February 17th, 2011
12:54 PM ET
Last week, I laid out my complaints about this All-Stars season of “Top Chef”: The contestants aren’t being challenged enough. It doesn’t feel like we’re getting enough personality. The stakes don’t seem very high.
Problems solved. All of them.
With a hilarious Quickfire and a truly difficult Elimination Challenge, this might have been my favorite episode of the season.
The Quickfire worked off of a simple formula: “Top Chef” + “Sesame Street” = Awesome.
Cookie Monster, Elmo and Telly challenged the chefs to make the best cookie they could (wonder who picked that one), and in the process turned the “Top Chef” kitchen into a joyful environment. The puppets were cracking jokes. The chefs were laughing uncontrollably. Padma seemed like a lively babysitter, keeping things fun but on track.
I don’t know if it was the result of using kids’ show stars, but the entire sequence took on a youthful energy that just made it fun to watch. Honestly, there hasn’t been a Quickfire this enjoyable since Hung’s cereal aisle acid trip candy land in season three.
Also, those "Sesame Street" characters can talk a little smack. They heckled Dale as he added pretzels and chips to his cookie, leaving him at a loss for words. (Take away Dale’s ability to curse, and he apparently has no outlet for response.) And Elmo very emphatically said that Antonia’s cookies, while delicious, looked like cow chips. (“He just said my cookies looked like [expletive].”)
Still, those two had the best cookies, with Dale’s sweet-and-salty combo taking the win.
If the Quickfire was all about fun, the Elimination Challenge was all about resourcefulness… and more than a bit of product placement. (“Top Chef” is usually pretty bad about that, but this was over the top.)
The chefs were let loose in an empty Target in the middle of the night. They had three hours to put together a dish for 100 employees, using only what they could find in the store.
Let me clarify: they could ONLY use stuff from the store. So in addition to coming up with and cooking a dish, they had to run around to find cooking appliances, dishes, even the tables to set up their stations.
Oh, and they had to do it all in the middle of the night while fighting off sleep deprivation. And just to add more pressure, the winner would get $25,000, the biggest payday for a single challenge in “Top Chef” history.
Three hours is about standard time for an Elimination challenge, but to add in the requirements of finding the means to cook your food and serve it seemed almost unreasonable. Antonia described it as a “giant quickfire,” which sounds about right. But hey, I asked for the contestants to be challenged, and this certainly did the trick.
Exhibit A: Half of them made soups, and were rightfully called out for taking the easy route. Exhibit B: Carla just about lost her mind running around that store and got so distracted trying to find tablecloths that her food suffered as a result. Exhibit C: Angelo (whose flavors are usually spot on) struggled to season his dish, eventually deciding to add both salt and bacon (uh-oh).
The challenge did show off some of the chefs’ skills and creativity, though. Antonia’s egg dish was high risk but high reward. But Dale was the true star. His grilled cheese and tomato soup (made partially with an iron) was creative and apparently delicious. He was clearly, and deservedly, the winner, with guest judge Ming Tsai proclaiming him an “iron chef.”
(I’ll make the puns here, thank you very much.)
Dale was joined at the top half of Judges’ Table by Antonia and Richard. I’m going to predict right now that this will be your final three for this season.
I would have predicted that Angelo would be a finalist, except he’s not on the show anymore. During a tearful bottom half of Judges’ Table with Tiffany and Carla, Angelo’s over-salted soup became his undoing. By his own admission, after two straight seasons of competition, his brain may have just hit overload. I haven’t always liked his personality, but his talent is undeniable.
Your thoughts on last night’s episode and Angelo’s elimination? Sound off below!
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