Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pressure Cooker: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

As the show begins, Blais is trying to apply some new math to make Mike’s recent dominance seem less intimidating.

“I’m not worried about Mike’s back to back wins,” he says. “He’s won two challenges in both his seasons. I’ve won eight.”

He’s lying of course. Even his hair looks nervous.

(But while we’re on the subject, what IS up with Mike’s recent dominance? If there were such a thing as culinary steroids, I’d be saying Mike was on the juice. He’s like a mid-major making it to the Final Four. Totally didn’t see this coming. )

For the Quickfire (guest judge: Wolfgang Puck!), they are conjuring up the Ghosts of Quickfires past—assigning each other particularly hard challenges from previous seasons.
And because Mike won the last Elimination Challenge, he gets to assign first:

He gives his cousin Antonia the canned food challenge. (Guess he’s out of the will.)
She gives Blais the hotdog challenge.
And Blais, feeling inordinately proud of himself, gives Mike the “one pot wonder” challenge. (Mike likes to use lots of pots, he explains.)

Antonia, however, is irked: “Giving him one pot gives him access to everything. Blais is not the sharpest one in the drawer.”
Cut to Blais at the exact moment it dawns on him that his strategy has just backfired.

So Blais is making hot dogs with ketchup, because we “all associate hot dogs with ketchup.” No, Richard, we don’t. And for that matter, no America. There is one condiment that belongs on a hot dog and that is mustard. Preferably spicy mustard.

Antonia is trying to season the shit out of her canned food, poor dear.

And Mike is attempting to braise pork in a pressure cooker.

It’s sort of a moderate level of crazy, until Padma comes waltzing back in, trailed by the adorableness that is Carla.
Twist time!

Now they’re lumping in yet another past challenge.

Richard gets the one-hand-tied-behind-your-back challenge. (Good for a few giggles, because Richard trying to spear a lime with one hand is almost as funny as Richard trying to catch a conch.)

Mike has to finish his dish without any knives or utensils, fairly easy for a caveman such as himself.

And Antonia will become a “conjoined twin” with Carla, for the double apron challenge. BFFs!

Puck comes back to taste the offerings.
He thinks Antonia got lots of flavor in her curried soup with canned shrimp. (Ew.)

He likes the balance of Mike’s braised pork and beans.

“I could feed this to my kids at home,” he says to Blais, of his currywurst.
And you can actually see the wheels turning in Blais’ head: He loves his kids. Right? Everyone loves their own kids. But kids have bland palates. Is he saying my food is bland? Is he saying my food is juvenile? Do his children even have teeth?

Finally Blais can contain himself no more: “That’s good, right?” he asks.
“They love sausage and ketchup,” Puck responds.

And the winner is. . .Mike!

“You’ve got a pretty good roll going,” says Padma, mistress of understatement.
Richard “Pokerface” Blais puts his head in his hands in despair.

Next, they head to the Cloisters where they are greeted by Michele Bernstein, Puck, and Iron Chef Morimoto.

“He’s frickin’ scary,” says Antonia of Morimoto.

It’s the Last Supper challenge. One of my favorites!
I’ll never forget Carla and her perfect English peas for Jacques Pepin from season 5.

Also, Padma notes, almost in passing, there will be another twist. (Now quick! Forget she ever mentioned it!)

As the Quickfire winner, Mike once again has everyone’s fate in his hands.
He assigns Antonia Morimoto. Of course.
He assigns himself Michele Bernstein, allegedly because she put him in the bottom for his season and he wants redemption, but more likely because she is one hot MILF.
Blais gets Puck.

They all huddle with their master chefs.
Wolfgang Puck is living the cliché: He wants strudel, goulash, and spaetzle. And he wants the soundtrack to The Sound of Music to be playing while he eats.

Michele Bernstein is sitting on a wishing well with Mike, showing some serious leg.
She wants fried chicken, biscuits, and gravy, because what Latin Jew didn’t subsist on such things?
She explains herself: “When my father took me out to eat fried chicken for the first time when I was 5, I’ll never forget the love.”

Finally, there seems to be some confusion between Antonia and Morimoto. He’s talking about rice. (I think.) In English. (I think.)
“From this size, this size, cooking together,” he tells Antonia, who is nodding sagely. (By the way, that is an accurate translation. There were subtitles!)
Right,” she says, perhaps to encourage herself.
“Conditions not right,” says Morimoto.
Oh. . .wrong?
“You’re going to have to spend time. . .”
“Going through each grain?” volunteers Antonia.
“Yes, each grain.”
She should win the challenge just for navigating that sentence.
So Chef Morimoto wants sashimi, miso soup, and pickles, just like his mama used to make for him when he came home from baseball practice.
Antonia lets out a little whelp of despair.
Wow. Sucks to be her right now.

“In my season, I was the first one in the finale eliminated,” she says. “It felt like when your first boyfriend breaks up with you.” And with that (strictly hypothetical, I’m sure) metaphor, Antonia bursts into tears.

The hotel room now resembles One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Antonia is prone to random jags of laughter.
Richard is the poster child for nerve-related acid reflux.
And Mike is pacing uncontrollably.
They really are like some sort of social experiment gone awry.

Next day, back in the kitchen, Tom Colicchio finally makes an appearance.

He checks with Mike, looks skeptical of his sous vide fried chicken preparation. (He also asks for a urine sample, not sure why.)

He feels Antonia’s pain—sashimi bento boxes don’t exactly show off a chef’s technique in the optimum fashion.

He has a little therapy session with Blais.
“How would wining make you feel?” he asks.
“I’d cry either way,” says Blais, searching for a couch to lie down on. “Here’s hoping it’s because I’ve won.”
Tom smiles fondly. He’s totally on Team Blais.

Antonia meanwhile, has finally decided to sample her sushi-grade hamachi. . . and it’s rancid! Girl can’t catch a break.

In a hilarious metaphor for his own personality, Richard can’t get his pressure cooker open.

And Mike is making empanadas instead of biscuits. Ballsy.

Dinner time. Along with the Master Chefs, food photographer Melanie Dunea is also at the table.

Antonia, who had to substitute tuna for the hamachi, serves her bento box first.
Reviews mostly good. Morimoto thinks the miso is too salty.
Everyone likes her pickled Asian pear and mushroom.
The rice, cooked on a grain-by-grain basis, is a big hit.
Tom thinks the flavors aren’t subtle enough.

Next, Mike brings out his take on chicken and biscuits.
Wolfgang Puck calls it an “elegant version of fried chicken.”
Tom still thinks sous vide is a dumb way to make fried chicken.
Michele Bernstein actually dug the empanada with egg in the middle.
Morimoto says the white meat is too dry.

Finally, Richard with his beef goulash, frozen sour cream, spaetzle, and strudel with tarragon cream.

“I love what he’s done here,” says Michele Bernstein. “You see touches of what Richard’s done but he’s kept the integrity of the dish beautifully.”

Wolfgang Puck is in heaven.
“Adieu, adieu, to you and you and you,” he hums happily under his breath.

Back in the kitchen, the lesser known dwarves—Edgy, Cranky, and Acid-Refluxy—are waiting for the verdict.

They get called back to the table.

“The judges table is starting right now,” says Padma. (Wait. What about that twist you promised, Padma? First Bikini-Gate and now this?)

Richard, thankfully, is put out of his misery first: “Richard, if this season is about redemption for you, you are one step closer. You will be cooking in the finale.”

Now it’s down to the cousins. But wait. Remember that twist. It’s for reals, yo.

The two remaining chefs have to make one bite. And make it perfect.
Wow. I’m trying to imagine what I would do if someone told me to write the perfect, single sentence. . .
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .” (Wait. Taken already. . .)
“All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (No.)
“Go ahead, make my day.” (Wow. This is harder than it looks.)

Back in the kitchen they go, exhausted, spent, with nothing less than 200 grand and their futures on the line. No big whoop.

Mike makes beef tenderloin tartar and tempura lobster tail.
Antonia makes seared grouper in a coconut curry and lobster broth.

Conclusion: If you’re going to make the perfect bite, include lobster.

The chefs taste, deliberate, argue, and vote.
Antonia’s dish had maybe too much flavor.
Mike’s dish may’ve been too subtle.
Both are great.
So it’s a tie.

Padma, Melanie Dunea, and Morimoto like Antonia
Tom, Gail, and Michele like Mike.

Wolfgang Puck is the tie breaker.

“Antonia, please pack your knives and go.”


Oh well. I loved me some Antonia, but in the end, newly confident, not chemically altered Mike might just be the one to take down Blais.
Plus, now it will be so much easier to root for Blais in an unconflicted way.

Here’s my perfect sentence: Blais, you better get your shit together and win.

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