Top Chef All-Stars: Stolen ideas, no focus on food -- is it time to question the core premise of the show?

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"Antonia," crooned Paula Deen after last night's Quickfire Challenge on Top Chef (which, naturally, required deep frying), "you won."

Antonia wept.

Somehow in all the fuss and hurry, she'd neglected to make the requisite two plates for the judges -- she'd made only one -- and that technicality lost her the win. But there were bigger outrages.

Mike Isabella had deep fried the blob of chicken flesh known as "the oyster" and placed it on an actual oyster shell. Such a cunning idea. So post-modern. So like something Richard Blais would come up with -- as indeed he had. Richard had shown his idea notebook to Mike earlier, and Mike had simply stolen the concept. Both of them were in the top after the Quickfire, but it was Mike who won, and the sense of anger and betrayal emanating from Richard was almost palpable.

Six of the dismissed contestants returned this week as sous chefs for the Elimination Challenge, which was to cook seafood from the Gulf and was judged by Deen and New Orleans chef John Besh in addition to Padma and Colicchio. Dale was disgruntled. He'd worked hard to get rid of these people, he muttered, and now they were back in the kitchen. Like cockroaches. Marcel was as irritating as ever -- though Tiffany probably should have listened to his advice about the shrimp heads -- and he messed up the honey glaze she asked him to prepare and then didn't have time to taste herself. The surprise was how surly Tre was, pretty much stonewalling Carla when she asked for help or an opinion. Tiffani, of course, rolled up her sleeves and got right down to it. I miss that girl. Antonio still looked shell-shocked from his elimination, and Fabio was good-natured as ever, faltering only toward the panicky end.

Top Chef judges couldn't have been aware of Mike's transgression at the time, but if there were any justice in the universe, he should have stumbled badly at this point. Instead, he ended up in the top three with Richard and Antonia. Fortunately, Richard won -- only his second full Elimination Challenge win (he tied with two other chefs earlier), despite the fact that he's been on the top tier almost every time.

And somehow, even though she was again on the bottom, Tiffany hung on, and it was Dale who got sent home. I've always accepted the Top Chef rule that everything depends on the specific dish the chefs create in response to the specific challenge of the night. No one gets spared because he or she is stronger overall than someone else who's permitted to stay. But by now the process is feeling deeply unfair.

Dale has won a lot of challenges. In fact, several eliminated chefs seem to be stronger cooks than Tiffany. At this point, she stands a good chance of being among the finalists and perhaps even, by some lucky fluke, the winner. And what would it do to the show's reputation if Mike Isabella won, despite his despicable theft? I've always assumed that despite the craziness, stress, and general muddle, Top Chef winners deserve their accolades: Every one so far has clearly been among the three or four most talented of the season. Now I'm questioning the core premise of the show.

So there was lots of personality stuff to ponder last night, and -- again -- not a whole lot of focus on cooking. I feel like a broken record saying this, but food is the reason most of us watch the show. People interested primarily in sniping and personality meltdowns can turn to the Real Housewives of Wherever.

Bottom line, most TC aficionados want help exploring the complex and unanswerable question of what makes a great chef. Is it the instinct to know that this ingredient will go with that, a hyper-refined palate, intellect, playfulness, a passionate love of food, meticulousness? Are there things in this universe so indescribably delicious that once you've tasted them you can die happy? Would the food at The French Laundry -- food you could hardly hope to duplicate in your own kitchen without tools of perfect precision and a skilled group of sous chefs -- be more transporting than the taste of the season's first apricot? What is great food beyond a spatter of adjectives thrown at a plate, hype and trendiness, the memories of your own mother's kitchen?

There are no absolute answers because food is so inextricably bound up with culture, memory and predilection. But I want to hear these amazingly skilled chefs discussing their ideas and experiences. I want to see them rubbing spices into meat, whipping up a sauce, watching as something they've put so carefully together bubbles on the stove. Instead, we're being given little besides anxious faces, slips and spills, and petty bitcheries.

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