I’m Lovin’ It: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

About 15 years ago, I ordered a fish sandwich from McDonald’s. I was confused, because instead of the normal crappy McFish, it was made with panko bread crumbs, heirloom tomatoes, and a remoulade sauce laced with capers, lemon reduction, and dijon. It was served on a crusty French bread.

“Wow, Mickey D’s has really stepped up its game,” I thought. 

I went back a few days later, and it was the same old fish fry with bland tartar sauce. I thought perhaps I had dreamed the whole experience. Now I know it was during the Blais period.

Yup, Professor Blais, gastrobiologist to the stars, was once the fish fry guy for McDonald’s. One can only hope that the fast food chain is constructing an advertising campaign around him as we speak. “McDonald’s: Where sophisticated palates are born.” He can be their Jared.

Speaking of fish, this show may not be Top Scallop, but lately it has definitely been Top Fish. Last week, the cheftestants had to catch and kill their fish. This week, they have to butcher a giant fluke and cod in 10 minutes flat. (Next week—deep sea diving!). Kind of a lame challenge, but that’s only the half of it: The top four butchers (Marcel, Dale, Richard, and Mike) have to take the discarded waste of the fish—the head, the fins, the wings, et al—and make a tasty dish.
One can only assume that Richard’s experience at McDonald’s gives him an unfair advantage here with stray animal heads. After all, who can forget this? 

But turns out, Dale and his family were kind of dumpster divers back in the day, so he wins the challenge.

His prize is epic. Not only does he get immunity, he gets to be the team leader for the elimination challenge (a little thing I like to call Restaurant Wars) and pick the opposing team’s leader. He cleverly picks Marcel—pretty much guaranteeing that the other team will be trapped in a raging hell from which they can’t return.

Marcel, of course, doesn’t realize that he has been strategically chosen for his suckiness and is flattered. Everyone tries to avoid eye contact and, one can only assume, makes silent bargains with their god. (“Please God, I will volunteer at the local soup kitchen if you let me on Dale’s team.” “I will do 200 sit-ups every day for a month. . “ “I will recycle more. . .”)
“Angelo,” Marcel says. A pretty good choice, since Angelo seems to be the only one who can actually stand him.

Dale picks Blais and it’s already kinda game over, right? The two strongest competitors on one team? As if that’s not enough, Dale also gets Fabio, the smoothest smoothie of them all. (If he had an Italian fruit drink chain, it would be called Signor Smoothie).

So the teams are:
Team Bodega: Dale, Richard, Fabio, Tre, and Carla
Team Etch: Marcel, Angelo, Antonia, Tiffany, and Mike

Normally, I’m hard-wired to root for the underdog, which is clearly Team Etch. But I can’t bring myself to root for Marcel. Just . . . no.

Things go as expected.
Team Bodega is a finely oiled machine, with Richard and Dale taking leadership roles and Fabio doing what he was put on this planet to do—run the front of the house.
Team Etch can’t even agree on a name. (Marcel wanted Team Medi.)

Marcel keeps trying to act like a “leader” but you see the problem is, leadership is earned, not assigned. He’s like the boss’s son, in shortpants and a propeller beanie, attempting to run a board meeting. It’s actually comical. He’s waving his arms, shouting, trying to act all authoritative, and the other cheftestants are literally talking over his head.

“It’s becoming rapidly apparent that no one’s listening to me,” Marcel sighs.

The cooking starts and Tom Colicchio comes in to check on everyone’s progress.

Now, here’s the thing about Tom’s little visits to the kitchen. They never come at an opportune time. Nobody ever wants to take 5 minutes out of their panicky preparations to have a little chat. Everyone is in the weeds. But he’s the head judge. When he asks you how things are going, you answer him. You don’t “shush” him.
But damned if that’s what Marcel does. He basically tells Tom Colicchio to go away.

Tom looks slightly abashed, but obliges.

“Marcel has that energy,” he muses. “Sometimes people can thrive on it, sometimes it’s a weird energy.” (Survey says? Weird energy!)

Team Etch just keeps fighting, with Marcel telling Tiffany how to cook an egg, and then Marcel telling Mike to keep cooking, and Mike telling Marcel to shudafuckup and Angelo trying to hypnotize everyone with his soothing voice and tight pants, and it’s just a hot mess.

Team Bodega is going great until Dale briefly falls off the anger management wagon and starts screaming at the waitstaff. Fabio gives him a little rub down and calmly steers him back into the kitchen.

This year Restaurant Wars has an interesting twist: The diners will decide who wins, not the judges. (To be honest, it might’ve been an even more interesting twist if they hadn’t added a ringer: Dana Cowin from Food and Wine magazine. They’re not fooling anyone. She’s a judge.)

Cowin starts at Etch first and is unhappy and grumpy. Her lamb is too rare, her asparagus salad with egg seems to have imploded. Not good.

Next, she’s off to Bodega and she pretty much wants to marry the place. Oh, who am I kidding? Like every other red-blooded woman who encounters his intoxicating man musk (a mixture of Drakkar, leather, and oregano), she wants to marry Fabio. She’s eating out of his hands.

Then the judges arrive. They’re at Bodega first. 

Everything—from the handmade potato chips with sea salt that you get when you first arrive to the raw tuna in a can—is just oh-so clever and Blaistastic.

And Fabio is giving us the Full Fabby: kissing hands and kissing babies and giving pep talks to the waitstaff and giving his phone number to the ladies.

The judges float out on a happy cloud and get a major harsh on their mellow when they arrive at Etch, where Tiffany is overcompensating for her lack of control of the house by yucking it up a little too loudly with the guests.

“The fact that I hear the host’s laughter over anything else is disconcerting,” sniffs Padma.
They’re not loving any of the food, either. Angelo’s fluke crudo is too bland, and Antonia’s oxtail is too salty and Anthony Bourdain calls Marcel’s duo of peaches “a perfect storm of awfulness.” (I’m no meteorologist, but that doesn’t sound promising.)

All things being equal, they’d rather be at Bodega.

The meal is over and Marcel makes one last attempt to rally team spirit.
“I think we’re all proud of the food we put out!” he declares cheerfully. They all look at him like he has two heads.

Padma calls in Team Etch first. Blais being the fretful, pessimistic guy that he is, thinks Team Bodega has lost the challenge.
Fabio tries to reassure him. “It’s going to be okay,” he says, allowing Blais to smell his neck.

Team Etch is disbelieving: Could they have read the night all wrong? Were they, in fact, a smash hit?
As if. They got slaughtered. Time to spread the blame!

Here’s how it went:
Angelo’s crudo was not even a little Mediterranean (nice try with the peppercorns there, buddy). Plus, the judges noticed how disengaged he was from the other contestants.
“You know better,” says Colicchio.

Antonia’s oxtail was way too salty. “A crushing blow,” says Bourdain.

“Why foam? Why now?” Bourdain asks Marcel, something I have personally been wondering for years.

Mike’s octopus needed more charring and his pork belly needed more flavor.

Tiffany sucked at the front of the house and her chorizo with asparagus and egg was a total dud.

Marcel’s one attempt at Blais-style cleverness, the “reverse amuse bouche” was a “thumb in the eye at the end of the meal.”

Are fingers pointed? You bet they are. Marcel blames Tiffany. Mike calls Marcel a ticking time bomb. (True.) Angelo says that they all acted like children. Tiffany starts laughing nervously.

“There’s no laughing on Top Chef!” barks Padma (or something to that effect.)
Tiffany zips it.

They skulk back into the waiting room and break the happy news to Team Bodega: You rule, we drool.

So Bodega basically killed it.

And although Dale was technically team leader, it was obvious that the spirit of Richard Blais was in full effect, right down to the restaurant’s secret motto: “I’m lovin’ it.”
He wins the challenge, and the 10 grand.

Now for the bad news.
Will it be Tiffany for laughing too loud and offending Padma’s delicate sensibilities?
Or will it be Marcel for being the most irritating human being alive?
“Marcel, please pack up your knives and leave,” says Padma.
Marcel takes his ousting with surprising tact.
“First time I’ve ever heard you say those words before,” he says. “And I was hoping to never hear them.”
(That’s almost. . .mature?)

“My only mistake was picking the wrong team,” he grouses later.
Now there’s the Marcel we all know and love loathe.

“I’m sure this isn’t the last time you’re going to see me,” he threatens. And with that, he packs up his hairspray and leaves.