The theme for the first Top Chef All Stars edition is redemption. Unlike other reality shows that amass an all star group comprised of both winners and losers, the eighteen returning chefs each lost their season and are coming back to prove that loss was a mistake. Many of the cheftestants were front-runners in their season and were as surprised as the audience when they were not crowned the champion. From the driven Tiffani Faison of Season One, to Season Four's Richard Blais, through last season's runner-up Angelo Sosa, there are chefs who are seeking what they thought was rightfully theirs in the first place, the title Top Chef.
Some left far sooner than they should have and it's great to see them have another chance to show what they can do (Dale Talde, Jamie Lauren and Tre Wilcox). Then there are that other group of chefs who are back because they are fan favorites (Fabio Viviani and Carla Hall), to fill the requisite reality TV villain slot (Mike Isabella and Marcel Vigneron), or for comic relief (Dale Levitski and Spike Mendelsohn). Why Stephen Asprinio, the fussy sommelier, was brought back is a mystery to me. But the person I was least happy to see on my TV screen was Elia from Season Two.
If you missed Season Two of Top Chef, you missed one of the strangest, most disturbing moments in the history of competitive reality TV. Keep in mind, the premise of Top Chef is to see who is the best cook (within the parameters of time and the structure of the challenges). It is not supposed to be about the personalities of the contestants and how far you get in the show has nothing to do with alliances or voting, but solely on judging by a panel of experts. In Season Two, a couple of the contestants became so irritated with one of the other contestants that they attacked him, held him down, and threatened to shave his hair (all while videotaping the high-larity of it all). It was way over the top and, if you pardon the bad pun, left a bad taste in the mouths of anyone who saw it.
Elia was part of that group and thought it was funny. It was a great example of high school bullying and she was the cute girl who sided with the bullies. Why she has been rewarded with a return ticket to the show is beyond me. But Karma works better than the casting office....
The elimination challenge for the first episode was as inspired as it was cruel. Remember that dish you made that got you kicked off the show, that made you a laughingstock, that cost you $100,000 and a boatload of Glad products? The dish you've seen in your nightmares and in the faces of menacing strangers and your mother-in-law? That dish that you swore you would never speak of again, let alone make? Make it. Fix it. Show that it was an aberration and that me were all wrong about you and you aren't the weakest link -- sorry, wrong show. Get back in there and re-imagine that dish that took out a tiny piece of your heart and a bigger slice of your soul and make it sing.
Most of the contestants rose to the challenge. Given another shot, they were thrilled to show that they know what they did wrong and know that they can fix it. They added more, added less, they seasoned differently -- one happily separated scallops from butterscotch, something that should never have been put together in the first place. While looking at their old ingredients like the cut out portion of a divorcee's wedding picture, they saw that they could redo it and make it right.
The standout contestants who, when we viewers are groggy or forgetful,we think were their season's winners -- soared. Richard, Angelo, Dale Talde and, dare I say it, Spike all put out great dishes according to the judges (aided this year by the virile, sexy Anthony Bourdain, thank you Bravo!!). The win went to the similarly tantalizing Angelo when kitchen-cam showed that Richard had continued to plate his superior dish beyond the buzzer, disqualifying him.
Then it was time for the bottom three and the only surprise was seeing Fabio there. He twice now has been at the bottom with a pasta dish. Perhaps he should be stripped of his Italian heritage, but what is the Anglican form of Fabio? He plated pasta on paper, confusing it perhaps with fish and chips. Then he covered his concoction with oily fried basil leaves because nothing says winner like clumsy appearance and excessive grease. Stephen, who convinced us that he was a wine connoisseur first, cook second, was not unexpectedly in the bottom three. But as unappealing as his dishes might have been, they were not nearly as appalling as the undercooked and under-thought steamed fish of Elia.
Pride goeth before a fall, it is said, and blind faith in a dish that cost you one title went before another ouster. If Elia was stubborn in the defense of her dish, perhaps seeing it cost her yet another title will convince her that maybe she still has something to learn culinarily speaking. It might also convince her that a little humility and self-reflection will go a long way. Or, she can continue to be stubborn and believe she knows best. Whichever she chooses, at least it won't be on my TV screen, because Padma gave her the pack up your knives and skeedaddle.
I know All Star versions of reality TV show are a ratings grabbing ploy, a no-thinking-involved formula for success, but for Top Chef I think it goes beyond that. There is a chance to see very talented people excelling at what they do best, given a chance to go farther than they did the last time and claim their rightful place on top. After a little more weeding out of marginal contestants (I'm looking at you wine boy), this will be a tough and tight race as they each make good use of their culinary second chance. Bravo, Bravo!