Word of Mouth

Top Chef All Stars: A dry burger results in one chef packing his knives

The Quickfire Challenge for the Top Chef All Stars last night was to make fondue -- and the contestants would judge each others' offerings. Who'd have thought that old '70s party and ski-lodge favorite could have been so cunningly reimagined?

Antonia used smoked salmon and fromage blanc. Richard added chili to the chocolate and used liquid nitrogen so the tasters were essentially dipping frozen banana pops. (Padma seems more relaxed at this point in the season, and seeing her mouth constrict as she registered the cold -- and hearing her surprised laugh -- reminded me just how charming she can be.) Dale won using pho for his broth, but not before Padma -- in what struck me as a gratuitously bitchy and far less charming moment -- revealed that Dale's score card had placed Mike in the bottom. Does she enjoy fomenting distrust and discord? Still the bottom is where Mike ended up, along with Fabio and Tiffany.

After this, we got a prominent sequence showing Antonia preparing frozen Buitoni ravioli for everyone from a package, Buitoni being a sponsor. And then a trip to the Rockefeller Center, where the chefs found themselves on the Jimmy Fallon show. Turned out they were to cook dishes for his birthday party, and who would cook what would be decided through a pretty gimmicky device: Each chef in turn took a cell phone photograph as images of various homey dishes flashed by at top speed; whatever they captured, they were to prepare. Antonia got a beef tongue, which floored her (is it only Jewish kids who find sliced tongue on trays of cold cuts at every party and bar mitzvah they ever attend?); Fabio was equally floored by hamburger -- too all-American. For Richard it was ramen noodles, for Dale Philadelphia cheese steak, for Angelo pulled pork. Mike got sausage, peppers and onions, and Tiffany chicken and dumplings. Carla was ecstatic when she scored chicken pot pie.

In the kitchen, we saw Richard generously advising Antonia to use a pressure cooker for her tongue, which she ended up serving in a delicious little sandwich on pumpernickel with pickles. Angelo seems to have his mojo back. He created a rub of allspice, dill and coffee for his pulled pork -- shouldn't have worked, said Colicchio, but did quite brilliantly. Both Angelo and Antonia were in the top three, but the winner was Carla: the judges loved the fact that there was crust at the bottom of her pot pie as well as on top, and also the salted, dehydrated peas she had placed at the side. Now I like Carla quite a lot, and she's obviously a terrific cook -- this is her third major win. But all the capering and exulting she did --i n front of the smiling but obviously disappointed Antonia and Angelo -- was charming at first, but ultimately struck me as insensitive, oblivious and just a bit silly.

Everyone agreed that Richard's ramen with pork belly, duck leg and egg was wonderful. From the comments, it sounded as if Richard was penalized for going traditional when Fallon had been hoping for his signature bells and whistles. But then Mike's sausage and pepper apparently failed to make the top three because it was tasty but just too ordinary.

And Fabio landed in the bottom with Tiffany and Dale. Tiffany had made a pretty good southwestern-style soup, but it strayed too far from the traditional chicken and dumpling dish. (The chefs sometimes get rewarded for being conventional and are sometimes are punished for not being more original. It's all very unpredictable, and must drive them crazy.) Dale had used a pretzel instead of bread for his sandwich. Because he'd been penalized for tasteless food last time, he seasoned the meat liberally -- and he hadn't accounted for the layer of salt on the pretzel. The result was too salty to enjoy. Still, it was Fabio who got sent home for his dry burger, with the grainy separated cheese sauce on the side. His leave taking was beautiful -- not just gracious, but joyous, generous-spirited, and ebullient. Gonna miss that guy.

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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