Thursday, March 31, 2011

Winning! The Top Chef All-Stars recap

Let’s start this recap with a Cosmo-style quiz.


1. Your wife just turned to you and said. “Honey, that’s the best sex I ever had!” Do you:

a. Slap her on the butt and respond, “Don’t worry, wifey. There’s more where that came from!”

b. Turn to her tremulously and say, “Really? Because I thought my timing was off. Or are you just saying that to make me feel better? Wait. . . were you definitely talking about me? . . . Are you having an affair?”

2. You just scored the winning touchdown, securing the state championship. Do you:

a. Do the “Dougie” in the end zone, leap into your teammates arms, and proclaim, “Beers and strippers on you, boys!”

b. Discourage your teammates from a premature celebration. You’re pretty sure you were out of bounds, there might have been an illegal substance in your pre-game cough drop, and did anyone else hear the coach call a timeout?

3. You’ve just won Top Chef. Do you. . .

a. Open up a new restaurant called, “Winning!”

b. Still worry that the whole thing is a mistake, or a giant cosmic joke, and actually think that Watch What Happens Live host Andy Cohen is going to forcibly take the trophy away from you on stage.*

*Only a slight exaggeration of what actually happened.

Ah, Blais. Even when he wins. . . he loses. But at least now he’s a loser who won, right?

Let’s rewind. . .

The final challenge this season is simple, effective, and awesome:
Create the restaurant of your dreams.

“I have goosebumps,” says Blais. Us too.

However, back at the house, Blais is already wearing his Ski Cap of Despair while discussing his chances.

“I’m the underdog,” he insists. 

Not true, says Mike. “You’re the favorite.” (I have to agree.)

“Everyone’s expecting me to choke,” Blais says. (Okay, also true.). “And that’ll probably happen.”

(I swear, at times, Blais really does seem like he’s part of some poorly acted and exaggerated PSA on the perils of low self esteem.)

Meanwhile, as this little tableaux is playing out, the entire Top Chef All-Stars cast has arrived in the Bahamas, including those few random contestants (Tiffani, Stephen, Elia, I’m talkin’ to you) you forgot were on the show to begin with.

They have 30 minutes to cook an amuse bouche. The “winners” have to slave over a hot stove and join in the stress as sous chefs, while the “losers” get to enjoy the Bahamas, chillax, and EAT all the yummy food. (Strangely, everyone still tries to make a good amuse bouche.)

Back in the room, Ski Cap of Despair and Mike are discussing who they definitely don’t want as sous chefs.

“The one person you definitely don’t want is Jamie,” says Mike. “Not just because she’s Jamie”—heh—“but because she’s slow.”

But here’s the rub: They’ll be tasting these amuse bouches (amuses bouche?) blind. So the question: Do you simply pick the best bites? Or do you try to match the bite with the chef, hoping you guessed right?

Blais goes with the best bite concept and ends up with a rock solid team of Spike, Angelo, and Antonia.

Mike, who is desperate to get Jen Carroll, tries to divine which amuse is hers and ends up with a slightly less rock solid team of Carla, Tiffani, and—burn!—Jamie.

“It’s like having Charlie’s Angels,” says Mike. (I swear, every time Mike Isabella opens his mouth, the women’s movement gets set back another 5 years.)

Mike’s restaurant is going to be called Chez Egomaniac (just kidding, it’s called Iz). And Richard’s restaurant is called Tongue & Cheek. (Note to Blais: I am available for name consulting when it comes time to open your real restaurant. Cause Tongue & Cheek ain’t gonna cut it. And, no before you ask, Ham on Wry is also not an option.)

In the kitchen, Tom checks in on them.

“I don’t know if anyone really picked you to get here,” he says to Mike.
Isn't it funny how much he obviously dislikes Mike?

Meanwhile, in Blais’s kitchen, Tom seems half ready to lend a helping hand.
“How are you dealing with the pressure?” he says warmly. Blais is like the sweaty, neurotic, pointy-haired son Tom never had.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” says Blais after Tom’s visit. “I might just be that person who can’t win.” (In the PSA, they’re now saying: Do you constantly tell yourself you’re not good enough?
“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Blais adds. (Are you only truly happy when you fail?)

Commercial break, where Gail Simmons screws up the live shot:
“In 30 seconds, we find out who wins Top Chef!” she announces.
(Wow. What are they going to do with the other 29 minutes and 30 seconds of the show?)

Here’s how the judging works: There will be two seatings at each restaurant.

Lidia Bastianich, Hubert Keller, Alfred Portale, Bill Terlato, plus Padma are in one group of judges—and they start at Tongue & Cheek.

Art Smith, Curtis Stone, Tom, and Gail are the other. They’re at Restaurant Iz.

Then they switch.

The best part of Blais’s group is Spike, totally creeping in the background, serving as spy.
“Spike is very crafty,” says Blais. (In fact, Spike couldn’t be less crafty if he were wearing a sign around his neck that read: “Number One Spy.”)

Blais starts with an amuse bouche of raw oyster with crème fraiche pearls.
He has the judges slurping right out of his hands.

Next, a raw hamachi with veal sweetbreads and pickled celery.

Spike reports back.
“They licked their plates on that hamachi dish, Richie!” he says.
“So they. . .they. . .they were happy?” chokes out Blais, ready to pass out.

Next, pork belly, black cod, and bone marrow.

With this dish, Blais is freaking out because the judges didn’t clean their plates.

“Hey Richie, they loved the dish,” says Master Sleuth Spike. “They loved the dish. Just concentrate on the food.”

(It occurs to me that Spike, with his hepcat laconic ways could be a nice counter balance to Blais’s high strung manicness. Maybe they should open a restaurant together.)

Next course: Braised short rib with red cabbage.
In this case, the judges were underwhelmed by the creativity, but loved the flavors.

Finally, for dessert: Corn bread with whipped mango cream and foie gras ice cream.

The foie gras ice cream, which looks crumbly and gross, is a bit of a bust.

“It’s a bit of a controversial dish,” reports Spike diplomatically.

Luckily, Blais has time to fix the ice cream for the second serving.

Over at Iz, the first course comes out: 
Spiced beet salad with mozzarella and chocolate vinaigrette.
“Mike’s off to a good start,” says Tom, not looking thrilled about it.

Next course: halibut with kumquat marmalade.
“I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better piece of fish on this show,” says Tom, getting sad.

Next: Braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce.
For this dish, Gail has a food crush, not completely unlike her X-rated love affair with Mike’s savory pineapple.

“The pepperoni sauce. Wow!” she gushes. (I hasten to remind her that Subway has a meatball and pepperoni sub, so this whole pepperoni-as-bonus-meat thing is not that radical a concept.)

“This is as good as anyone’s food in the finale,” says Tom, bordering on despondent. “In fact, it’s better than most.”

Mike’s final course is rosemary custard with pine nuts.
Tom is very pleased to report that the consistency is off.

And. . .switch!

The second round of judging goes largely the same for both chefs.
Everyone loves pretty much everything. Blais has managed to fix his foie gras ice cream; but Mike’s custard also gets high marks.

“Its really exciting,” says Art Smith. “You have two really talented chefs.”

And, 25 minutes after Gail told us it was coming, it’s judgment time.

In the holding room, both men are staying true to form.

Mike looks at Blais, who is now wearing a (virtual) Ski Cap of Despair.
“You’re going crazy again?” he says.
Blais looks up, petrified: “What? You did everything you wanted to do?” he sputters.
Mike says, yes, he feels pretty good about the way things went. “I wouldn’t want to judge this challenge,” he says.
“Maybe,” mutters Blais, sinking lower and lower into his virtual cap. “Sounds like you killed it.”

Tom and Padma come to get them.

“It’s the best food we’ve had in any finale,” says Tom. Not even this piece of good news can buoy Blais, who is hanging on by a mere thread.

The judges go dish by dish and give hearty praise all around. . . but is it just me or is Mike is getting slightly better marks than Blais? Is this a misdirection? Or could Mike actually win this thing?

Mike almost breaks down, talking about how much winning would mean to him, and Blais does break down—causing Tom to look a little verklempt.

“This is going to be hard,” says Chef Hubert.
“I know,” says Padma, patting him on the arm consolingly.

“I’m on the fence,” admits Tom, after Mike and Blais leave the room. “I don’t know who won.”

“I want to eat at Mike’s restaurant during the week—and Richard’s on the weekend,” says Gail. (She also thinks that Mike's restaurant is "business in the front" while Blais's restaurant is a "party in the back.")

The general consensus seems to be that the first two courses went to Blais and the second two courses went to Mike.

There is off camera deliberation.

“I think we have our Top Chef!” says Tom, looking shifty. 

They call them back in, along with all the other contestants, who comically cover their mouths with their hands, bite their nails, and look almost as stressed as our two finalists.

“Richard. . .you’re Top Chef!” says Padma.

Blais, of course, cries. Hugs everyone. Then he calls his wife, who seems to have caught his “Good things happen to other people” disease.

“I won Top Chef!” he says into the phone.
“What?” she says, a strange reaction indeed, considering the fact that he just competed in the Top Chef finale.
“I won Top Chef!” Blais repeats, trying to convince himself.

“I feel like I beat him. I just didn’t get the prize,” grumbles Mike, true to form.

That being said—and I don’t want to fan the flames of controversy here (oh, who am I trying to kid? of course I do)—didn’t it kinda, sorta, maybe seem like Mike really had a better showing than Blais? 

I’m not saying that the competition was rigged, I’m just saying that maybe Blais had to royally screw up and that Mike had to clearly vanquish him in order for Mike to pull off the upset. (I guess I am sort of saying it was rigged.)

Either way, I’m thrilled Blais won. The guy's a culinary artist. Plus, his self-esteem got a boost that I believe lasted several whole seconds.

He’s no longer a choker. He’s just a Guy Who Overcame Crippling Insecurity to Cook Really, Really, Really Well.

Hey, maybe that can be the name of his next restaurant.


KLB said...

1) Great photo of the WINNING moment
2) I'm giggling over the cosmo quiz. So right, so molesting.
3) I LOVED the final challenge. It was perfect. Also loved that the sous-cheftestants weren't the story (per usual except for gumshoe Spike)
4) I too thought Mike cooked the better meal--front to back--but that the judges awarded Blais for the cumulative efforts of the season.

Fine by me. Mike was awful at points.

Thank god Top Chef Masters starts soon.


KLB said...

Oh god, yes. One more thing. Jen's hair!? Her HAIR nearly distracted me from the entire show. It was mesmerizing. I half expected it to sprout googley eyes and become a muppet. O.M.G

MoHub said...

Richard owes a lot to Spike, who not only kept feeding him confidence boosts after every course, but who suggested adding milk to the foie ice cream to make it creamier. (I think Angelo helped with that as well.)

And according to Richard, the editing made Spike's recce in the dining room look a lot less subtle and a lot more clumsy than it really was.

But in the long run, the real winner of the night was Carla, who finally won Fan Favorite—and her first cash prize—as she should have in season 5. Hootie-hoo!