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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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Top Chef All-Stars recap, episode 7: Restaurant wars!

IMG_0427You want some SPOILERS?!? You got ‘em!

The episode begins rather uneventfully, though after last weeks’ opening scene with Marcel’s drunken gangsta-peacocking at Dale, pretty much anything would seem mundane. The best that Bravo could come up with is a recap of all of the chefs to fall victim to Antonia, AKA “The black hammer.”

In the business, that is what we would call a “slow news day.”

Fortunately, we jump straight into the Quickfire, which has the chefs walking into Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert’s legendary, three-Michelin-star-carrying seafood restaurant. You remember Eric, right? He was the French judge last season, but then he was replaced this season by his BFF, Antho…

Holy Crap! It’s Bourdain! Thanks for showing up Tony! This is almost feels like all of that pre-season marketing wasn’t just smoke and mirrors!

As soon as we see a solo Bourdain waiting for the chefs inside Le Bernardin, it is obvious that this entire Quickfire has his fingerprints all over it. He explains – to those that haven’t read his newest shamelessly plugged book, Medium Raw – that Chef Ripert employs the most badass fish butcher known to man, Justo Thomas.

This fish-butchering machine does the work of three trained sous chefs every day, butchering between 700-1000 lbs. of fish between 7 a.m.-Noon. Moreover, he does it to 3-star quality, which is to say, flawless. The chefs go into the kitchen to watch Justo work, and his precision, speed, and technique straight up intimidates our Top Chef All-stars. Fabio is almost in tears.

You can see the lights in Bourdain’s eyes as he describes the Quickfire challenge: Justo can portion one cod and one fluke to Bernardin standards in 8 minutes. The chefs get 10.

Is it time for a Marcel quote? I think it is: “The first time I butchered and cleaned a fish, my hands turned bright red and started to get really hot. I had this crazy allergic reaction, fortunately enough for me, being the chef that I am, heh-heh, I just kept doing it and ignoring it, and it eventually just went away.” Wait…is it possible that it isn’t just the hair, and that Marcel is, in fact, Wolverine?

As the chefs slice through their fish, we immediately see that Carla is dead in the water. She is way behind the others. Fabio slices through his thumbnail – insert obligatory comment about Jaime being a huge baby and going home – and keeps on cutting. No time for gloves Dr. Jones! Let’s hope no one has to eat your bloody fluke Fabio. (Yup. I recycled the Short Round quote, but did you catch the wordplay there? No? Read it again.)

As Bourdain says, the beauty of this challenge is that there is no room for interpretation. The chefs know if they screwed up or not. And some of the chefs didn’t do so hot. Antonia looked like she would rather hide in the oven than have Justo inspect her shoddy knife work and Carla doesn’t even have enough portions. Probably most embarrassingly, Tiffany, who runs a seafood restaurant, not only doesn’t cut the fish cleanly, she cuts it completely incorrectly. Dale, Richard, Mike, and Marcel’s butchery earned them passage to phase 2 of the challenge.

The four remaining chefs, competing for immunity, have 45 minutes to make a delicious dish out of The Nasty Bits: The skeletal remains of their fish, heads and all. I told you this Quickfire had Bourdain’s name all over it.

Marcel Quote #2 – “No, dude, that’s my chinoise.” I don’t even know where to start on this one.

Marcel’s selfish attitude in the kitchen, by refusing to share or help Mike in the least, begins what turns into a deluge of the chefs bitching about Marcel. Finally! And here I thought that I was the only one annoyed by his ridiculous arrogance.

Of the four, Dale is the most at home with this challenge, as he grew up cooking nose-to-tail. The race is close, but Dale’s bacon dashi with salt roasted cod collar earns him immunity. His use of the liver seems to really win Bourdain over.

ELIMINATION CHALLENGE

The chefs walk back into the Top Chef kitchen to find Padma and this week’s celebrity judge, Ludo Lefebvre. Can you guess what this week’s elimination challenge is?

That’s right kids! Hold on to your bleepin’ hats, because it’s RESTAURANT WARS!!

Dale’s immunity also gets him the captain’s chair for one of the teams, as well as the right to choose the captain of the opposing team. In a both extremely obvious and impressively diabolical move, Dale chooses Marcel. Not only does this keep Marcel off his team, it means that Marcel is now going to be chiefly responsible for leading the other team to victory. Fat. Freakin’. Chance.

You know the old joke about the fat kid in dodgeball? Well, the team selection was kind of like that, except the fat kid got to pick one of the teams. Everyone selected for Marcel’s team – except for Angelo, go figure – was white-knuckled with frustration when their name was called.

Here is how the teams worked out:

Team Dale: Dale, Blais, Tre, Fabio, and Carla

Team Fat Kid: Marcel, Angelo, Mike, Antonia, and Tiffany

As soon as the teams split up for menu planning, the disaster looming over Team Marcel is painfully obvious. Like any good leader, Marcel is passive aggressive, dismissive, whiny, abrasive, and demeaning to his team. Within the first few minutes, he used the phrase “How many times do I have to tell you…” about six times. I can already tell that his sous chefs in the real world are probably on suicide watch, because those working conditions must be absolute hell.

Dale’s team settles on “Bodega” for the name/concept of their restaurant, offering playful spins on the kind of stoner food that you would find at a bodega – potato chips, bacon egg and cheese, and canned tuna. Marcel’s team comes up with “Etch”, which is supposed to be Mediterranean inspired…I guess?

Aside from the fact that the Bodega crew has a consistent vision, a clear leader, and a lot of talent, they have their ace in the hole: Fabio, the best front of house contestant in Top Chef history. Tiffany, who had no interest or real experience working front-of-house, reluctantly accepts the job for Etch.

The level of tension on team Etch is out of control. Everyone is annoyed, mostly with Marcel, and they are all clearly in the weeds. Team Bodega, on the other hand, is cool, calm, and collected. Too calm for Richard “Worrywart” Blais, but they seem to run like a well-oiled machine.

Unlike the restaurant wars of seasons past, the diners, not the judges, choose the winning team. The diners arrive, and plates are immediately going back to Etch’s kitchen. Things aren’t looking good.

Fabio really is a rock star at managing the Bodega crew. He is charismatic, engaging, and most importantly, his leadership makes their service feel effortless for the diners. Tiffany, on the other hand, moseys among the tables, chatting up the diners and cackling while her non-existent servers blow it all around her. Servers wander around with plates with no idea where to take them, diners are getting plates of cold food, and the judges are going hungry.

But, this is Top Chef, and while bad service always hurts a team, stellar food can usually make up for it. That’s great, except most of Etch’s food falls short. Marcel’s parsley-foamed monkfish is mushy (Bourdain: “It’s like bleeping baby food”), Angelo’s crudo is over complicated, Tiffany’s egg dish is under seasoned, Antonia’s ricotta is too salty, and Marcel’s foamed duo of peaches is a “perfect storm of bleepin’ awful.”

For those keeping count, that is two separate foams. Get a new trick dude.

After service ends, the teams try their best to relax. Fabio is supremely confident with Bodega’s performance. Not surprising, since he just finished kissing the hand of every female diner as they left. I’m surprised we didn’t see a shot of him giving out free foot rubs during dessert. Richard is not so convinced, racked with self-doubt.

On the other side of the courtyard, Marcel is all confidence. When Antonia hits him with a dose of reality, Mr. Maturity storms off and calls her “Debbie Downer.”

JUDGE’S TABLE

Team Etch is up to the plate first, leaving Richard in the stew room on the verge of a nervous breakdown, begging for reassurance from Fabio. What better way to comfort your bromance than to sit in his lap?

Here is the shocker of the night: Etch was the diners’ least favorite restaurant. Oh, that’s not the shocking part. What blew me away was that the lost by a score of 17-59. That means that 17 people actually picked that nightmare of a restaurant as their favorite. It just goes to show you, no matter how good a restaurant is, and no matter how unanimously the experts agree, there will always be someone that doesn’t like it. I bet the guy that didn’t like the can that Richard’s tuna belly came in voted for Etch.

Watching the losing team stammer their way through judges table was painful. They all look like scolded puppies that have just had their noses rubbed into the carpet. The gloves come off, and the team finally speaks up about Marcel’s pathetic excuse for leadership.

Bodega’s judges table was all roses and sunshine. I don’t remember a team ever getting so much praise, and so little criticism. As Tom said: “You guys killed it.”

Much to Richard’s surprise – and mine – our Atlanta boy takes the win and $10,000. I thought his Italian man-crush clenched it with his front of house management, but Blais’ creative twists on his dishes wowed the judges. Well done Richard. I won’t sully this moment by BEGGING you to go back to cooking like that in Atlanta.

So here it is. The moment that we have all been waiting for, all season long. In recognition for his complete failure as a leader and single-handedly undermining his entire team’s chance for success, Marcel packs his bottle of gin and heads home.

Before the door hopefully hit him on the way out, he did leave us with a threat that will surely keep me up at night: “I’m sure this isn’t going to be the last time that you see me.”

NEXT WEEK: It’s mafia night on top chef, and it looks like one of our contestants won’t be getting laid that night…

- By Jon Watson, AJC Food & More blog

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- Jon Watson writes about Popular Eats for the AJC Dining Team. He also publishes his own blog, Live To Feast

51 comments Add your comment

Carla Roqs

January 25th, 2011
1:19 pm

so glad that the guy who just KNEW he had Just Desserts down pat did not win. he was a great cook, just waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too obnoxious. it is time for angelo to go, he has done too much dirt. to whomever said tiffany needs to be next, y? the judges have not disliked her cooking. i love the show, without marcel? oh my gosh, it will be wonderful. love blais… to voice of reason?? you have bumped your head, but in a nice way, smile. i cannot clean up your mess though, you def need kessler’s help, silly boy?(i think.) and the 17 poor souls who voted for etch, retch, sketch away… they obviously would not know good food if it was given to them for free– oh, it was, wasn’t it? see what i mean?