Top Chef All-Stars Season 8 Episode 11: For The Gulf

The Creole Trinity - Onion, Celery, Green Peppers

We’re moving right along in the season, and the finales aren’t far off so let’s take a moment to contemplate where we are and where we thought we’d be. Or where we thought they’d be.

We have: Antonia. Blais. Carla. TiffanyD. DaleT. And (alas) Isabella.

My original prediction for Top Three was: Blais, Tiffany F, and Angelo. Hey, one out of three ain’t bad.
My original wish list was Carla, Blais, and Marcel. I seem be a slightly better wisher than I am a predictor.
My original prediction for bottom three was Jamie, Stephen, and Elia. All gone.
My original get-off-my-tv list was Isabella, Spike, Fabio, and Elia. That damn Isabella just won’t go.

According to the handy-dandy Wikipedia cheat sheet, as of Episode 10 (so not including tonight):
Carla has three Wins, two Highs, two Lows.
Dale has three Wins, two Highs, two Lows.
Blais has two Wins, three Highs, one Low.
Antonia has one Win, four Highs, four Lows. Strange, I thought she won more than that.
Tiffany has no Wins, three Highs, five Lows.
Isabella has no Wins, one High, two Lows.

If you take a look at the “big boy” blogs – The Stew, Grub Street – you’ll see Blais is the hands-down favorite. Thing is, this isn’t really about the best chef winning. It’s the best chef who can work under time pressure, with ridiculous limitations and requirements, on little sleep, and not produce the worst dish (or, in a couple of cases, one of the two worst dishes) for thirteen episodes. So even though Jen can run Eric Ripert’s restaurant just fine, she ain’t here no more. And even though Tiffany D. came up through IHOP to cook at a country club and teach at culinary school, she is. Who has the most tricks up his/her sleeve? Blais, sure, but Carla has some interesting stuff, like African Groundnut Soup and pea salt. And who’s cooked under less-than-optimum circumstances the most (goodbye, Stephen, ol’ Tiffany has cranked out meals under conditions that’d make you cry)? Who can figure out how to best meet the challenge without stepping in it along the way (you go, Antonia, I really underestimated you)?

I’d love to see Carla take it all. She’s so underestimated time and time again. She produces delicious, tasty food. Comfort food is her strong suit and her comfort zone; can she compete with the wow factors of haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy? And she sometimes blows a circuit and rides off the rails, if you don’t mind me mixing metaphors. Blais has been muted this season, but I still admire him for the lasers and helmets and smoke guns and liquid nitrogen. I think he’s very clever, conceptual, and adventurous. Antonia, yeah, I could dig that, she’s produced time and time again, she’s very nice, and she has no use for Isabella. Tiffany, I see her as most people see Carla, she has a lot of experience working in less-than-stellar conditions but does she have the breadth of skills (like fish filleting, which she failed at) to win? She hasn’t won anything yet, and maybe she’s a little out of her range. But she’s been hanging on, bless her, and I’m happy to see that. Dale, I could get behind him, he’s toned down some of the more explosive aspects of his personality, and the guy can cook, though he can also screw up. I still think he got robbed in his season. Isabella, well, to be honest, he can probably cook better than I give him credit for, but look at the evidence: his record is similar to Tiffany’s, depending on how you count highs and lows. A lot of people think he’s redeemed himself this season. I am not one of them. If he wins I will throw up.

And now on to episode 11 where we save the Gulf and something about Paula Deen whipping Antonia’s cute little ass.

In the opening post-mortem, everyone is surprised that Angelo bit the dust, especially Tiffany who expected to get knifed. Dale’s a bit of an ass: everyone has to go except one, better him than me. I’m sure they all feel that way in at least a few neurons but most have the grace to not say it so baldly. Does he get points for honestly? No, he does not. Not with me, anyway.

Richard shows Isabella and some others how he’s filled two notebooks with plans for various dishes. With pictures. Because he’s here to win.

Tiffany takes some teasing for wearing eye shadow as they get ready to go to the TC Kitchen but she defends herself: she’ll feel better and perform better if she looks better. Which presupposes that she looks better with eye shadow.

And we move to the Quickfire Challenge: It’s Paula Deen! Break out the butter!

Tiffany and Carla love Paula Den, of course, being Southern women. Antonio knows how it goes – fry, butter, mayo.

Padma says it’s all about southern cooking. Paula says that’s how we show our love. By cooking, I guess she means. See, in the North, we have other ways, but there aren’t any competitive reality TV shows about that, unless you count The Bachelor.

For the QF they have to use a deep fryer. Paula tells them she’s deep-fried everything from mac and cheese to lasagna and balls of butter, which sounds ridiculous. “If you can eat it you can fry it.” She doesn’t want to see any calamari sprinkled on top of a salad. The prize is $5000. Carla is first at the fridge; she seems to have abandoned the whole Zen thing, I guess she learned her lesson with the un-done-te quinoa.

Dale says he’s a greedy American, he wants more even though he’s already won a lot of money. Antonia admits she fries food more than she should, and she’s thinking about fried shrimp salad. And then we get to the high intrigue part.

Isabella wants to fry a chicken oyster (the part of the chicken just above the thigh) and serve it on an oyster shell, because he saw it in Blais’ book. Uh oh. It sounds like Blais – the pun on oysters. It’s clever, like Blais. It’s not Isabella at all. No lamb, no Moroccan spices.

Blais wants to fry some mayo. This sounds disgusting to me, and I’m sure Jimmy Fallon would agree, having been greased with hot mayo as a child. But Blais is going to flavor it with coffee and lime, and dip into liquid nitrogen to get a ball of hard mayo, then will deep-fry. “This is not a heart dish.”

Carla gets nervous even though this is clearly her challenge to lose. She’s making fish and hush puppies. She does the usual three-stage breading process but doesn’t fry right away, which is a bad thing. I’ve heard it makes them soggy. Apparently it does other things too. She has bland fish with thick crust, it’s not the dish she wanted to make.

Tiffany says she doesn’t make southern food in her restaurant but she grew up eating it, so she’s making fried chicken wings, which is what you would find any place that serves fried food. This doesn’t really sound like a breakout dish, Tiffany.

Dale has beef, oysters, and eggs. He says it’s night and day from his flavor spectrum, since he works in a Chinese restaurant, where of course they never deep-fry anything. Actually, in the kind of Chinese restaurant he works in, they probably don’t deep-fry anything. But it’s a strange statement to hear; I wonder if he’s heard of egg rolls and chicken wings and Sweet and Sour and General Tso’s Chicken (which I’ve been craving lately).

Isabella of course thinks his dish is better, because simple is better, and Richard has designed a nice simple dish for him to steal.

And we come to the second major crisis of this QF: As they finish, Antonia sees everyone has put out two plates but she only made one. She completely missed the memo that they had to make two plates.

But it’s hands up, utensils down, and Paula starts down the row.

Antonia‘s dish has her fried shrimp salad with avocado, jalapeno, grilled corn, tomato and fried herbs. Paula absolutely loves it. It’s the best dish… but, she only made one plate. “I could come over there, put you over my knee, and whip your cute little ass,” says Paula. Go ahead, fantasize, I’ll wait. Because of this error, which is a rule violation and, Paula makes it very clear, a technicality, Antonia watches $5,000 fly right by her into someone else’s pocket. We have tears. I don’t think Paula whipping her cute little ass is going to help much.
Isabella produces his fried chicken oysters with mustard gravy and oyster liqueur. Blais frowns and realizes it sounds familiar. “That’s my dish,” he says to camera. Isabella won’t look at him. Until Paula declares him the second-place but by default winner since Antonia really won on merit but lost on rules, and then he sees Blais looking at him and they exchange winks. Blais’ wink is more of a snarl, I think. Isabella interviews: “But, Richard, it’s not your dish, it’s my dish ’cause I won the 5G’s.” Remember when someone – Jen? – in Season 6 won a lot of money on a partner challenge with Kevin and said she’d buy Kevin a suit? Isabella must’ve missed that object lesson.
Blais presents his fried mayo and bacon, plus a tomato cucumber salad. Paula stops everything to say her hair looks just like his in the morning, and he credits one part duck fat one part liquid nitrogen. She calls him “Mr. Hairdo” but loves his fried mayo, and he (and his hair) is in the top. And of course his dish won, though unfortunately Isabella made it.
Tiffany offers her fried chicken wings with honey mustard and fried pickles and a cilantro and cumin salad.
Dale serves his fried steak-wrapped oyster with egg yolk omelet, with parsley and chives. An egg yolk omelet? Is that even a thing? I suppose it could be, since there are egg white omelets. I guess he was thinking, if Southern food is about unhealthy, let’s REALLY be unhealthy. Paula isn’t impressed, the flavors didn’t wow her.
Carla presents fried catfish with Dijon mustard, hush puppies, and slaw. Paula says her hush puppies were like spitballs when they should float. Oh, Carla. She’s sorry. She knows.

While they’re recovering from all this, John Besh comes in for the Elimination Challenge. Carla gasps – she’s actually cooked for him before, if I recall correctly. Blais says he’s the face of the modern New Orleans chef which must make Emeril (who actually comes from Fall River, MA) sad.

John Besh talks about the Greater New Orleans Foundation which helps fishermen and others who were economically disrupted by the oil spill pay their bills while they get themselves back together. GNOF has actually been around for 25 years; it’s a local philanthropic grant fund, not something specific to the oil spill. In any event, the Elimination Challenge for the chefs is to make a dinner for a fundraiser to be attended by 300 people, cooking Gulf seafood, Southern style. Isabella is inspired because it’s about giving back. You want to give back, Isabella? Give something back to Blais for providing the idea for your winning QF dish.

And because it’s a public event and they need decoys, six eliminated chefs come in: Tre, Spike, Fabio, Marcel, TiffanyF, and Angelo. Carrying trays with seafood. The chefs will pick a seafood and sous chef, package deal. So even though Marcel has beautiful white shrimp, Isabella (who picks first as winner of the QF) takes TiffanyF and her brown shrimp instead. Then he gets to pick who gets second choice, and he goes with Blais, finally giving him credit for the dish. Blais doesn’t want Angelo because he thinks his head will be in a bad place since he just got eliminated, so he takes Fabio and his red snapper. Carla takes Tre and the grouper. TiffanyD picks white shrimp even though Marcel comes with them. Antonia says she’ll take Spike and his crabs; Padma tells her to be careful. Dale takes Angelo who comes with amberjack.

Here’s the schedule: After planning with their new sous chef for 15 minutes, they will go to Restaurant Depot for 30 minutes and/or $200 whichever comes first to buy bulk supplies for cooking for 300, then to Whole Foods, then back to the Top Chef kitchen where they have two and a half hours to cook, at which point they go over to the Puck Building where the event will be held, set up in 30 minutes, and go for it. I’m tired just writing that.

The Planning Phase:

Isabella thinks of shrimp and grits, and he’s happy TiffanyF lived in NO for two years. I think TiffanyF has lived in every major US city at some point. Let’s see, Vegas, San Francisco, the Cape (that’s New England), now she’s in LA, and NO. That’s a lot of real estate for someone who’s pretty young. That’s probably a good thing, gives her a variety of experience. Either that, or she just alienated everyone and got run out of town until she saw how she looked on TV and changed her ways.

Angelo tells Dale, if you keep your head you’re gonna win this, you’re in Blais’ head. But you know how it goes when Angelo tries to help someone…

Blais wants to make snapper and grits, and work in some pulled pork, with Fabio. He only makes new dishes on Top Chef. Normally that would mean he doesn’t make things from his restaurant, but I don’t think he has a restaurant right now, and he’s really getting another dig in at Isabella and says he doesn’t use other people’s recipes.

TiffanyD says if this is not good, I can’t go home to Dallas, since she’s from the South. Except, Dallas isn’t really the South. Her grandmother does Southern soul food. She didn’t cook a lot going up but she ate a lot. Marcel isn’t interested in Southern food, but says he should get equipment, it’s going to go first.

Carla is trying to explain tomato and cucumbers with vinaigrette to Tre, but he’s a city boy, and she doesn’t understand what he eats. She thought he understood Southern food (because he’s black I guess, since he doesn’t make Southern food and he’s from Dallas which isn’t really Southern and there’s really no reason he should know about Southern food other than he’s black), but no he doesn’t. She asks if he knows chow-chow. Nope. But then, he says, “Chow-chow pico” and she goes SQUEEE so I guess that’s close enough. Actually when she first said it, I wrote down “pekoe” like the tea, and only when it was spelled on the screen did I realize it was pico. They’re both relishes, or salsas, or chutneys, depending on which aspect you want to emphasize. I’m sure there’s a difference but I don’t know what it is. It’s all chopped up stuff served on the side.

In the Restaurant Depot, Blais is looking for Louisiana hot sauce – Crystal’s. It took me a while to realize Crystal’s was a brand of hot sauce. I don’t know much about hot sauce, given that I’ve had a jar of cayenne pepper for about three years now and I still haven’t had the nerve to unseal it. Given how upset the judges got about the premixed spices Tiffany used last week, I was surprised, but I guess hot sauce is different. It’s more like wine, you just don’t make your own. Blais is a little puzzled because Fabio told him they get along because he reminds him of his ex wife.

Carla spies some Crystal’s hot sauce and gets excited about it, too. Carla says it’s about redemption because she botched the fried fish.

Back at the apartment (I guess it’s that evening, after all the shopping), Carla wants to talk about the worst food she’s ever made, the spit balls. Antonia asks if they’d rather talk about making the best dish but losing because she didn’t plate enough dishes. She points out she made the best dish but Isabella won by default with another chef’s dish. Antonia explains this to the women, how Blais had the idea for chicken oysters in his book. Carla: “There is man law, and there is chef law.” Thing is, I can see another side (I’m known for my ability to see six sides to every issue and my inability to make any decision no matter how small because of that). If Blais had stolen from Isabella, would I feel the same way? Does a chef own his ideas? Blais been open and helpful all along, telling Antonia how to pressure-cook beef tongue, wishing Fabio had asked him about burgers, why not with this? If Isabella had asked, would he have said he could use it? However, his notebook was not about basic techniques, it was about creative ideas he had for new dishes, especially dishes based on puns. It’s not like a Caesar Salad or Buffalo Wings which were invented and now everyone makes them; this was a dish that hadn’t been debuted yet. Yeah, I still think Isabella is an ass, and if Carla thinks it’s against chef law, I’m gonna go with that, too.

In the Top Chef kitchen on the day of the event, Dale says there’s too many people, there are only enough burners for a certain number. Except, Dale, honey, twelve people cooked in here before. Mean Dale is still hiding in there. Antonia says the idea is to honor Gulf seafood, so she’s going to make crab cake, crab bisque, and corn maque choux. I’m not sure there is non-corn maque choux, but I’m fuzzy on this stuff.

Carla is making collard greens. Tre buys greens in a can, so she doesn’t trust him with greens. I’ve never had collard greens, but Alton Brown says the canned kind are disgusting so I’m with Carla.

Antonia says Isabella is heckling people, since TiffanyF is making his sauce and he has nothing to do. Antonia’s doing a pretty good job of heckling herself, I think.

Tiffany and Marcel are not doing too well. She says Marcel is giving her one particular suggestion over and over, use the shrimp heads, and she’s sick of it. Dale says, “If anyone can keep Marcel in check, it’s Tiffany, because she’s a 5’10″ black woman with some serious like…” he runs out of words and makes a finger-snapping thing similar to “Oh no you didn’t.” I’m stunned at this comment. Tiffany can hold her own, sure, but it has nothing to do with her size, her race, her gender, or her serious like… She just is a strong person who knows what she wants. And she doesn’t want shrimp heads. At least not right now.

They transport to Puck House. I’m not sure what Puck House is other than a building in NYC, but apparently they gave promotional consideration so they get a mention. Dale says it’s the hardest challenge, because there are a lot of people, and a short time; he thinks they should’ve done some more stuff at the kitchen. Fabio tells Blais the polenta will look good in 10 minutes. Blais is nervous about pulled pork and fried seafood on one plate. But… that’s the dish he designed, he’s getting cold feet now? Carla decides not to do cornbread with her dish. “Redemption is looking far far away, bye redemption.”

The guests arrive, and we have a fundraiser dinner:

Blais, with sous chef Fabio, offers crispy gulf snapper, pulled pork, and citrus polenta because his sous chef is Italian. Otherwise I guess he would’ve called it grits. I still remember Alton Brown’s Good Eats episode where he explained how they’re the same thing. He and Fabio get a little mixed up, they have their “first fight of the evening” as Blais puts it. But they serve anyway. Besh says he questioned how all three elements would fit together, but it works; Tom says it’s seasoned well but not aggressive; Jonathan Waxman, Carmen Gonzales and David Burke, who are at the benefit but aren’t judges, like it.

Isabella makes grit crusted shrimp with sour cream and chive potato. Besh says he hit the nail on the head; Paula likes it; Tom says flavors are there and they are clean.

Dale‘s food isn’t tasting as he wants it to taste. He reseasons; Angelo, ever helpful, says it’s fine. Dale says he’s can’t do anything about it. When the judges come by his table he’s incoherent while explaining his dish to them. I think he said it’s a blackened amberjack in stew with andouille sausage, potatoes, and onions. Then he realizes the potatoes aren’t really cooked. Which Padma notices with distaste. Tom thinks there’s too much mustard on the crouton. Besh says once you taste the crouton, the dish is finished, and I think that’s a wrap for Dale.

TiffanyD makes head-on shrimp with honey glaze and grits; they run out of glaze and she explains to Marcel how to make more, but she either doesn’t tell him to dilute it, or he doesn’t dilute it, and she doesn’t have time to taste it before it’s served to the judges. She’s worried. For good reason, since Besh and Tom both say it’s too sweet, you can’t taste the shrimp for all the honey, and Paula is disappointed since she loves to suck the brains out of shrimp but these weren’t good. Besh also points out the shrimp were overcooked so they became mealy. Marcel actually cooked the shrimp, but Tiffany takes full responsibility for it as her dish.

Carla is astounded by so many people, a line that never ends – wait, she’s a caterer, doesn’t she do big events? She serves fried grouper with mustard and hot sauce, collard greens, and chow-chow pico. Paula isn’t happy with the collard greens. Tom thinks there’s too much hot sauce, Besh says there’s something too salty.

Antonia has her blue crab cake, bisque and maque choux, and she feels like these are delicious dishes. Besh likes it, he can taste the delicate crab. Tom likes the sauce.

And it’s all over but the shouting. Isabella says it’s his time to shine, he left his season way too early. He’s an ass. But that’s just my opinion.

Carla feels like “it’s pride, not my heart that went into this dish.” I didn’t get this the first time around, but now I realize, out of pride, she made fried fish to redeem herself for the poor job in the QF, so she wasn’t making this dish out of love but out of pride. This is what I love about Carla. She doesn’t blame anyone, she doesn’t blame overcooking or bad cornbread or whatever, she looks at pride. I think the pride thing wouldn’t have mattered if she’d put less hot sauce on her fried grouper, though.

And for the now-traditional Amusing Interstitial at Forty-Five Minutes: Antonia sends Spike out to be a spy and see what the judges are saying. He knocks over some wine and hits on girls. She says, “Spike is an amazing sous chef, but a really bad spy.”

And Padma in her lovely cleavage-baring dress (which is actually quite pretty. The dress. The cleavage is fine, if you like that sort of thing) comes in and calls for Antonia, Blais, and Isabella. They are the Top Three.

Blais says his inspiration was “the other side of the gulf,” that is, Georgia and Florida, marrying snapper and pulled pork. Besh praises his restraint.

Isabella brags about putting in shrimp heads (I wonder if he heard Marcel telling Tiffany this and used it); Paula thought it was genius cooking shrimp with grits. And he had her with the potatoes, her weak spot.

Besh liked Antonia’s use of andouille sausage, the smoke and spice was really special.

The winning dish, chosen for its balance, is… Blais! YAY! He gets six nights in Barbados plus $5000 for airfare. He’s going to invite Fabio to come with him (I wonder if Fabio has to pay his own way; presumably he gets to bring his wife). I’m guessing this is just another dig at Isabella, but it’s a good one.

Back in Stew, Antonia asks Isabella not to burp on her if he’s going to sit next to her. He burps anyway. Because he’s a classy guy.

Carla, Dale, and Tiffany face the music. Tiffany’s shrimp were overcooked and sweet. Dale had raw potatoes and a crazy mustardy crouton, what Besh called flavor warfare, and he never tasted the amberjack, he just tasted andouille, it tasted like a hot dog. Carla doused her fish in hot sauce and mustard, made the lovely fish into chicken wings, and Paula thought the veggies didn’t make sense, nothing complemented anything.

And it’s Dale. He goes peacefully, shakes hands. He says he’s proud, he didn’t like himself very much the first time, and he hopes people will see he’s grown up. Yes, I think he did, though I think he has a ways to go. This was the hardest thing he’s ever done; he can take on anything, he feels like superman. Good luck with your baby, you’re going to be severely tested in the coming years, in ways that make Top Chef look like a tea party.

Next week, it looks like family visits, and Richard frowns. I mean, he really frowns.

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One response to “Top Chef All-Stars Season 8 Episode 11: For The Gulf

  1. Pingback: Top Chef Texas – Episode 11: Fit for an Evil Queen « A Just Recompense

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