Top Chef All Stars: That's the way the cookie crumbles

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I tend not to like contrived and cutesy challenges, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching the chefs putting together cookies for Sesame Street's Cookie Monster and his friends Elmo and Telly when they visited the set of Wednesday night's Top Chef, seeing everyone's expression lighten suddenly as the Quickfire was explained, watching serious Richard in conversation with Elmo, hearing the Cookie Monster expatiate on the existential glory of the cookie.

It was odd hearing Dale say he'd never made a cookie before -- odder still that it was his sweet-and-salty confection, crammed with potato chips, that won. Antonia's offering sounded the most delicious, chocolately and sticky with caramel, though it wasn't the best- looking, and one of the Muppets compared it to a cow pat. Richard, who'd made ice cream disks with zucchini -- once again wielding those nitrogen canisters -- came out on the bottom, and so did Angelo.

And I think that's were Angelo's nerve began failing him completely.

The Elimination Challenge was interesting to watch, but perhaps more a test of energy, will power, persistence and ingenuity than cooking. It also said something striking about the existential emptiness of our consumer culture. The contestants were sent to Target at 3 a.m. to select not only ingredients but cooking equipment (with Padma putting in a pointed plug for the chain's new produce sections). The results would be fed to a hundred Target employees. I really wondered about those employees. Did they want to come back to the workplace and eat in the wee small hours of the morning? Why were only a couple of their comments noted? Why weren't they asked to vote on the food, like most of the (usually far better-heeled) tasters at these things?

The store was like something out of a futuristic nightmare: huge and empty, aisle after echoing aisle flooded with harsh, unforgiving light, and the contestants scurrying along them like trapped rodents. Naturally, they had the damnedest time finding the food they needed. Naturally, the grills, pans, ovens available weren't the restaurant quality tools they were used to. Naturally, people went crazy trying to locate such obvious items as peelers and spatulas.

Dale remembered his college days and put together a combo of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches -- nicely crisped up with a flat-iron. Antonia tackled eggs with parmesan cream on garlic crostini. A hundred eggs. Each one carefully broken and perfectly cooked on a not-too-accurate griddle. And Richard prepared pork two ways. All three ended up on top, and Dale won.

Tiffany, whose food hasn't garnered much praise this season, made a jambalaya, using a commercial spice mix she'd loved from childhood, but that Tom Colicchio described as artificial and unpleasant-tasting. Angelo created a soup he thought of as a deconstructed baked potato that turned out heavy and so salty as to be inedible. And Carla spent what seemed hours wandering through aisle after aisle in a daze of fatigue and confusion, worrying as much about presentation and linens as about food. She started cooking very late, and came up with a thin soup that begged for some protein. All three ended up on the firing line.

Angelo was sent home, and it was sad to see him go. But I couldn't help wondering if it wasn't the best thing that could have happened to him. Week after week, he's seemed to become more sad, tired and insecure. Though he's been among the top contenders quite a few times, he's only actually won twice, both times near the beginning. (Richard, too -- who many people thought would walk away with the prize -- has hovered persistently near the top while scoring only two actual wins.)

These contests are a kind of boot camp: You're overworked, caught off-guard, presented with challenges you've never faced before, some of them amazingly stupid, and you suffer constant judgment and criticism, all while cameras record your every reaction, and you know hordes of bloggers are scrutinizing not only your slip-ups, but your hair, laugh and clothes. To gauge the level of stress this creates, you only needed to watch Tiffany's face during judging. It takes a huge amount of stamina and confidence to compete, and it's obvious talent is far from the sole determinant of success.

Postscript: A couple of weeks ago, I took issue with Tre being sent home because his risotto wasn't runny, and quoted the instructions in Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. David Downie, an Australian, is cooking his way through Hazan's book in much the same way Julie did through Julia's, blogging all the way, and he went further. He asked her directly about the risotto on Facebook. "American chefs who go to Italy suffer from a Moses complex, they are always coming down from the mount with a tablet of rules for the unlearned," Hazan replied. "What he (Colicchio) should have said is, 'If you go to Venice ...'. Yes, our Venetian risotto, while not quite soupy unless it's made with peas, is indeed runny, and of course we love it. But in Bologna and in Piedmont, risotto is firmly clingy and it is not less delicious."

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