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.