And then there were five. Top Chef All Stars LA headed to Tuscany for the finals.
In watching the surviving five Top Chef All Stars LA rough it on their First Class flight to Italy while dining on James Beard Foundation-curated meals, I was struck by the fact that for the first time in my memory, there isn’t a single remaining chef whose victory would be a letdown. That’s a tribute to how eminently likable this group is, but it also leaves me wondering if the absence of an antagonist–I’m looking at you Malarkey–will leave a noticeable void.
Joined by Michelin-starred chef Filippo Saporito, Padma shared details of Italy’s Aperitivo, the country’s Happy Hour, for which the chefs were instructed to create a small dish inspired by different randomly-assigned regions.
With immunity long in the rearview mirror and no Elimination Challenge advantage in play, the chefs were left to vie for a $10,000 cash prize. With money as the proverbial carrot, three of the five competitors struggled to find their footing.
Sandy shellfish prompted Gregory to pivot to a cuttlefish dish representing Italy’s islands, while Bryan went back to the drawing board a couple of times before settling on a lamb tartare that he hoped would represent the southern region of the country. Stephanie was more focused in conceiving her venison gorgonzola en carozza, but still didn’t crack the top two.
Melissa’s Peroni-steamed pickled mussels from the central region earned praise from Padma and Chef Saporito, as did Kevin’s northeast region-inspired creamy polenta dish, but it was Kevin who pocketed the $10,000 prize.
It’s hunting season in San Miniato, Italy. White truffle hunting.
With Elmer Fudd nowhere to be found, the chefs’ pricey bounty was dug up, literally, by two active dogs–Bibba and Giotto– who foraged for the white truffles that would be the focus of the Elimination Challenge. When the owner of Savini Truffles described white truffle as “the diamond of the forest”, he wasn’t kidding, as they cost just under $3,000 a pound in U.S. dollars.
The chefs were clearly in awe of both the experience and the setting, with Stephanie exclaiming that “this is definitely a chef’s dream, to go truffle hunting in Tuscany. I’m so excited!”. With all due respect to Stephanie and the other chefs, they watched Bibba and Giotto go truffle hunting, but who’s keeping score.
Speaking of Stephanie, who I identified as a potential underdog in my recap after episode 1, her Elimination Challenge experience would be a profile in frustration, as her facial expressions and quips entertained throughout. Whether voicing regret about choosing to make her mezzaluna, “I just don’t want it to be like the time I made Padma Indian food. Now I’ve made the Italians pasta” or beating herself up over a radicchio side that missed the mark by saying “butter masks a little bit of the flavor, but this s–t is not great”, the chef knew that she could be in jeopardy.
With the spectacular Palazzo Pfanner museum as a backdrop, the chefs prepared their dishes at Guest Judge Cristiano Tomei’s L’imbuto in Lucca. Interestingly, the restaurant inhabits what were formerly stables at the 17th-century palace.
The first Judges’ Table in Tuscany narrowed the field to four chefs.
If there was one recurring theme throughout the Elimination Challenge, it was that the chefs weren’t entirely comfortable working with white truffles. Tom commented that “we got good dishes, but not every dish was good with truffles”. Padma also said that white truffle is “like a beautiful woman, it doesn’t need too much adorning her”.
Melissa’s comfort with white truffles was obvious, as she created a truffle congee that compelled Gail to say that “the congee was exciting for everybody”, adding “you might start a congee truffle revolution in Italy”. Bryan’s braised veal shank ragu with aerated potato also shined, but Melissa was named the winner.
In talking about the three chefs who were up for knife-packing, Padma explained why they were in the bottom three, saying that “all three of these chefs made great dishes that were delicious, but all three of them did not use the truffle properly”.
Gail described Kevin’s three-meat polpette as “disjointed”, while Tom said that Gregory “got zero truffle flavor from that dish and he used the most amount of truffles” in talking about his otherwise tasty wild boar with white truffle polenta. And we’ve already addressed Stephanie’s challenges, which, when combined with the extensive foreshadowing done throughout the episode, left me convinced that her run in the competition was coming to an close.
But no, it was Gregory who was eliminated after earlier saying “I don’t want it to end. I have a finale meal I’m ready to make. I don’t wanna go home”. The judges had other plans though and the Portland-based chef was sent packing.
With Malarkey gone, so was the snark, but quotable chefs remain.
Two quotes from episode 12 warrant mentioning and they’re both about Chef Bryan. As she watched him struggle to communicate with Tuscan diners, Melissa joked “I know Bryan’s last name is Voltaggio, but he’s gotta work on his Italian a little bit”, while Stephanie proclaimed with a straight face that “I’m in the finals, I made it further than I ever expected. I’m probably the coolest one here!” before taking a comic pause and adding “Just kidding! I’m not the coolest one here, Bryan Voltaggio is.”
So we’re down to four, Kevin with his confident sense of destiny, Melissa with her season-long momentum on the heels of another win, Stephanie with her wit and an underdog’s resolve, and Bryan with his prominently-featured laugh and feeling that it’s finally his time to be dubbed Top Chef. This is gonna be good.
Which chefs do you think will make the finale three? Have you booked your trip to Tuscany yet?