Top Chef All Stars may have just been perfectly cast. I’ve long been resistant to all-star seasons, but watching the great 75-minute debut last night, it stood out as a corollary to the rule, and that’s in large part due to the cast, which is a perfect mix of old and new, heroes and villains.
Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth’s Magical Elves defined and continue to rock this genre for a reason: they are excellent producers and have a stellar crew. What they did exceptionally well this season was assemble people who were great, memorable characters but who didn’t necessarily dominate in terms of personality and/or performance; in other words, it’s not just the Russell Hantzs (take a hint, CBS).
That’s not to say I like everyone. In fact, for me, it’s like favorites versus least favorites. Best of all are five women who I adored on the show but haven’t really thought about since their seasons: Jamie Lauren, Antonia Lofaso, Tiffany Derry, Jen Carroll, and Casey Thompson.
The big and/or annoying personalities aren’t overwhelming: Marcel Vigneron, Spike Mendelsohn (who Anthony Bourdain called “the craftiest motherfucker who’s ever been on this show” after Spike reconstructed his frozen scallop dish), Stephen Asprinio, Fabio Viviani, and (ugh) Angelo Sosa. Since they’ve drawn from the very beginning, some people have changed; Stephen seems like a broken version of his former self.
The season began with two great challenges, including an elimination challenge that asked the chefs to remake the dish that got them eliminated from the competition the first time around. Even the two twists–letting the chefs judge each other, and watch the judging from a secret monitor–worked, despite being transparent drama-producing devices.
The first episode sent Elia home, and at first I’d nearly forgotten who she was, until the between-commercials segment reminded us of the series’ ugliest moment, as she shaved her head following the assault on Marcel, when the other finalists tried to shave his head against his will. (Her role was fudged in the editing; how I wish the producers would have listened to Tom and dumped everyone, including that smarmy prick Ilan.)
But this season looks like it will have plenty of conflict on its own–hopefully the good, food-driven kind. Fabio said he basically wanted to beat judge Anthony Bourdain up, saying “I don’t like to be made fun of, and that’s what you did through the meal. … If we weren’t in this situation, we’d have a different problem.” You’d think they’d be used to being judged by now, but no.
Meanwhile, we also had a minor controversy after Richard Blais produced awesome food but went over the time limit while plating. He was in the winning group but was sent back to the stew room after Tom told him, “I actually saw the tapes.” Not quite as good as Trump’s text message confrontation, but good.
But my favorite moment of all was when Padma Lakshmi had to introduce Gail Simmons, and said–I mean, spat–”Of course, back with us as usual, Gail Simmons.” I think Padma expected Gail to leave her alone forever after Gail started hosting Top Chef Just Desserts.