Four-Star All-Stars

Tom Colicchio breaks down the chefs' strengths and weaknesses in the season premiere.

Thanks for tuning in for Season 8, our first-ever All-Stars Top Chef! Where better to host this season than NYC, where the best of the best in all fields come to reach for the pinnacle of success. Personally, I was glad to stay put for the month of shooting. A month, after all, is a long time in the life of a baby, and I was glad to be home nights with mine.
This season is going to yield some great cooking. Most of our All-Stars made it to the finales of their seasons; those who didn’t still made it pretty far along in theirs. Having all been through this before, the chefs all know what to expect, though I can’t help but think it’s a good thing that the mind forgets the sensation of pain once it’s ceased! By the second or third episode, you’ll see the moment when each of them says to him or herself, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. This is a competition, not just a reunion…and I want to win.”
The downside for the judges, of course, is that we know these contestants from the get-go. In a typical season, the producers insist that the judges not interact much with the contestants, precisely so that we do not get to know them on a personal level. It is not until the reunion episode of each season that we are permitted to get to know the chefs a bit. And after the season is over, they become our colleagues. Who knew seven seasons ago that one day down the road we’d be doing an “All-Stars” version? So even though the same rules applied this season (i.e. we were not allowed to interact with the chefs beyond my walks through the kitchen and our judging of their food), I think I speak for Gail, Anthony, and myself when I say that it was harder to be critical of this group than it is when we’re giving constructive criticism to young ones coming up in the field, as the contestants usually are. But we reminded ourselves that this is what these contestants signed on for.
I thought that both the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges in this first episode accomplished a lot. Together, they provided a great overview of the prior seven seasons for viewers, bringing return viewers back to salient moments in those seasons while orienting new viewers to the “backstories” of these contestants, their seasons’ highlights, and the program and competition itself. I was glad to see the Quickfire win go to Season 4’s Chicago dish. It shows that we’re not about “highbrow” cooking (whatever you take that to mean!) If the food is good, it’s good. The team put together a really good hot dog with a great topping. If the dish is a great version of what its creator(s) sought to make, a well produced hot dog with good toppings can beat out a poorly-produced blini with caviar.
In the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were able to work individually, to recreate –- but improve upon –- the dishes that sent them packing their first times around. Most accomplished the task, to greater or lesser effect. The only one that was actually worse than it was the first time it was attempted was that of Elia. All three of us judges were in complete accord about that. She did not seem to even try to improve its initial flaws (at least the dish we were given did not indicate so to us), and she should have been able to account for slightly thicker tea leaves so as not to serve raw fish. It was an elementary mistake, far beneath a chef with her knowledge and experience. I know that Anthony was very outspoken in his dislike for Fabio’s dish, but he, too, felt that Elia’s dish was by far the poorer one. Anthony tends to get hyperbolic –- it’s part of his charm! –- and it bothered him that Fabio of all people couldn’t come up with a great pasta dish, which is why he was over-the-top about the fact that Fabio should be able to do pasta in his sleep. The dish was a weird regional dish to begin with, it was poorly presented, and it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the “inside-out animal” Anthony enjoyed calling it, to Fabio’s great chagrin. Stephen’s dish, similarly, was not a good one. It showed a lack of focus, and he needs to take Dumplings 101, but at least he, too, didn’t serve up raw fish by accident. Of all the chefs, Stephen is likely coming into this season’s competition with the least experience cooking. He’s been running the front of the house lately. He has really good food sense, but he’s out of practice.Now contrast Elia’s lack of creativity with the absolute ingenuity shown by Spike. He had immunity, but it didn’t stop him from tackling the seemingly insurmountable problem presented by his dish –- he was dealt the worst hand of all the chefs –- and finding a resourceful way of fixing it. There was debate in advance about whether to give Spike frozen scallops or fresh. The producers felt that Spike’s fatal error in Season 3 was to select frozen scallops to begin with. The producers ultimately decided that if the challenge to all the contestants was to fix the errors in their initial dishes, Spike would just have to find a way to mitigate against his frozen scallops. He not only cooked his way to a solution, he did so with aplomb.
Jamie had to make a dish that didn’t inspire her. Granted, the dish is Eric Ripert’s style, not hers, and once a chef has his or her own restaurant, s/he may create only his or her own food, but that doesn’t mean a chef doesn’t need to have the skill set to pull off other types of food. The other chefs still competing in that episode of Jamie’s season pulled off the challenge, and it was gratifying to see Jamie not only manage it this time around, but do so ably enough to put her in the top three.
Angelo showed smarts in how he reworked his dish. He was very enamored of his watermelon tea the first time he made the dish, but that tea was the very element that derailed the dish. I was very glad to see him jettison it here, despite how in love with it he was before. The dish was now beautifully balanced. When cooking many types of Asian cuisine, one has an opportunity to strike the balance between salt, sweetness, acid, and spice. The food hits all of the mouth’s food receptors, whereas much European cuisine hits only two or sometimes three. In Southeast Asia, they often use palm sugar for the sweetness, while the acid is often from lime, the spice from chilis, and the bitter notes from various spices and from bitter greens. It’s easier to get it wrong than right, and to overwhelm with one or another of the tastes.  Angelo crafted a very sophisticatedly harmonious interplay between them all.
As for Richard, we wanted to acknowledge that he’d made a top dish, but we simply could not consider him for the win because he had not stopped plating when the time ran out. It’s a hard-and-fast rule  I don’t think he was trying to cheat –- I think he was simply absorbed in what he was doing and didn’t pay attention. One of the other contestants rightly alerted the producers to what had happened, and Richard was out of the running. One doesn’t lose for working past the time-limit; one simply cannot win that challenge. Once Richard saw the tape, I believe he was fine with the decision. Any other outcome would be unfair –- there would be no point to the time-limit.
We have a great season, one that gets better and better with each new challenge. The challenges are all really clever and fun to implement, giving our contestants rather off-the-beaten-path but quintessentially New York experiences. The competition gets surprising in places, and heats up as it goes. I look forward to sharing my thoughts about it all each week and to reading yours.

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