Top Chef All-Stars: A fight to the finish, and then some

He hadn't actually lost, Mike Isabella explained after the judges named Richard Blais the winner of Top Chef All-Stars. It was just that they had inexplicably withheld the title from him.

You really have to admire the man's cockiness, but nonetheless I've come to dislike his bragging and swaggering, his dismissive attitude toward female rivals, and the amount of space -- psychological and physical -- he always takes up (while Blais, of course, is shrinking and getting progressively gloomier and more insecure). Isabella hit bottom in my estimation when he stole Blais's chicken-oyster idea a few weeks back, despite Colicchio's later explanation that chefs use each others' ideas all the time. Sure they do. Recipes are shifting, pretty much uncopyrightable things. But is it ethical when the idea is so specific, and the chefs in question are in direct competition?

The challenge was to create a dream restaurant and cook a four-course tasting menu. Michael called his Restaurant Iz; Richard's was Tongue & Cheek. Neither man clutched. Both cooked their hearts out. Each was helped by three sous chefs, chosen from among all the previously dismissed contestants, who had to make appetizers and submit to a blind taste test. Richard got Angelo, Spike and Antonia -- who was remarkably gracious given her recent defeat. Mike was aided by Tiffani F., Carla and the one chef besides Marcel he'd most hoped to avoid, Jamie. Despite all her earlier moping and whining, Jamie surprised him, cooking fast and expertly.

The judges ate in shifts of four -- from Richard's restaurant to Michael's, from Michael's to Richard's -- and were joined by such luminaries as Lidia Bastianich and Hubert Keller (whom I've loved ever since watching him use a dorm-room shower to cool his pasta in one of those crazily improvisational Top Chef Masters contests). The judges loved pretty much everything. They weren't quite as keen on Mike's beet salad with chocolate vinaigrette, though Gail Simmons was delighted by it. They thought Richard's beef braise was perfectly executed, but unexciting given the other dishes he'd served. Neither man's dessert was a great success, although -- based on comments gleaned by the spying Spike -- Richard improved the texture of his foie gras ice cream for the second set of judges.

Afterwards, the judges broke the evening down dish by dish: Who had won the first course, who the second, and so on. Things were so close that they then went further, according to Colicchio's blog, and tried to figure out by how just much the winning dish surpassed its competitor. Once Michael and Richard had been summoned for the judgment, there were teary eyes on all sides; they were assured that both of them were terrific talents, and the food had been some of the best ever served on Top Chef.

Scenes like this are frustrating to watch, since you obviously can't know how the food tastes, but I get the impression that Richard does have an edge on Michael in terms of smarts, subtlety and depth. Both men looked equally surprised when he was declared the winner, however, Richard because he'd convinced himself he'd lost -- just as he had the last time he came this close to the finish line -- and Michael because ... well, really he won.

No one was surprised, though, when Carla was named fan favorite in an insanely dopey after-show follow-up.

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