Rob Zombie presides over a duel to the culinary death between two of Top Chef's most recognizably reformed villains.
Top Chef Duels
Credit: Nicole Wilder/Bravo

Being a jerk is a valuable skill on reality television. From Juan Pablo to Puck, jackassery has taken plenty of forms since people “stopped being polite” decades ago and produced high-water marks of a now-flooded genre. Everyone knows that evil has some serious currency when networks want compelling TV—you get more camera time when you’re being an ass.

Tiffani Faison and Dale Talde know this all too well. Faison was the show’s “first villain,” a nasty self-described “brat” who rode her mean streak all the way to the finals of Season 1 and left poor Dave Martin a classic reality sound-bite when he became fed up with her nagging and declared, “I’m not your bitch, bitch!” Tiffani thought she was better than the other chefs (in many cases, she was) and wasn’t afraid to say so.

Dale was perhaps even more combustible—he boiled and bubbled over rather than stewed in the waiting room during season 4 in Chicago. There was never any denying that he was a great chef, but he’d probably admit that he was probably the most unstable competitor the show has ever seen. After a disastrous Restaurant Wars service and a judges-table face-off with Lisa Fernandes (another cheftestant who’ll never land anywhere near “fan favorite” status), he packed his knives and went.

Eventually, though, their seasons went to air, and each had to watch hours of their hang-ups, blow-ups, and let-downs along with millions of viewers. Both chefs saw themselves for what they really were—unhappy people who were living unsustainable lives. Thankfully, both had the self-awareness to realize it, and by Top Chef All-Stars, they’d softened into more well-rounded people. Tiffani finished 12th and Dale sixth (with Tiffani defeating Dale in a head-to-head battle at Arthur Ashe tennis stadium in Queens), but both saw their images (and lives) rehabbed on their second-chance kitchen.

They seem to have become even more well-rounded now on Duels. Each has a successful restaurant, and while their competitive pilot lights still burn, there seems little chance either will be turned up to broil. In the past, due to their personalities, neither chef had the option to hide. Their food had to be good enough to justify their outsize personalities. Now, they get to just focus on food.

NEXT: The quickest of quickfires

Dale’s even smiling when he draws the red knife allowing him to choose the quickfire order, but it’s one of those smiles from someone who’s not entirely comfortable doing it yet. His challenge—two types of dim sum in 30 minutes—is quite a test, and while it does recall a time they both failed on Masters, it also happens to lean a little far in the “pick-a-challenge-I’ll-win-to-guarantee-myself-money” territory.

He’s the one who seems closest to repeat failure, though, when his pork and king crab roll plans require an audibled quick-fry to get to the plate. When you’re making a dumpling every minute and fifteen seconds, consistency is key, and the sticky wrap on his steamed shrimp shumai threatens to doom him.

But the “magic” of his dim sum mentors, plus chunkier-than-expected shrimp portions impress the judges, including Wolfgang, who’s back and on his best behavior this week. Dale expected to “smoke” Tiffani, but she’s the one playing with fire with her smoked lobster and uni dumplings. Despite an aggressively spiced fried mint, pork, and bacon offering that Curtis calls the best single dish of the challenge, her lobster goes up in “acrid” smoke for Gail and Wolfie, who award the win to Dale.

Although Tiffani’s bartender past makes perfect sense, I’m not sure I love her mixology-and-canapé challenge. I can’t remember the last time a cocktail earned rave reviews on this or any cooking show, and it pushes things a little far afield of what the competition is about (you know… being a chef).

But it’s her pantry, and the “old julep”/”mint fashioned” with orange, cherry, and mint does sound pretty tasty. And Forbes did, in fact, call her biscuit the “world’s best,” and I can’t really see how liquid nitrogen-produced powdered pancetta butter could make anything worse. Other than the strength of the cocktail, the judges don’t really seem to have a whole lot of critiques of the meal (other than Wolfie howling for more meat). So although Dale does seem to know a lot about drinking, he’s in for a test as stiff as Tiff’s drink.

He gives it a valiant go, drawing upon the time-honored tradition of Brooklyn brunch. Most brunches in Brooklyn these days go so long they overlap with happy hour, so any drink would’ve fit, but an Asian bloody Mary seems like it’d pair well with a maple-and-black-pepper-candied pancetta over a spicy deviled egg.

Based on their histrionics upon tasting Tiffani’s tipple, you’d think the chefs might be hung-over already and that a little hair o’ the dog might be in order. A Brooklyn bloody with cured dehydrated radish and purple shiso leaves is enough for Wolfgang, but Gail chooses Tiffani, leaving things up to Curtis. In his typically odd logic, the Aussie declares Dale’s drink not appropriately derivative, and Tiffani ties up the score.

Whenever Top Chef brings in a celebrity guest, there’s always the risk that the self-proclaimed “foodie” might not be ready for judges’ table. The best way to tell is usually how many times the word “interesting” gets thrown around. Sometimes, though, guests like Shailene Woodley a few weeks ago surprise us with understated observations, respect for the profession, and class.

And sometimes guests are Rob Zombie.

NEXT: Guess who’s coming to dinner?

I’ll admit that I’m as much of a metal fan as Dale, but in any case, Monsieur Zombie is one of the most miserable guests I can remember. He’s whiny and confrontational, to say nothing of the fact that it made someone as tolerant of personal choice as me hate him for his oppositional veganism.

Meanwhile, the other guys—Anthrax’s Scott Ian and Slayer’s Gary Holt—are happy to be there despite the lack of meat, and it’s a nice way to set up the courses to devote one to each rock star. “Loud, inventive, decadent, dark” food is the charge, with an entrée course inspired by horror films featuring fake meat, again emphasizing Rob Zombie’s weird veganism (he wants a meat substitute product but kind of wants it to look like meat but also kind of doesn’t). The other two courses represent the show at its cleverest—the first course is served on a skewer in homage to Holt’s guitar—and most reaching-at-straws (a vegan dessert with a surprise paying tribute to Ian’s group’s turn to rap).

Speaking of crossovers, Top Chef: Masters judge Francis Lam joins the judges’ table while Zombie terrorizes the cooks in the kitchen, already complaining about food he hasn’t even seen. Tiffani rightfully draws his disdain when she’s asked about vegan offerings at Sweet Cheeks and she mentions salads and sides, but the second Dale uses the word “salad” to describe his miso-glazed asparagus with spring pickled vegetables, Rob is out. It looks like a well-thought-out dish, with charred fava beans, nori, dehydrated pickled radish, and beautiful color contrasts, and it doesn’t earn any real criticism from the judges.

Tiffani’s skewered, seared pad see ew drunken noodle is a pretty darn unique use of the product, and the yuzu pine nut vegan mayonnaise, purple cauliflower hot sauce, and torched leaks create a dish that looks like a sure-fire winner, and the judges are enjoying the balance of sweet and spicy. Unfortunately, Scott Ian’s critique (he calls it “one-note”) is so apropos that it’s really the lasting memory of what was probably a great dish.

Though Rob heaped a ton of scorn on the chefs in the kitchen, he saved up some extra nastiness for Dale’s entrée, eggless ramen noodles with a roasted vegetable broth infused with popcorn and served with tofu. Sure, the tofu isn’t the most attractive ingredient in the world, but to watch Rob Zombie disinterestedly complain over and over again is almost as bad as hearing food called “interesting.”

He’s more pleased with Tiffani’s fake scallops, and she makes sure to emphasize that they’re being served “steakhouse-style,” whatever that means. I hesitate to tell anyone they’re doing veganism “wrong,” but the only dish Rob Zombie seems to like is the one that is “faking” meat.

That all being said, a king oyster mushroom with creamed escarole and mushroom jus does sound delicious, and this is definitely the prettiest plate of the night. In addition to their personality redemption, both chefs, to me, have evolved on the plate as much as they have as people.

NEXT: A sweet finish

“Surprises” within challenges can often be annoying if chefs overemphasize artifice. Tiffani’s relationship with her dessert (which she expounds upon at length) is still a surprise, though there’s little mystery inherent in a black forest chocolate cake, even one with coconut meringue and a luxardo cherry puree.

Dale, on the other hand, hits the sweet spot with dessert dim sum: a sesame mochi ball filled with maple peanut butter and jelly. I can almost taste that as I type it. Even Wolfie—a peanut butter detractor (who knew?) is a fan, but Rob Zombie doesn’t like it. What a surprise.

In the end, the real shock is probably Dale’s victory, considering Tiffani’s main course was the best dish of the night (and the only one Rob Zombie didn’t… uh… kill). I don’t often try to do a course-by-course analysis, but here it seems fairly clear the chefs split the second and third courses, with Dale’s first course edging Tiffani out. But in the end, Dale’s fat kid’s dream dessert was the last bite the judges took, and it probably left a lasting impression in an evenly fought, respectful bout.

In what has been a theme this season running contrary to normal reality TV, the dueling chefs like each other: Dale goes as far as to admit that Tiffani was the reason he went on Top Chef in the first place. While given her behavior, some might not see that as a compliment, the fact that she inspired other jerks to try to win money by cooking on TV speaks to the imprint she made on the genre. Now, both chefs are older, wiser, and living by new rules: Nice chefs finish when they finish. And they’re more than okay with it.

Episode Recaps

Top Chef Duels
Celebrity chefs Curtis Stone and Gail Simmons decide the best chef as two past contestants go head-to-head in each episode.
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