It was down to the wire last night, as Mike and Blais served up truly exquisite final meals.

By Mallika Rao
Updated March 31, 2011 at 01:19 PM EDT
Credit: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo
S8 E16
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All season long, the two finalists of Top Chef: All-Stars have suffered and gained from nearly oppositional twitches. From the start, Blais has been a Citizen of Blais’ Head. As talented as he is, he’s always on the brink of crying/throwing up/wishing he’d never been born. Mike Isabella, on the other hand, is fairly confident that he’s the greatest human ever. Even his former difficulties are wonderful in his mind, because they symbolize how far he’s come. As a result, he doesn’t exercise any restraint over himself, and ends up doing things like flicking boogers at the people around him. Heeheehee, he says afterward.

Luckily, the judges never seemed to take into account Mike’s boorishness, and last night came off as an objective fight, dish against dish, personalities be damned. Which means Blais won fair and square, the neurotic mess. And it just felt right.

The episode started with the perfect challenge. Each chef had to create and execute a four-course menu for the restaurant of his dreams, the game’s end goal. They’d have five hours and the help of three sous chefs, chosen via a blind taste test. Fifteen of the former competitors gathered in the kitchen to compete for the job. Marcel wore BluBlocker sunglasses for no apparent reason. Maybe it’s a side effect of working in his own Quantum Kitchen (Side note: I’m slightly obsessed with that show. Marcel is hilarious on it. Just very…Marcel. One time he made a party planner almost cry by undermining her silverware plans.) The idea was for each former contestant to produce an amuse-bouche. Mike and Blais would choose the three they liked best without knowing to whom they belonged, and take on the corresponding chefs. Pretty sneaky. Mike wanted Jen Carroll, and did not want either Marcel or Jamie, who still frowns a lot, in case you were worried she’d changed. He ended up scoring Tiffani F., Carla, and – whoa! – Jamie. There was some poetic justice-y stuff in Mike choosing all women, seeing as he’s quick to qualify compliments for “female” chefs. Not ready to treat them like equals exactly, he went instead for “famous sex symbols.” “Having these three awesome ladies is like having the Angels,” he said. “My Angels.”

Blais hit close to jackpot with his team: Antonia, crazypants Angelo, and Spike, who murmured that “some people have Jet Ski reservations.” Blais had his own reservations: that Antonia and Spike might not try their hardest – Antonia since she was so freshly eliminated, and Spike because of his Jet Ski reservations. Only one of these reasons was stupid. (Hint: It rhymes with Jet Li Preservation.)

The crews gathered to sort out the restos. Mike’s was called Restaurant Iz because of his nickname (Isabella → Izzie). This was about as damning a logic sequence as the one that led to Restaurant Etch. AS IN IT WAS TERRIBLE. Restaurant Iz sounds like a hangout for Lolcats. The food was to be Italian. Jamie offered something called “a parmesan mousse that I do,” but Mike demanded no creativity from his sous chefs, only strict obedience. They were his Angels after all. Over in the Blais arena, the talk was more clever. For his title, he refashioned the phrase “tongue-in-cheek” into Tongue & Cheek, so as to imply whimsy and double entendres. No doubt he chose it for all the offal pun possibilities. Blais encouraged his sous chefs to collaborate and improve on his dishes. Could these two BE any different? the producers seemed to be asking us.

NEXT: Captain Crunch or foie gras?The cooking began. For some reason there was no drama. None. It’s like the drama was that there wasn’t any. Even Jamie was delivering! Finally Blais decided to shake things up by changing his Captain Crunch ice cream to foie gras ice cream (parmesan mousse’s pretentious cousin). If only it were so easy to exchange Captain Crunch for foie gras at the grocery store. Gotta get a bowl, gotta eat my foie gras. Colicchio circulated to ferret out the terrible thoughts lurking in each chef’s head. Mike said he was “in the weeds,” and that no one had expected he’d get this far except him. Sounds about right. Blais was determinedly gloomy. “What can’t go wrong?” he asked. The window into his head widened. To paraphrase a Mike quote, I would not want to wander inside. There’s probably a witch who hides behind trees and a dungeon for human sacrifices in the creepiest section. Get out of there, Blais! It’s not safe! He worried the oysters for his amuse-bouche were too hacked up. Like a true fedora-wearer, Spike suggested they use only the prettiest ones.

Princess music chimed and the first set of judges descended upon Tongue & Cheek. Spike hung around the judges’ table so as to report back to Richard. He was not subtle at all. The only way he’d have been more obvious is if he’d had on a pair of those huge plastic spy glasses attached to a fake mustache. At first, there was nothing but good news to report. The judges loved the amuse-bouche, a raw oyster with crème-fraiche pearls. Even better was the raw hamachi with crispy veal sweetbreads, which was a “harmonious” mix of elements, said Lidia Bastianich. “They licked their plates on that,” Spike told Blais.

Over at Restaurant Iz, Chef Art Smith couldn’t believe the prize at stake was two hundred grand. What did he think? Bravo skimps on its show packages? You are dining in the Bahamas, Chef Art Smith, like a damn king of Junkanoo. The first course, a plate of spiced beets with mozzarella truffle and chocolate vinaigrette, went over well. Tom pronounced it “a good start.” The second arrived a little late for the judges’ liking, but it was beautiful to look at. Mike called it an “elegantly steamed” halibut, with kumquat marmalade, cauliflower puree, and pancetta crumbs. The halibut was delicate enough to pass for a scoop of sorbet. Tom said he’d never had a piece of fish cooked so nicely on the show, “ever.” Even Marcel called it “superflavorful.” We got a gratuitous glimpse at Jen Carroll, who had utterly crazy hair. She looked like she’d just stumbled in from the wildest night of her life, which, you know, good for you, Jen Carroll! Alternatively, she might have taken Spike’s Jet Ski reservation and finger-combed her hair at the last minute. In which case, also good for her! Basically, whatever she did to get hair like that, probably bully for her.

Back at Tongue & Cheek, Blais said he hadn’t put out food so pretty all season. The pork belly and black cod cutlet he sent as his second course scored big. “This…is a beautiful dish,” declared one judge. “Richie at his best,” said Less Angry Dale. The first hiccup sounded with the “rustic” third course, a beef short rib with mushroom, red cabbage marmalade, and celery root horseradish puree. According to the editing, Spike sneaked by at exactly the moment of the single negative comment: “For creativity I wouldn’t give really high marks on this,” went Alfred Portale. By the time he continued with “But execution is good, and it’s really delicious,” Spike was nowhere to be seen. Back in the kitchen, he told Richard, “They felt you had a lot of restraint on the short-rib dish. There wasn’t much going on, you know.” Maximum dramatic effect: achieved!

NEXT: A controversial dishMike’s third course was what he called his “Tom dish,” a pork shoulder braised as per Tom’s preference, alongside a pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage, and turnips. Gail was totally into the pepperoni sauce. Maybe all she’d dreamed of as a little girl was pepperoni sauce, because she could not stop talking about it. The way she pronounced the phrase, it was as if she were joshing a person named Pepperoni Sauce. “Pepperoni SAUCE!” she said, in lieu of a full sentence. The rest were bowled over by the whole creation. “Pretty fantastic.” “Kid’s got talent.” “This is a dish you will crave.”

The dessert arrived, a rosemary caramel custard topped with pine nuts and paired with a citrus, celery, and apple salad. It was overcooked. “I like the flavor,” said Art Smith, “but I don’t like the way it feels in my mouth.” That’s what he said. (Feminist version.) Richard’s dessert was equally disappointing. The cornbread and whipped mango went like hotcakes, but the weirdo crumbly foie gras lingered on the plates. “It’s a controversial dish,” Spike reported back, meaning everyone liked one part and hated the other. So no controversy, but in fact an agreement!

The judges switched restaurants. Richard’s ice cream was infinitely improved by the addition of milk, and the diners at Mike’s appreciated his overcooked custard in a way only those who’d recently pushed freeze-dried foie gras around a plate could.

In the stew room, Mike asked Blais if he (Blais) was going crazy, with a kind of sneering, knowing tone. “What, you’re cool?” Blais retorted. Exactly. Don’t pick on Blais for his obvious weaknesses, Mike. What if Blais were like, “Did you laugh like a hyena monkey today?” That wouldn’t be very nice. Mike bragged some more and Richard acted like he was a resounding failure, and soon enough they were called into judgment.

Gail told Mike his restaurant had a “femininity to it,” to which he giggled. She repeated the phrase “Pepperoni SAUCE.” The only complaint was Tom’s, about the bubbles in the custard. Praise for Blais was equally strong, with talk of his “intense, extraordinary” flavors, and the improvement in his foie gras ice cream. His meat dish was “safe” but tasty.

NEXT: At last, the winner

Padma asked each chef to explain why they deserved the win. Mike mentioned his wife and then said he’d break down either way, which made Padma smile. I love breaking down either way, she thought to herself. Emotionally OR mentally. Blais started off with a dry reference to his new understanding of the “pleasure principle,” to which Gail nodded wisely. Then he mentioned the possibility of opening his own restaurant, and choked up at the thought. The moment was, frankly, beautiful. Colicchio was moved enough to press his lips together. “Going to be a tough one,” Chef Hubert Keller said, as the competitors exited the room.

Back in the stew room, Blais claimed there was “heavy petting” going on for Mike Isabella when in reality, the lauds had been evenly spread. Once more, we were in Blais’ head. In this dark space, Mike and the judges made out all night while Blais drank chocolate milk and looked on longingly. He promised he’d give Mike some of his winnings if he turned out to be the lucky one. Mike said he’d take it, but didn’t reverse the offer. Visitors arrived from home, to very little shock from the chefs. Mike’s wife, mom, and sister showed up. Blais got his uncle, and they shook hands before hugging. It was sort of a sad counter to the outpouring of love over on Mike’s side. Mike’s wife is cute, btw. What, I know! Mike has a wife!

Gail praised the night’s offerings as “two meals unlike we have ever had before.” They started doling out wins. Blais won the first course, because the mozzarella on Mike’s salad wasn’t that good, and the second, because his cod was crazy flaky. Padma reminded Tom that he’d called Mike’s second course the best fish he’d ever tasted on the show. “I said that before I tasted Richard’s,” Tom said. Oh, snap! What are the odds of the first and second best fish Tom’s ever tasted on Top Chef appearing on the same night? Not that high, but we’ll take it! The meat dish went to Mike on account of Pepperoni Sauce, and the judges were split on the dessert front due to Foie-gate. They eventually gave it to Mike, setting the score, as usual, at a tie.

Gail said she’d want to eat at Mike’s restaurant during the week and Richard’s on the weekend. That means normal versus fancy, right? Aren’t weekends meant for the ballet and squash tournaments among friends? “I think there’s one restaurant we prefer,” said Tom. They brought the chefs back in to where all 15 former competitors stood like ghosts from a past life. “Richard,” Padma said. “You are Top Chef.”


So here we are, on the other end of the line. Were you happy with how it went? Will you be heading to the real-life Tongue & Cheek? Did it deserve the win outright because the name is infinitely cleverer than Restaurant Iz? Is Blais a lovable, insane, or sad-making genius? (Choose one.) Now that Marcel has his own show, who’s your vote for the next spin-off? And finally: How do we live, if living is without Top Chef: All-Stars?

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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