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Illustration for article titled iTop Chef/is latest batch of all-stars bring the heat in a fiery premiere
Screenshot: Top Chef
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PFTS: I got people for that shit.

I had never heard this acronym before it was uttered on this episode by Kevin Gillespie, but I love it. It also, in a way, articulates how I feel about Top Chef: All Stars. While the cooks on a normal season of Top Chef are undoubtedly wildly successful, one still gets the impression that they’re in the kitchen night after night, be it through their ability to command a line or chop an onion. By the time one earns an All-Star distinction, they’ve often reached that rare echelon in which they’re opening restaurants of their own. They’re not sweating over a grill, they’re menu-planning and location-scouting and investor-schmoozing. They’re Stephen Asprinio on All-Stars: New York, or at least Marcel in any of his subsequent appearances. They’ve got people for that shit, and by “that shit” I mean the things that propel you to the top of Top Chef: Technique, precision, endurance, and creativity.

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Granted, one often does not master those things until they’ve reached that rare echelon. As we’ve seen time and again on Top Chef, to be young, brash, and filled with red wine vinegar also brings with it a recklessness that can manifest in overstuffed visions or sloppy plates. The flavor might be there, but flavor isn’t everything.

Did he just say flavor isn’t everything?
Did he just say flavor isn’t everything?
Screenshot: Top Chef

All of this is to say that it’s not so easy to predict a season of Top Chef: All-Stars. I learned that anew after my colleague, Patrick Gomez, and I shared our predictions on who might win this new season. I gave Joe Sasto (a.k.a. Mustache Joe, a.k.a. Joestachio) a 12-1 shot at winning, impressed as I was with his turn on Top Chef: Denver. As we learned at the end of tonight’s episode, I was woefully wrong (Patrick, on the other hand, was right on point). But Joe seemed to me to be the kind of person who could go far—he’s seasoned, but he’s still young, he still has plenty to prove, and I’m guessing he doesn’t “got people for that shit” (or, at least, not as many). Maybe he’d be this season’s Mike Isabella, I thought, serving as an unexpected and formidable opponent for Bryan Voltaggio, the betting man’s vote for Most Likely To Win. I was wrong.

But, and allow me a little bit of latitude here, I’m also not. Who shined tonight? Melissa King, Jamie Lynch, and Stephanie Cmar, three chefs who, despite their immense talent, failed to make it to their respective finales. And who fucked up? Bryan, for one. Well, sorta—Gail (Gail!) said his sablefish and corn porridge “lacked textural complexity,” but other judges dug its “sophistication.” But then there’s vets like Angelo Sosa, Lee Anne Wong, and Gillespie, who emerged as their season’s shining stars and left tonight with some serious dents in their armor. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine the Kevin of Las Vegas talking about the people he’s got for “that shit,” as he was sort of a one-man band that season, a wunderkind who admitted he barely made more than $30,000 a year. This isn’t a ding, to be clear; success brings with it people to do “that shit,” but you can’t deny the impact that that will ultimately have on one’s Top Chef performance. If you haven’t shelled an almond in 20 years, that says something.

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But I digress.

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Let’s talk about the episode. First, here’s everyone who’s on this season:

Eric Adjepong (Season 16: Kentucky) Washington, D.C.

Karen Akunowicz (Season 13: California) Boston, MA

Jennifer Carroll (Season 6: Las Vegas, Season 8: All Stars & LCK Season 7)

Stephanie Cmar (Season 11: New Orleans) Boston, MA

Lisa Fernandes (Season 4: Chicago) Brooklyn, NY

Kevin Gillespie (Season 6: Las Vegas) Atlanta, GA

Gregory Gourdet (Season 12: Boston) Portland, OR

Melissa King (Season 12: Boston) San Francisco, CA

Jamie Lynch (Season 14: Charleston) Charlotte, NC

Brian Malarkey (Season 3: Miami) San Diego, CA

Nini Nguyen (Season 16: Kentucky) New York, NY

Joe Sasto (Season 15: Colorado) Los Angeles, CA

Angelo Sosa (Season 7: Washington D.C. & Season 8: All Stars New York) San Diego, CA

Bryan Voltaggio (Season 6: Las Vegas) Frederick, MD

Lee Anne Wong (Season 1: San Francisco & LCK Season 7) Maui, Hawaii

Quickfire Challenge: It’s the mise en place relay race! The chefs are tasked with breaking down artichokes, supreming California oranges, and shelling 20 “perfect” California almonds. The first five to finish each race are grouped into a team, and given a time advantage over those still prepping. Then, the newly formed teams must use those three ingredients to make two dishes.

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The rustiness of the veterans is on display straightaway: Both Bryan V. and Kevin call for premature checks on their artichokes, while Lee Anne, Angelo, and Jennifer Carroll are forced to endure until the final round. “We can tell who’s not used to prepping these days,” says Tom. Tom, you rascal.  

Still, nobody’s stuck there too long, as the first team to finish—Kevin, Jamie, Bryan, Melissa, and Joe—find themselves surprised by how minuscule their advantage turns out to be. That’s especially bad for Joe, as he chose to make pasta, which needs more time than he was allotted. In the end, his team still wins, but not before his pasta is called “dry” and “chewy” and his pancetta brodo slammed by Padma. “That’s one rich brodo,” she says, sounding fresh off a bong rip.

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Padma on Joe’s brodo:

Illustration for article titled iTop Chef/is latest batch of all-stars bring the heat in a fiery premiere
Screenshot: Top Chef
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Instead, it’s the team’s grilled artichoke with sumac, yogurt, and tahini that wins the day, though the citrus “Asian” aioli made by Nini and her crew—Brian, Stephanie, Karen, and Lisa—gets a shout-out, too.

The advantage: Each member will be the captain of their elimination challenge team, and they get to handpick their own teammates.

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Elimination Challenge: Make a “seafood feast” with three “cohesive” dishes served family-style to a panel that includes acclaimed names like Nancy Silverton, Marcus Samuelsson, Suzanne Goin, and Jeremiah Tower. The latter is the “featured” judge, if you will, a pioneer of modern California cuisine who was the subject of 2017's Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. The director of that film intriguingly describes Tower thusly:Driven perfectionist, egotist, seducer, ringmaster… Jeremiah Tower is indeed one of the most controversial, outrageous and influential figures in the history of American gastronomy.”

Me when I read that description:

Illustration for article titled iTop Chef/is latest batch of all-stars bring the heat in a fiery premiere
Screenshot: Top Chef
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Anyways, Jamie isn’t wrong when he calls it a “finale panel.”

The other twist is that they’ll be cooking on a beach with fire as their only source of heat. “No appliances,” coos Tom. “Just your knives and...your talent.” He also says they’ll be restricted to the “bare necessities,” which I can only assume is an oblique reference to his beloved status in bear culture.

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The teams shake out thusly:

  • Jamie, Stephanie, and Gregory
  • Joe, Brian, and Lee Anne
  • Bryan, Eric, and Lisa
  • Kevin, Jennifer, and Nini
  • Melissa, Karen, and Angelo

You can see Joe’s doomed fate from the start. Brian Malarkey, the Miami veteran who in our odds post I underestimated as a mere “host,” quickly takes over the team and Joe does little to assert his own dominance. Joe is obviously wildly talented, but it’s clear he was intimidated to step into this ring of chefs—his decision to make pasta from scratch during the Quickfire, for example, points to a need to impress that wasn’t in his own self-interest. Here, he fumbles his way into a flatbread after Malarkey makes the decision to build their menu around sea urchin. He didn’t rein in Malarkey, he didn’t advise against Lee Anne’s watery sauce, and he never seemed all that comfortable with his own vision, so, yeah, he was probably the right one to send home.

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That, of course, doesn’t mean I didn’t do this when Padma said his name:

Illustration for article titled iTop Chef/is latest batch of all-stars bring the heat in a fiery premiere
Screenshot: Top Chef
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Coming out on top is the team of Jamie, Gregory, and Stephanie, which is a mild surprise as none of their culinary styles align all that naturally. But it speaks to their clearheadedness and checked egos that they were able to work together so well—the only ding against the team is that Jamie’s mussels were a bit dry. Still, the judges praise his cream, and positively gush over Gregory’s grilled salmon with peaches and Stephanie’s brined prawn with charred tomato sauce. “Pretty near flawless,” the judges say of Gregory’s dish, in particular. “This is the meal we expected and deserved,” says Silverton and, like, calm down, please, rich lady.

It’s not much of a shock, then, that he wins. It wasn’t to me, either, as in our predictions I called this Gregory’s season to lose. While Bryan is the favorite, Gregory isn’t to be overlooked; it’s kind of astounding he didn’t win the Boston season, given that he was on the top in just about every challenge. He reminded me of Angelo on that season—it makes total sense they used to work together under Jean-Georges Vongerichten—and I’ve got my heart set on him going further here than Angelo did on his previous All-Stars. (I’m also rooting for Angelo, by the way; like John Tesar, I went from despising him to wanting all good things for him).

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Who am I kidding? I love all of these people, except for maybe Malarkey, but that might be because his name evokes a certain presidential contender. I was also leery of Lisa coming into this season, as she was such a bummer on Top Chef: Chicago, but she declares herself an “older, wiser” Lisa here and, hell, it’s been 12 fuckin’ years. We all came around to Dale Talde on his All-Stars; it’s time to come around to Lisa, too.

Who do I think can win? My head leans towards Bryan, Jennifer, and Kevin, the alums of Vegas, which still, by my estimation, packed the best and most talented group of chefs to ever grace this series. But my heart is with Gregory and Karen (who are not underdogs, I should clarify), as well as Jamie, Eric, and Stephanie (who, I think, are underdogs). Stephanie even calls herself an underdog, citing her career as a private chef. Yeah, it might be less glamorous on paper, but she probably works less and makes more than most of her colleagues.

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Who are you rooting for?


Stray observations

  • It’s so good to be back, y’all! I won’t be reviewing on a weekly basis, but I will check back in at the halfway mark (Restaurant Wars!) and for the finale, so stay tuned. (Also, revisit my old recaps: They’re funny!)
  • The chefs are competing for $250,000, the largest cash prize ever for a Top Chef season. (Do we think someone forced Nini to do the Austin Powers bit or was that organic? Just curious.)
  • What the hell is going on with this new version of the theme song? Who thought it needed a nu-metal remix? Also, watch close when you see these two gondolas—there’s like a wikka-wikka record scratch moment that I couldn’t stop laughing at.
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Illustration for article titled iTop Chef/is latest batch of all-stars bring the heat in a fiery premiere
Screenshot: Top Chef
  • When Tom asked which of the chefs said they would never be on the show again, the only chefs who didn’t raise their hands were Jamie and Joe. Poor Joe.
  • Gregory and Eric were both named sexy chefs! They join an illustrious group that includes:
It’s Poochie!
It’s Poochie!
Screenshot: Top Chef
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  • Jennifer Carroll acknowledges her “aggressive” exit from last season: “Whew, I had some balls. That’s not what I plan to do this time around.” Probably a smart idea.
  • What the hell is up with this house they’re staying in? Is this the literal Bachelor mansion?
  • Lee Anne calls her son a “little beefcake.” This is what I call my cat.
  • Michael Voltaggio flying to France to skydive in the same place Bryan did during his Top Chef Masters season is peak Michael Voltaggio. Why is Michael Voltaggio like this?
  • “Glue is not a good word when it comes to food!”
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Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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