard and Mike, had to create a dish from the fish bones and heads. Marcel's offering was tasty but mushy. The other three produced terrific plates, and Dale won.

I keep scrabbling away at the issue, but I've more or less abandoned the attempt to figure out what I'm actually seeing prepared in the kitchen and set on the plates. I think I understand the contestants' general strengths and weaknesses -- Richard's sophisticated, but he overthinks; Marcel is talented but foam crazy, etc. But I don't really know with any specificity what Richard's sophistication consists of. And all of those judges' comments about how clever restaurant Bodega's chips were. How were they prepared and what made them so damn clever?

Well, maybe at some point I'll figure it out.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman