'Top Chef' All-Stars Los Angeles Recap: Episode 1—'It's Like They Never Left!'
Top Chef is back for its 17th season featuring 15 all-star cheftestants from previous seasons, duking it out for the title. This year Los Angeles is the locale for the competition and the chefs are playing for the largest cash prize in Top Chef history, a cool $250,000. The trailer promises a lot of celebrities, legendary chef judges, and drama among the cheftestants.
Some of the contestants have been a part of the Top Chef family since season one (Lee Anne Wong) while others joined the family last year as part of season 16 (Eric Adjepong). But there’s no advantage here: ultimately the best chef will win the title. “What better way to start the new season than right here at the historic Griffith Observatory,” Padma Lakshmi says, welcoming the chefs to the start of the competition. She’s joined by Tom Colicchio and (woohoo!) Gail Simmons, back from maternity leave. The observatory is not only one of L.A.’s most iconic landmarks but also the site of the first Quickfire!
It’s time for a mise en place challenge where the chefs have to turn artichokes, oranges, and almonds from their raw state to specific standards determined by the judges. This will be done in rounds to determine teams. The first round will be prepping three artichokes (the bane of many prep cooks' existence thanks to the pointy leaves and tough skin) until they’re smooth and the choke is removed. The fastest five chefs become a team and move into the kitchen together to start cooking with the ingredients. The next group will supreme (or cut into segments sans skin or membranes) five California oranges and the fastest five chefs from this leg become a team and move into the kitchen to start cooking. Then the remaining five chefs have to crack 20 California almonds. Once the final five are done they enter the kitchen and all of the teams then have a final 15 minutes to complete two dishes (meaning the first team to get to the kitchen has longer cooking time).
They hear the rules and then time starts! The chefs head to their stations to start prepping. Karen Akunowicz says she has a bit of an advantage because she’s opened two restaurants in the last six months. Yup. Kevin Gillespie finishes up first with perfectly cleaned artichokes and is quickly joined by Jamie Lynch, Joe Sasto, Melissa King, and Bryan Voltaggio. They’ll be the Red Team and they head to the kitchen to start cooking.
Next it’s time to supreme the oranges. Angelo Sosa is having a flashback to his season of Top Chef and confidently says ‘check’ prompting the judges to come over and take a look at his supremes. His work is a no-go and Tom chides him saying “we can tell who hasn’t been doing a lot of prep these days.” Ouch. Nini Nguyen is the first chef finishing up for the second team. She’s then joined by Stephanie Cmar, Karen, Lisa Fernandes, and Brian Malarkey. They’ll be the Blue Team. They hop into a van and head to the kitchen to cook.
The remaining five chefs now have to shell 20 almonds in order to, essentially, sabotage the other two teams with as little advance time in the kitchen as possible. Lee Anne finishes first then Gregory Gourdet and Angelo, Eric and Jennifer Carroll. They’re the Green Team.
In the kitchen, the Red Team is already underway working on a sumac marinated, grilled artichoke and a play on a tortellini en brodo made with artichoke filling. Joe is making the pasta from scratch which sounds lovely but is risky since they don’t have any idea how much time they have.
The Blue Team busts into the kitchen with a plan to make artichoke tempura with a citrus Asian aioli and tempura fried oranges. The second dish is going to be a play on carpaccio with raw artichokes with mint chimichurri.
The Green Team shows up and—boom!—the countdown clock starts. Fifteen minutes to go. The Green Team decides that the fastest way to cook the artichokes is to fry them, which seems like a really smart move, except Stephanie from the Blue Team is using both baskets in the fryer. On the Red Team, things are looking rough since Joe’s pasta is still going through the pasta machine with 5 minutes to go meaning it has to be rolled out, filled with artichoke puree and blanched in that time. Woof. Lee Anne just decides to go for it and throws her artichokes into the fryer but they've been sitting in their batter for five minutes. “They’re literally like pancakes,” she says. Uh oh.
Tom seems to be getting some pleasure out of watching the chefs scramble. He’s got a big smile on his face as the clock winds down.
Here’s what each team made:
Nini, Stephanie, Karen, Lisa, Brian M.
Dishes: Artichoke tempura with citrus aioli
Crispy artichokes with mint vinaigrette
Lee Anne, Gregory, Angelo, Eric and Jenn
Dishes: Artichoke Crudo with carrot and fennel gremolata
Almond crusted fried artichoke with orange aioli
Kevin, Jamie, Joe, Melissa and Bryan V.
Dishes: Chargrilled artichoke with sumac, yogurt and tahini
Tortellono with artichoke barigoule in pancetta brodo
“This was a really great start,” Padma says. “Nothing bad, just little technical things here and there.” Lee Anne’s fears about the tempura come true when Tom says the batter was “dense.” Padma says Joe’s pasta “doughy, dry and chewy” probably because it didn’t get enough time to rest. The good news: the Blue Team’s aioli with a punch of fish sauce was a favorite for Gail and Tom loved the sumac marinated grilled artichoke dish saying “everything worked together really well.” The winner? No surprise here, it’s the Red Team. They get to celebrate for all of thirty seconds before it’s time for the first Elimination Challenge!
The chefs are presented with a cart of gorgeous seafood and told they’ll work in teams to create a seafood feast. But, of course, there’s a catch. They won’t have access to electricity or appliances—only fire and their knives. And they’ll be cooking for a legendary panel of judges including Marcus Samuelsson, Suzanne Goin, and Jeremiah Tower. No pressure. The Quickfire Red Team becomes team captains since they won. They’ll pick their two other teammates and will have 30 minutes to plan their menus and shop in the Top Chef pantry. The next day they’ll have two and a half hours to prep and cook on Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. It sounds like a killer beach party for the judges and a bit stressful for the cheftestants.
The teams start planning their menus. Joe, Lee Anne, and Brian Malarkey are on a team together and seem to be butting heads from the jump. Joe is team captain but Brian is stepping in as the leader and pushing his ideas really hard. They decide to do an all uni menu which feels risky since uni is such a flavorful, buttery ingredient that can easily be overpowered if there’s not enough or become overpowering if there’s too much. Jamie, Gregory, and Stephanie decide to really lean into the “beachy theme” with their menu and settle on dishes that resemble clambakes, which feels like a smart move since the judges seem to love it when chefs lean into their locale or the ingredients. Once the five minutes is up all 15 chefs descend onto the provided seafood cart to grab whatever they can get their hands on. It’s a free-for-all and some chefs come up short. Eric was supposed to grab 15 scallops for Lisa and only grabs about 8 so they pivot and add some shrimp to the ceviche mix. Joe seems a bit confused about the direction of the uni flatbread that Brian recommended so he packs “a little bit of everything.” With their prep packed they head to their posh digs in the Hollywood Hills and of course, they have the iconic bunk bedrooms for the chefs. “If you like to cook, you too one day might be able to compete on Top Chef and live in a bunk bed,” Brian Malarkey jokes in his confessional.
The next morning the chefs are up early to get ready for their challenge and Angelo shares a personal story about what’s happened in his life since he was on Top Chef All Stars: Season 8. “I honestly don’t even recognize that person,” he says about his time on the show before talking about his son and how he’s grown as a dad. “Jacob is my light and my motivation in this competition,” he adds. Lee Anne also shares a bit about how her world has changed since her (re)appearance on season 15. Viewers will remember that she got altitude sickness and was four months pregnant so she had to leave the competition early. Since then she’s given birth to her “little beefcake” and promises that she’s going to talk about him a lot as we see a bunch of super cute photos of them together. More adorable baby pictures every week? Totally fine by me!
On Cabrillo Beach, the chefs get to work and quickly realize that using a fire as the only cooking element and controlling it in the wind is going to be tricky. “I’ve never cooked in an open pit but Kevin has a beard so he looks like he can make a fire,” Nini jokes. Stephanie gets personal and shares that she’s feeling self-conscious in this group because her career as a private chef “doesn’t match the rest of the chefs." Bryan shares that he and his brother, season six winner Michael Voltaggio, are so competitive that Michael went skydiving after seeing him do it on Top Chef Masters: Season 5. Wow. Melissa, Karen, and Angelo are all smiles as they work together on their station. “Happy cooks, happy food,” Karen says. Hopefully that rings true.
The judges sit down at a dream of a table on the beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Padma, Gail, and Tom are joined by Jeremiah Tower, Nancy Silverton, Suzanne Goin, Michael Cimarusti, Marcus Samuelsson, and Caroline Styne. (As a beach lover who is currently on the east coast looking at two to three more weeks of winter, the shots of the perfect sand and pristine seafood being cooked feels torturous. I’m taking it as a sign that I should look at plane tickets to the Caribbean as soon as possible.)
Here’s how things shook out for our cheftestants:
Karen Akunowicz—Grilled scallops with ginger plums, nuoc cham, and napa cabbage slaw
Gail praises the “bright” elements of Karen’s dish saying she did a “beautiful job.”
Angelo Sosa—West Coast oysters with smoked bacon rice porridge
The judges feel like Angelo didn’t really embrace the challenge. Caroline Styne says she’s missing the brininess that oysters typically have. Jeremiah Tower says the texture was a bit like “baby food”.
Melissa King—Grilled swordfish with hot and sour sauce, ember-grilled radicchio, fresno chiles
Marcus Samuelsson says his favorite bite was the grilled radicchio that Melissa smartly laid directly into the embers. Michael Cimarusti agrees, saying of the three dishes it’s the one he would return to.
Overall comments: The judges seem impressed with this team but Melissa’s radicchio seems to be the clear favorite of the menu.
Joe Sasto—Sesame and semolina flatbread with clams, fried garlic, sea urchin, pickled peppers, miso parmesan aioli
The judges feel the flatbread is soggy underneath the aioli. Jeremiah Tower says he would have just done the uni and “nothing wet” on top which is a great idea since it would have highlighted the uni and really let it shine. Tom agrees, saying “there’s too much stuff” happening on the bread which is supposed to be light and crisp.
Close to serving time Lee Anne started to grill her fish and it got stuck to the grates. She added oil to the grill which prompted a flare-up, scorching her protein. The judges definitely notice the ashen colored flesh of the filets. “I’m not a fan at all,” Tom says of the plate. Yikes. The rest of the judges agree, citing the carbon on the fish as a low point.
Brian Malarkey—Sea urchin, spot prawns with hibiscus ponzo, and burnt avocado
Brian’s dish is stunning with lots of colors. Nancy Silverton points out that serving a family-style dish with a thin sauce component is tricky since it can’t easily be shared. Tom says the dish has tangential grilled elements but doesn’t fully embrace the element of fire.
Overall comments: The judges don’t think this team hit the mark with their menu or their execution. Marcus praised the menu which he thinks worked “conceptually” but Tom says there were “major mistakes” with each dish.
Gregory Gaudet—Charred salmon with grilled peaches and roasted chili dressing
Nancy Silverton can’t get enough of Gregory’s salmon saying it’s perfectly cooked with crispy skin. Michael Cimarusti echoes Nancy and says the dish is great and the salmon is “pretty near flawless.”
Jamie Lynch—Steamed mussels with ember scalded cream, toasted bread
To get an element of the fire into his dish, Jamie scalds his cream sauce with embers from the fire. It’s not a technique he’s used before but he really wants to show the judges that he embraced the fire element. Jeremiah Tower likes the sauce saying it’s great to dip the bread in. Tom thinks the mussels themselves are dried out.
Stephanie Cmar—Brined prawn with charred tomato sauce and roasted corn dressing
Gail loves Stephanie’s charred tomato sauce and Marcus Samuelsson says he’s “floored” by the dish which is always a good sign.
Overall comments: Nancy is a big fan of this group saying that not only was the food tasty, but it’s the menu that the judges “deserved.” “Everything mixed together and it tasted like a team,” she adds.
Jennifer Carroll—Spiced tuna loin, grilled kale, roasted tahini sauce
Jennifer is definitely feeling the pressure as she places her dish on the table in front of two of her idols: Nancy Silverton and Suzanne Goins. “I would eat Jenn’s dish for lunch any day,” Suzanne says, which is high praise. Jeremiah calls it the most successful dish of the bunch.
Nini Nguyen—Grilled scallop, carrots, tomatoes with charred brussel sprout and fennel salad
Brussels sprouts seem like an odd choice for the time of year and location because they don’t scream beach or seafood but the dish is visually stunning. Jeremiah Tower says the scallop is cooked well but Tom doesn’t like that the vegetables, namely the carrots, have been kept close to whole without much technique shown.
Kevin Gillespie—Eye of swordfish braised in chorizo, with coal-roasted onion, olive, peas
Jennifer warns Kevin during cooking that the cut of his swordfish might dry out because it’s going to be braised, but he continues. He puts up the most visually stunning dish of the day, with swordfish that’s braised in a rusty-red colored sauce topped with bright green peas. It looks great but does it taste good? Michael calls the dish a disaster because the fish is overcooked and there’s “too many things going on.” Jeremiah Tower says Kevin “forgot he was a cook.”
Overall comments: The judges don’t share their overall thoughts but it seems like they don’t get the direction this group was heading in.
Lisa Fernandes—Charred shrimp and scallop ceviche with candied squash
Tom loves the fact that Lisa’s dish was served ice cold and didn’t try to be fancy. “I liked the dish,” he adds.
Eric Adjepong—Cheseapake boil with grilled prawns
Josiah Citrin enjoyed Eric’s prawn and Padma says it had the best flavor.
Bryan Voltaggio—Sablefish with corn porridge and charred leeks
Bryan’s dish lacks a textural element for Gail and says that the corn and the fish all became “mush.” Suzanne and Michael disagree saying there’s a level of finesse to Bryan’s dish.
Overall comments: “Each of the dishes were technically prepared flawlessly,” Caroline Styne says. Suzanne seems to agree, saying “there’s a level of sophistication” in this group’s cooking that she didn’t see in the other groups.
The judges seem really energized by the cooking that they saw today. “If you guys are going to cook this way then we’re in for a tasty season,” Tom says. But there were some clear favorites: Jennifer’s spiced tuna loin and Melissa's swordfish that the judges swooned over. However, the team that pulled together the best menu was the Yellow Team with Gregory singled out as the winner of the day by Jeremiah Tower.
And now for the bad news: the Red Team is on the bottom, meaning Joe, Lee Anne, and Brian M. are up for elimination. Before getting into why this team was on the bottom, Tom gives individual comments to Angelo for his lukewarm oyster and Kevin’s “hammered” swordfish. Gail points out that eating the Red Team's dishes together made everything soggy. Joe makes the mistake of referring to the aioli on his flatbread as “the glue” that held everything together. “Glue is not a good word when it comes to food,” Tom says. True. Padma says that Lee Anne’s dish needed “a lot of editing” but that there were good elements there. Lee Anne jokes that she hopes she doesn’t have to swim home to Hawaii after this challenge.
So who goes home first? It’s a tough one because there seems to be a flaw on each of their dishes and yet these are all great chefs. In the end, it’s Joe and his flatbread with too many ideas and not enough editing.
As he walks away, the chefs are in for a surprise: Their next competition starts right now but we won't get to see what it is until next week.
And so the first episode of the new season is in the books! Who will get one step closer to the title next week? Tune in to find out and take a look at what's to come in the trailer below: