What a night! Phil and Claire got creeped out by their elderly neighbor’s interest in Luke, while Haley babysat Lily. And then, Jay joined Mitchell, Cameron and their friends for drinks instead of going to a Vivaldi concert with Gloria and Manny, and boy, did hilarity ensue!
Oh, wait. Ooops.
That was “Modern Family.” Which, despite having only one culinary reference tonight (crabcakes!), was infinitely more engaging food television than this week’s episode of “Top Chef All-Stars.” I know producing television can be expensive, but the same old template Top Chef format week after week (and year after year) has resulted in some pretty lackluster episodes right at the time the show should be its most interesting, engaging and buzzed-about. Instead, the only buzz from the show you might’ve heard Wednesday night was my snoring about six minutes into it.
Let’s get to it, shall we?
Padma is joined by Wolfgang Puck for the Quickfire challenge, where the cheftestants stand in front of mini-displays of some previous seasons’ Quickfires. There are seven to choose from, and because Mike won the previous challenge, he gets to choose first. Now, he’s not choosing for himself, mind you. He gets to assign one to whichever fellow competitor he wants to. Because we apparently still need to beat the second-cousin-nine-times-removed dead horse, For Antonia, Mike chooses the canned food Quickfire, where she must create a dish using only canned food. Antonia assigns the hot dog challenge to Richard. Richard gives Mike the one-pot challenge, where he can cook using only one pot or pan.
They cook for a bit, when Padma shows up to throw a monkey wrench into the works (I wish she’d throw it at my head to put me out of my misery): They now have to select from three new “twists” to make the challenge even more competitive. Those “twists” are: cooking with one hand, finishing your dish without using knives or other tools, and the conjoined-twin challenge -- where Carla is trotted out as the partner to whom a chef will be paired with, and they’ll use only one hand each, acting as one person.
So, Richard takes away Mike’s utensils, Antonia makes Richard cook with one hand and Antonia gets latched to Carla, and away they go. Mike had already completed all his prep, and he’s just waiting for his pressure cooker to finish, so this big dramatic twist is no biggie for him. Or any of them really. Oh, Bravooooo: watch what happens! NOTHING!
Here’s what they made for Wolfgang and Padma to taste:
Antonia: Curry coconut soup with shrimp, andouille sausage, peanuts and fish sauce.
Richard: Hot dog on handmade roti bread with curry ketchup, mayo and mint leaves.
Mike: Pork shoulder with black beans, chili paste and a ginger-cabbage salad.
Richard’s dish is deemed too ketchup-y and Antonia’s too concentrated. Mike’s pork shoulder was delicious, snagging him a win and $5,000. Padma tells them to go to some other hotel garden to meet some “special guests,” which turn out to be Wolfgang Puck (the guy gets around), Michelle Bernstein and Masaharu Morimoto (whom I’m kind of afraid of). The cheftestants have to prepare and serve those iconic chefs’ desired last meals.
Because he won the Quickfire, Mike gets to choose the chef he’ll cook for, and is told to assign the others. He chooses Michelle Bernstein, and assigns Morimoto to Antonia, and Wolfgang to Richard. Wolfgang Puck wants as his last meal the food of his childhood: goulash, spaetzle and apple strudel. Michelle Bernstein wants fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, because it was a special treat when she ate it with her dad. Morimoto wants miso soup and sashimi -- two things his mother used to make him after he’d come home from playing baseball.
If I were producing this show, I think I’d have made each of those chefs the sous chefs (on another chef’s dish) because could you imagine Mike Isabella making fried chicken with Morimoto as his sous chef? Or Richard bossing around Michelle Bernstein over her strudel prep? Or Antonia telling Wolfgang Puck how to pickle something? Hardy-har-har is all I’m sayin’...
The chefs go back to their hotel suite and hit the sack. The next morning, they try to psych themselves up while trying to psych the others out. But, since these are the three least dramatic, least scene-chewing chefs, it all feels really forced and fake.
They get into the kitchen to cook, and it looks like Mike has cracked open a box of Swanson chicken broth, which is exactly what I bet Michy wanted for her last supper: a boatload of preservatives and artificial flavors. Mmmmmmmm...... Tom comes ‘round in his hottie-hot-hot navy blue chef’s jacket (and I get weak in the knees for a few seconds) to check on their dishes. Antonia opens the hamachi, slices off a small bit, tastes it and realizes it’s turned. I don’t recall seeing them shop at Whole Foods, so I guess other places sell expired fish, as well. Fancy that. Richard struggles with the latch on his pressure cooker, and I’m sure there’s a life metaphor in there somewhere.
The judges and dinner guests arrive: Padma, Tom and Gail, the three chefs and Melanie Dunea, author and photographer of “My Last Supper,” which came out, like, four years ago. What’s next week, guys? Cooking from “Liberace Cooks”? Way to be timely.
And speaking of time, as I yawn for the 398th time, I’m thinking to myself, oh, we must be about 45, 50 minutes into this... and I look at the clock and see it’s only 10:30, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how they’re going to fill an entire half hour with serving the food and being critiqued. Top Chef, tedium be thy name. Antonia subs in tuna for the hamachi; she found it in the fridge, allegedly. One by one, they plate and present their meals.
Morimoto’s meal by Antonia is served first: a bento box of tuna sashimi with pickled daikon, mushrooms and eggplant, with miso soup and rice. Morimoto says the miso is too salty. Gail coughs after taking a bite of the tuna and says the scotch bonnet pepper overwhelmed the dish. Tom loves the eggplant but says the best thing about Japanese food is the subtlety, and there’s nothing subtle about what’s in the bento boxes. Morimoto smiles and nods in agreement. Ouch.
Michelle Bernstein’s dinner is up next: Mike did fried chicken with pea puree (NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, Season 7 flashbacks), egg yolk empanada and mustard gravy. Michy liked it, Morimoto says his white meat is dry. Gail doesn’t like the coating because it fell right off. Tom thought it was a nice dish.
Richard is up last with Wolfgang Puck’s last meal: beef goulash, spaetzle, and sour cream and apple strudel with tarragon cream, maple and ras el hanout. It’s a beautifully composed plate. Padma, literally, sticks her face in her plate to take it all in. Wolfgang likes it, though he thinks the spaetzle is too hard. Tom thinks the dish should be hotter, temperature-wise. Gail loves the strudel. Michelle loves the whole dish, and Wolfgang says even his mother would have approved of it. Sounds like Blais has got this in the bag.
The cheftestants sit together in a separate room, and stress about their food. Still in the dining room, the chefs and judges hash out the dishes. Morimoto is clear when he says of Antonia, “I can’t say she’s the best.” They all agreed that Mike’s technique on the chicken -- cooking it sous vide before deep frying it -- didn’t yield the best final result. Wolfgang loved his dish, and Gail loved the balance -- that it was Wolfgang’s meal, but with Richard’s touches.
They bring the cheftestants back into the dining room to stand before them and the chefs, and Padma tells them, “Judges Table starts right now.” Michelle says the chicken was juicy but not crispy. Wolfgang says the flavors were right on, but spaetzle was tough. Morimoto says Antonia’s “was a little different from what I expected,” the miso was too salty, and that the dish as a whole “was... interesting.”
Tom puts Richard through to the finale, and Blais breathes a noticeable sigh of relief.
Mike and Antonia are left standing before the chefs and judges. Padma pulls out an envelope for Antonia to open. Turns out, there will be one more challenge to determine who gets the second spot in the finale. Mike and Antonia have 45 minutes to go back into kitchen to make one bite for all seven people at the table -- any food they want, using what’s in the kitchen right now.
Antonia does a seared grouper in coconut lobster broth with yam, apple and dill pollen relish. Now, I don’t know about you, but I want to take that dish out behind the middle school and get it pregnant. Mike’s bite is a tempura lobster tail over beef tartare, with red chili potatoes, caramelized olives and chimichurri sauce. The chefs and judges eat both bites of food, and compare and contrast.
Morimoto wants a bigger piece of Antonia’s dish. Gail wants more of Mike’s, as does Michelle. Padma polls them, one at a time, to see whose is the favored bite of food. Morimoto, Padma and Melanie choose Antonia’s dish. Tom, Gail and Michelle choose MIke’s bite. Wolfgang Puck is called upon to break the tie. He does, and they bring Mike and Antonia back into the room to tell them their fate.
Antonia is sent packing, and Mike Isabella joins Richard in next week’s final episode.
Next week: Mike and Blais are told to “create the restaurant of your dreams,” and it looks like the entire cast of this season has been flown in to act as sous chefs. Judges are Art Smith and Curtis Stone, and despite the choice in guest judges, this has the potential to be a really great finale. Especially if Jamie sneezes mid-prep and decides she needs stitches.