Monday, March 23, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Episode 1 - "It's Like They Never Left"

[Left to right: Jeremiah Tower, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons]

Although this season of Top Chef is called "Top Chef All Stars L.A.", I'm tempted to rename it "Top Chef 2020 - The Social Distancing Edition". The enforced isolation is giving me the time to blog the episodes again, something I haven't been able to do in a couple of years. And heaven knows I want and need the distraction from the news right now!

Before I get started ... It occurred to me to think about whether I prefer this, an all-star season, to a regular season with a completely new crop of chefs. And I think I prefer this right now, because it's the TV version of "comfort food," giving me a lot of familiar faces, most of whom I like. And I'm all about comfort food at the moment! I'm most excited to see Gregory Gourdet, Angelo Sosa, Lee Anne Wong, and Bryan Voltaggio back -- although I think it's a bit weird for Bryan to be back after having been on Top Chef Masters. And as always, it's terrific to see Tom, Padma, and Gail again!

QuickFire Challenge

I liked this version of the familiar mis-en-place, which took place at L.A.'s Griffith Observatory, presumably because it's both iconic and scenic. All 15 chefs started by "turning" artichokes, which I think means removing the leaves and the choke to get to the heart. The first five chefs to finish to Tom's satisfaction formed the first team, and got to immediately speed away and begin on the remainder of the Quickfire challenge, which was to use the prepped ingredients to create two dishes. The remaining 10 chefs began to "supreme" California oranges, a term I've never heard used as a verb before! According to, supreming "is a technique that removes the membrane from citrus fruit so it can be served in slices" with "no rind, no pith, no mess." The five chefs who finished this task first formed the second team, and also got to leave for the kitchen, but the remaining chefs had to shell 20 perfect almonds, which apparently is a lot harder than it sounds. The last team couldn't leave for the kitchen until all five had completed the task, and once they arrived, the 15-minute clock started for all teams, giving the first two teams a significant time advantage over the third.

Rather than list the many variations of artichoke dishes that were prepared and given Really Long Names, I'll summarize by saying that the first team, wearing red aprons, won the challenge, even though Joe Sasto's pasta was one of the judges' least favorite elements (and Joe making pasta was the source of the episode title "It's Like They Never Left", because apparently he made it a few too many times during his original season). Each member of this team became a team captain for the Elimination Challenge, and were given the option of choosing their team members. So the competition went from 3 teams of 5 preparing 2 dishes to 5 teams of 3 preparing 3 dishes. (Got that?)

Elimination Challenge

This was a fun challenge, and one that folks who've competed on the show before, and watched other seasons, might have seen coming: cooking seafood on the beach using only a fire pit. Each chef was meant to prepare an individual dish, but the judges were also looking for cohesiveness among each team.

The Green team went first, consisting of Melissa King, Karen Akunowicz, and Angelo Sosa. I remember Melissa and Angelo from prior seasons, but I think I must have missed Karen's season. I remember Melissa having this sort-of understated super-competence, if that makes sense, and she showed it here by impressing the judges with her grilled swordfish and radicchio. Karen's grilled scallops also went over well, but Angelo's oysters were, according to Tom, off-putting because there were neither hot nor cold. In fact, Tom compared the oysters to eating phlegm.

Next came the Red team: Brian Malarkey, who served sea urchin and spot prawns with hibiscus ponzu; Joe Sasto, who offered a flatbread with clams, sea urchin, peppers, and aioli; and Lee Anne Wong, who prepared a glazed halibut and sea urchin. It immediately became clear that this team was likely to be on the bottom, because Brian and Lee Anne's dishes both had sauces that made the flatbread soggy (the food was served family-style). Lee Anne also accidentally burned the edges of her fish.

The Yellow team was led by Jamie Lynch, who served steamed muscles that Tom ultimately found a little dry, although the judges liked the taste. Gregory Gourdet made a charred salmon with grilled peaches (yum) and a roasted chili dressing, which I'm sure would have been too spicy for me, but the judges loved it. Stephanie Cmar served a brined prawn with tomato sauce and roasted corn dressing, which Gail loved. Guest judge Nancy Silverton said she liked everything from this team.

Next up: the Dark Blue team (they were just called the Blue team, but the last team looked to be Light Blue to me!). Kevin Gillepsie made an eye of swordfish dish that Tom said was overcooked, although all of the judges practically gasped at how beautiful the presentation was. Jennifer Carroll made a spiced tuna loin with grilled kale, which multiple judges said they would gladly eat every day. Nini Nguyen, another chef I don't recognize (so I probably missed her season), served a grilled scallop with a variety of vegetables. The judges commented on the "herb line" that went through all three dishes, drawing them together as a cohesive meal.

Last but not least was the Light Blue team, with Bryan Voltaggio serving a sablefish over corn porridge and charred leeks. The judges liked the taste but the fish was somewhat overcooked. Eric Adjepong, who I don't recognize, made a "Chesapeake boil" with prawns -- I'm not sure what that means. Lisa Fernandes made a ceviche that Tom praised for being simple and ice cold.

Judges' Table

So there were no real surprises at the Judges' Table. The Yellow team won, with Gregory taking home top honors, and the Red team was on the bottom. The only bit of suspense was whether Lee Anne or Joe would go home, and in the end it was Joe. I always feel for that first chef to go home.

What actually surprised me in this episode was how much Lee Anne struggled during every phase. She was on the last team in the mis-en-place contest, her tempura artichoke was thick and doughy, ostensibly because she couldn't get a fryer quickly enough or for long enough, and she burned her fish by pouring olive oil directly on top of her grilling fish instead of rubbing the oil on the grill itself. I like Lee Anne, so I don't want to pick on her, but I wonder if her difficulties stem from the fact that after competing during Season 1 of Top Chef, she then went on to work as a behind-the-scenes producer of the show for several years, which may have kept her from doing as much cooking as she otherwise would have done. Anyway, hopefully she'll go far in the season, and she did go far in Season 1. [Edited to add: ack! I didn't realize Lee Anne was also on Season 15, which I missed. So much for my theory!]

So, to wrap up.....

Quick Fire Winner: Red team - Brian V., Jamie, Joe, Melissa, and Kevin

Elimination Challenge Winner: Gregory Gourdet

Packed Their Knives: Joe Sasto

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste The Blue team's artichoke tempura with citrus aioli, from the Quickfire Challenge

Who I'm Most Rooting for After this Episode: Gregory, Kevin, Melissa, and Angelo

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