Paula Deen was a guest judge on last night's Top Chef All-Stars, so of course the episode included deep-fried mayonnaise and an emphasis on Southern flavors, along with the return of some of our favorite (and least favorite) eliminated contestants. Read on for our thoughts on the episode as well as a reveal of the winner and loser.
• Did you say "deep-fried balls of butter?": Paula Deen, queen of butter, is the guest judge for the Quickfire Challenge, so it surprises no one when the chefs have to come up with their best deep-fried dish. Antonia makes a fried shrimp and avocado salad with fresh corn, which manages to look almost light, while Richard goes all the way with a nugget of fried bacon topped with fried mayonnaise. He's a man after Paula Deen's own heart.
• "There is man law and there is chef law": Mike comes up with the unusually innovative idea of deep-frying chicken "oysters" and serving them with oyster liquor in an oyster shell. Not really Mike's style — maybe that's because he saw a picture of this exact dish in one of Richard's notebooks the day before. Richard immediately recognizes his own concept, as well as the irony when he and Mike are picked as the top two. It's a Blais dish versus a Blais dish, but Mike is the one who wins $5,000 when his version of Richard's idea takes home the win. Only Mike is pleased with this outcome.
• They're baaaaack...: The last six eliminated chefs return as sous chefs for the Elimination Challenge: cooking Gulf seafood for a crowd of over 300 people at a fundraiser for the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Each sous chef offers a different protein and a very different style in the kitchen, so the chefs pick carefully. Tiffany, perhaps addled by all the fried food in the kitchen, picks Marcel and his shrimp. Carla chooses Tre because she figures he knows Southern cooking, being from Texas, but she is dismayed to learn he grew up a city boy who bought his collard greens in a can. The horror!
• Redemption is far away: Once the chefs get to the venue and start getting ready for service, it is clear who the bottom three will be. Dale is unusually frazzled, cutting up last-minute vegetables for his amberjack stew and trying to adjust the flavor of each batch on the fly. Tiffany mentions that she let Marcel make the second round of honey glaze for the shrimp and she didn't taste it before it went out. And Carla's cornbread is a flop, so she tells Tre she isn't putting it out as she fries pallid pieces of breaded grouper.
• It's all about the seafood: Noted New Orleans chef John Besh guest judges alongside Paula Deen, and his main criteria throughout the challenge seems to be whether or not you can actually taste the seafood in each dish. We think this is fair — it is a Gulf seafood challenge after all &mdash and are surprised by how many chefs mask the flavor of their proteins with mustardy sauces (Dale) and too much hot sauce (Carla). Antonia, on the other hand, lets the taste of the crab shine through in her blue crab cake with andouille relish. Yum.
• It isn't a trip to Barbados without Fabio: Antonia's crab cake, Richard's crispy snapper with pulled pork and Mike's cornmeal-crusted shrimp are the top three dishes. The judges especially liked Richard's unusual citrus grits and he wins the challenge, as well as a trip to Barbados. He announces he is going to invite Fabio, his sous chef for the challenge, to join him and his family on the trip. Their friendship is so endearing.
• A lucky streak continues: As expected, Carla, Tiffany and Dale are in the bottom. Tiffany's shrimp was mealy and too sweet, which she blames on Marcel, even as she says she is taking responsibility for the dish. Carla's plate was just a mess that Paula Deen says "made no sense" to her. Dale's stew had an overpowering mustard crouton and undercooked potatoes and, in a major upset, he is the one sent home. We were sure it was going to be Tiffany! But she is around for another week and our favorite foul-mouthed Filipino-American is gone. At least it wasn't Carla.
What did you think of last night's episode? Were you as surprised by the loser as we were?
Related: Top Chef All-Stars: The Muppets Take Manhattan