In the grand tradition of stressing over the holiday meal and forcing people with buried resentments and outright rivalries to come together in celebration, Top Chef has reunited some chefs from each of the three season to compete for a $20,000 and the title, “I Didn’t Win a Season of Top Chef but I Did Win This Other Thing.”

So returning, whether for pride, the thrill of the competition, a shot at redemption or just the cash are: Sandee Birdsong, Tre Wilcox and Chris Jacobsen (CJ) from season 3, Betty Fraser, Marcel Vigneron and Josie Smith-Malave from season 2, and Stephen Aspirino and Tiffany Fallon from season 1. Why is season 1 underrepresented? Not sure.

Everyone arrives at the Chicago holiday home they will be bunking in for the competition. Despite the tensions between Betty and Marcel in the past, the two have seemed to put that behind them. Betty says she is embarrassed by how much anger she displayed towards Marcel, and that redeems her a bit in my eyes. While Marcel sure doesn’t have a winning personality, I always felt that his was more jerkiness-by-default, whereas the active hatred and malice displayed towards him by the ostensibly more likable other contestants I thought was actually in poorer taste. Marcel, to his credit, just wants to get along with everyone – Betty included, and so seems happy to let bygones be bygones.

The chefs introduce themselves to chefs from other seasons, and then everyone settles in to cook a meal and size up the competition. Tre says he sees a lot of Hung Hunyh in Marcel – and this could be a threat. Both Tre and Sandee are determined to redeem themselves from what they feel were untimely exits. Tiffany is glad to be back; she’s grateful for everything Top Chef has given her. She says her Top Chef exposure “puts asses in seats” at her L.A. restaurant.

In addition to sharing a meal, they all get gag presents in their stockings. CJ gets broccoli – a dig because of his poor broccoli airline meal. Tiffany gets a “I’m not your bitch, Bitch” tee-shirt. Stephen gets a holiday tie.

But it’s not all fun and games. Well, I guess actually it is still “games,” because the next day, it’s time for the Quickfire challenge. Padma Lakshmi and a mysteriously mum Santa join them all in the kitchen for a game of “Dirty Santa,” aka the “White Elephant” gift exchange. Each chef will draw a knife with a number, and select a wrapped gift that contains an ingredient they will use for the Quickfire. However, they can also steal one of the gifts that has already been received and force that person to pick again.

Tre goes first, and picks a gift that turns out to be cheeseballs. The horrified look on Stephen’s face in the background is priceless. CJ picks smoked salmon, which is then stolen by Betty. He picks again: truffles. Stolen by Tiffany. He picks again, and gets walnuts and a nutcracker. Too appropriate: as we know, CJ had testicular cancer and has had one removed. As he puts it, no one is stealing his nuts tonight.

Marcel steals Tiffany’s stolen truffles. She picks again and gets yams. Stephen steals those. She picks again: caviar. Sandee gets prosciutto. Josie steals the truffles for her turn and so Marcel picks again and gets a lovely piece of toro.

The chefs get to cooking, and it goes fairly smoothly for everyone but Josie, who cannot get her can of truffles open. This costs her in the end – turns out the secret Santa is none other than Eric Ripert, and after tasting, he puts her in the bottom for the lack of adequate truffles in her dish. She is joined by Tre, whose rice was undercooked, and Stephen, whose experimental yam and lavender soup tasted more like soap, thought Eric.

In the top was Marcel’s egg and toro combo, Betty’s dish with leeks, apples, vinaigrette and smoked salmon, and CJ’s shrimp and walnut dish. CJ is the ultimate winner, which will give him an advantage in the Elimination Challenge.

The Elimination Challenge will be to create a three-course meal for nine holiday diners. After each course, two chefs will be eliminated, and will not continue serving. The best set of three will win.

The chefs have $350 and three hours, and they head out to Whole Foods to shop. There’s plenty of protein to go around, and so the shopping goes fairly smoothly. Tre misses out on the celery root he wanted – Stephen got it all – but the quality was not that great, he thinks, so he’s not upset about it.

Shopping went well for all…until they get back to the kitchen. When they return, Betty realized she did not buy yeast, a necessary component for her first course. After a momentary panic, she figures out a solution. She has phyllo dough for a baklava final course. Since she can’t get to the final course without a good first one, she decides to change her first course to a cherry-duck “baklava” and will figure out the final course later.

Sandee is taking a big risk: she’s making a chocolate pecan pie for the third course, and she has only made pie crust once before. Um, crazy much? I like Sandee but isn’t pie crust like one of the most difficult things to do well without practice?

Tom Colicchio comes in and makes the rounds. Stephen seems a little nervous – as he did in the Quickfire. He admits he’s been focused on his restaurant, and might be a little rusty.

The three hours is up and chefs serve. In addition to the usual judges, Tom, Padma, Gail Simmons and Ted Allen, there are several guest judges from previous episodes, including Eric Ripert again, Alan Wong, and more.

The dishes are served and they dig in. Marcel’s fish impresses; Sandee’s soup does not. They find it “watery.” Stephen’s gnocchi is too heavy – Ted Allen drops it on a plate to demonstrate how heavy and it sounds like a rock. The judges are a little confused by Betty’s “baklava.” Tre’s dish goes over well, but Tiffany’s seems a little too light for some.

The chefs have returned to the kitchen; they have a half hour to finish the next course, although two people will be bringing down a dish that will not be eaten. Marcel is having trouble, as are Josie and Betty, who both overcook their protein.

The judges discuss the first round; Betty, Sandee, Stephen and CJ are the worst. CJ, however, is safe due to his Quickfire win.

The chefs all come back with their next course, but it’s Stephen and Sandee who have to return to the kitchen with their courses uneaten. Stephen looks stunned at first, but later says he realizes he is maybe more of a restaurateur than a chef.

For the second course, as expected, Betty and Sandee get dinged for being overcooked. Marcel’s is just “bad” says Ted Allen. Tre’s and Tiffany’s dishes go over well, though.

For the second course, it’s Sandee and Betty who will not be returning. This leaves Marcel, Tiffany, Tre and CJ in the final four. Both Tre and Marcel made lamb, and the judges think Tre’s is a clear standout over Marcel’s. CJ’s dessert course tastes nice, but looks sloppy. Tiffany’s butterscotch pudding, however, Tom thinks is the best dish of the evening.

When the final four are called back, CJ and Marcel are dismissed right away. CJ looks really devastated, and admits he needs the $20,000 pretty badly.

But did you think that was it? Of course that’s not it! Tiffany and Tre must have a cook-off! Tiffany looks absolutely pissed off, but in interview, she says she’s mad at herself for not realizing this would happen. They have to return to the kitchen, and use any and all leftovers to make another course.

They dash back and Tiffany grabs Stephen, Sandee and Josie to help her, to Tre’s chagrin. He wanted Stephen and his uneaten braised veal. Tiffany decides to make a refined “leftover sandwich” using puff pastry and some of the veal. Tre mainly has Betty’s dessert ingredients, so he has to make a dessert, just what he was trying to avoid. He makes a raspberry and walnut crepe with a white chocolate sauce.

The chefs enjoy them both, but it appears pretty obvious that Tiffany’s is the winner. They are called back to the official judges’ table, where that is, in fact, the verdict. Tiffany is thrilled to win it for the ladies, and Tre is still glad he could redeem himself in another Top Chef competition.

– Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist
(Image courtesy of Bravo)


Staff Columnist, BuddyTV