Top Chef All-Stars: The Secret Ingredient Is…Love?

Fidel Gastro survives motion sickness to provide the recap to this week’s Top Chef All-Stars.

Dale’s tearful elimination spooks the remaining five.  Getting rid of the fiery Filipino proved to the cheftestants that executing at anything less than 100% will send you packing.  With this being the last set of challenges in New York, the group is collectively pensive at breakfast when Antonia predicts Padma’s arrival to introduce the Quickfire, a pantry raid of the Ellis Island Ferry’s snack bar with a shore-to-shore time limit.  I’m terrible with motion sickness, so watching the cheftestants throw together a bunch of crap to make other crap made me a bit nauseous, but I did appreciate some of the creativity employed in the challenge.  Effectively having a blindfold on the clock, the cheftestants channel their inner MacGyver to cook with little more than a microwave (except for Blais, who whips out an MRE bag to boil the hot dogs for his bahn mi sandwich), and while Antonia’s raisin bread grilled cheese cooked using a hot dog roller was both porky and ingenious, Carla’s orange salad held the key to guest judge Dan “Blue Hill” Barber’s heart, most likely because she incorporated the word “infused” into the name of the dish.  Isabella’s bread soup was a mess, and Tiffany D’s nachos were deemed lazy (I probably would have voted for the nachos).

With the seasickness subsiding, the homesickness becomes blatantly obvious as the cheftestants lose their shit when a group of mystery guests show up: Blais’ wife, Carla’s husband, and the mothers of Tiff, Antonia, and Isabella.  Wiping away tears of joy, they are handed folders containing extensive research about their ancestry and directed to make food inspired by their heritage, a great challenge that unfortunately and inevitably will wind up as a hugfest, because how can you really talk shit about the cheftestants’ dishes when their loved ones are staring you in the face?  Still, it’s great to see a slice of the chefs’ lives outside the Top Chef kitchen, and if there was ever an inspiration to cook great food, impressing your family ranks pretty high on the list.

As expected, the dinner service is all “oohs” and “aahs,” but it was certainly deserved.  Isabella makes a pillow-soft gnocchi that he hasn’t done since his grandmother passed away, firing up the tear ducts again and impressing the judges.  Next up is Antonia (I think), who takes a successful risotto risk and causes Mama Lofaso to say “Can there be five finalists?”  Tiffany follows with a braised short rib dish (I’m pretty sure I have the order screwed up at this point) and convinces Colicchio that okra can be good, then we have Blais’ (yeah, the order’s definitely messed up), who also makes a short rib dish with fried bone marrow and glass warts and wins the approval of the judges and his seemingly bitchy wife.  Finally (although I think she may have gone earlier), Carla brings out a basket of biscuits to serve with her braised pork shoulder and fried grits.  The highlight of the evening was definitely seeing Mr. Hootie Hoo unable to contain his joy when the diners approved of Carla’s dish.  It was also interesting to learn that the Hooties met on after Mr. H put in some crazy credentials that he didn’t think would yield any results (not sure if that’s romantic or not, but they do seem awfully happy).  So if nobody shits the bed, who has to pack their knives?

At a somewhat suspenseful judges table, there wasn’t a bad thing to say about any of the cheftestants’ dishes, so in order to make them sweat, there was at least one instance of “Please pack your knives…BECAUSE YOU’RE GOING TO THE FINAL!” and it was with Blais.  I was ready to quit Top Chef for a second there, although anybody could have gone home for the most innocuous of mistakes.  Fortunately for all five, they cooked the meal of a lifetime, and judges’ indecisiveness pushed every one of them through to the final, where the haircuts are funnier and the stakes are higher.  After tonight’s win, Antonia might be the one to beat.  Watch out Blais.