“Top Chef: World All Stars” cooks with sugar and spice (and everything rice)

As I queue up the next episode, I thought it appropriate to include this very on-point observation re: the “Top Chef” prize winnings. These thoughts come to you from “Palo Alto” author Malcolm Harris, who posted on Twitter:

“Top Chef holding the prize at $250K for another year is the straw that’s finally gonna make me write about reality show prizes not keeping up with inflation.”

Things to consider!

Episode 2, titled “Rice, Rice Baby,” opens with our cheftestants generally commiserating with lots of empty, reality competition show platitudes. In the morning, Sara tells us that it is possible to have a family and be a chef, as the audio from her confessional is laid over shots of her pumping to send back to her husband for her younger daughter. As our favorite ragtag group of international chefs walk into the kitchen, we meet Santiago Lastra, who helms the Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant Kol, in London.

Quickfire: the wonderful world of Ritz 

Padma then lets the cheftestants know that the Quickfire this week is to make an amuse bouche with “unique, unexpected ingredients” — and the singular bite needs to fit on a Ritz cracker. We are then privy to a built-in Ritz cracker advertisement, as Lastra tells us that he became obsessed with Ritz crackers when he was younger and paired them with a crab dip he made (from a recipe on the box), and the rest is history. This is followed by Padma’s then making a ludicrous joke that he perhaps wouldn’t have a Michelin star if it weren’t or his love of Ritz crackers (lol), before she asks the cheftestants to “transport us across the globe with just one bite.”

Padma Lakshmi on “Top Chef: World All-Stars” (David Moir/Bravo)After the cheftestants take their pick of “unique” ingredients, Padma arranges everyone into groups of three “since Ritz is so versatile,” informing them that this is not a team challenge, but that the groups will be going head-to-head. The groups are given 30 minutes to prepare a singular amuse bouche featuring all of the special ingredients. The judges will then pick a favorite from each group before selecting an overall winner from the top five. The winner receives immunity and $10,000. And they’re off to the races!

Challenges like this are always fun because they help some chefs focus on their strengths, using ingenuity to minimize ingredients they’re not familiar with. Dale, for example, is unfamiliar with plantains, while both May and Victoire aren’t familiar with yeast extract, which Ali picks and likens to vegemite. May says she’s going to use the yeast extract in a hibiscus jam, in place of using salt. Dawn says that she’s opening a restaurant, and Sara discusses the not-often-utilized tactic of frying Ritz crackers (which she serves in her restaurant). Nicole, who’s making a quajillo pepper, horseradish and goat cheese amuse, says she’s comfortable because she’s owned a “high end catering company for 13 years” but is anxious because she’s unsure if serving a dish with Mexican flavor profiles to such an esteemed Mexican chef is a silly move. Begoña gets frazzled as time runs down and she is only able to plate one amuse. 

In the group of Sara, Nicole and Sylwia, Nicole is the victor with her grilled bavette with goat cheese and agave horseradish black garlic jam and salsa matcha (yum). For Tom, Amar and Begoña, Padma treats us to a “So you ran out of time?” and a “Tell him what he’s eating,” since Begoña only presents a singular amuse. Shady Padma has clocked in! Tom wins with his “shrimp cocktail my way,” which he explains after giving the sassiest facial expression for no discernable reason. It makes me chuckle. (There’s lots of Tom content in this episode that cements the fact that he’s most likely the “fun” cheftestant.)

Shady Padma has clocked in!

Dale wins with his plaintains, which furthers what I feel is a very understated undercurrent throughout these first two episodes that depicts him in a light, positive manner. May wins in her group with her kumquat, hibiscus and yeast extract dish, and then Gabri wins in his group for his take on jackfruit, tamarind and caviar cream. Our top five – consisting of Gabri, Nicole, May, Dale and Tom, stands alert – awaiting to hear the declaration of the winner. 

Santiago states, “The winner was surprised, unexpected and delicious and belonged to . . . Chef May!” This begins what I’d call May’s breakout episode, in which every single moment of May’s focus is inspiring, positive and uplifting, even sometimes eliciting some emotion and some real resonance — but we’ll return to that later. In a confessional, she even says, “Now they know me: My name is Chef May.” If that isn’t an iconic line establishing her as a real contender, I don’t know what is. 

The complexity of rice 

Padma introduces the Elimination challenge by noting that “no ingredient has caused more chefs to pack their knives than . . . rice.” Of course, this is most often in the form of risotto. Our guest judge is Lorna Maseko, the host of “Top Chef: South Africa.” Padma poetically says, “From pilau to paella to tahdig, rice can be temperamental,” which most certainly sums up both the pros and cons of rice at large. The chefs are tasked with making any kind of rice dish: sweet, savory or, as Padma puts if, “if you’re daring, risotto.” The cheftestants will be feeding 100 guests plus the judges at Alexandra Palace. 

On the ride to Whole Foods, we’re treated to a very endearing Ali confessional noting that he is “gentle, sweet and nice” while cooking rice and that he’s not spooked by it, like some of the others. During the shop, Luciana says that she initially planned to leave Brazil for the UK for about three months — and wound up staying 19 years. She’s making kedgeree, Victoire is making maafe, and May is making a dessert. May says that she’s aiming for a Thai black rice pudding with a sweet potato paste, ensuring that the grains are still dense but soft inside. Ali’s making lamb ouzi with basmati rice and in yet another endearing confessional in less than five minutes, tells us how his mother is his main influence and he is very dedicated to hiring female chefs and staff at his restaurant. Gabri is aiming for a mole with 54 (!) ingredients, while Dawn is making black rice congee because she thinks it’ll hold up better over the course of a few hours (. . . I’m already getting anxious). Gabri’s mole extravaganza goes over budget, and he asks May for her remaining money to help cover the cost.

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The chefs have two hours to cook today, prior to more time just before service tomorrow. Back in the kitchen, Charbel says that he learned all about cooking and growing tough skin at his restaurant jobs and he’s making a traditional chicken and rice “in the Lebanese way,” looking to replicate the experience he had as a kid with 100 people. Dawn is hoping to use pressure cookers because she is unsure if her rice will be cooked and decisively congee-like without. (It is never easy being a Dawn fan, let me tell you). Fun Tom quips that there is a rice dish in every cuisine across the globe — except German. He’s taking inspiration from his colleagues on the ship to make a lamb biryani in the vein of the family meals he often enjoys with them. Amar is aiming to make fesenjan with arancini and plans to bread and fry to order tomorrow (tricky)! 

(It is never easy being a Dawn fan, let me tell you).

Tom and Lorna enter the kitchen and talk to Sara, who’s making everything bagel rice. I wonder if she’s an “Everything Everywhere All At Once” fan? Dale — who’s never made congee before (odd choice) — is aiming to make a sushi rice congee with short ribs. He tells us that he’s a single father, and his son “helped raise him.” See what I mean about the little blips of positive Dale coverage? Sylwia jokes that she’s not a rice girl and prefers potatoes. She’s making a massamam curry-influced coconut rice, while Begoña is making a seaweed and lemon rice with pickled ginger. In a quick moment of drama (said in the tone of Derek from the legendary “Happy Endings”), Amar and Dawn move two pots of water after no one replies claiming them. Of course, moments later, Luciana realizes that the pots for her eggs have been moved. In less than 10-15 seconds, though, everything seems OK? I was unclear on how exactly Luciana then cooked those 100 eggs, because in the next shot and after a joke about her “Brazilian fire,” she’s gleefully wrapping a up her food and joking that she’s dizzy . . . odd.

Buddha Lo, Ali Al Ghzawi on “Top Chef: World All-Stars” (David Moir/Bravo)The very last moment before the kitchen cooking segment ends, Dawn tells us that her rice is too crunchy and not cooked enough, so she’s going to “focus on everything I can do to make it become a congee.” Oh boy . . . 

Cook & service

The next day, Gabri is pleasantly surprised with his mole, noting that it took his grandmother two days to make what he pulled off in two hours. Ali feels a responsibility to showcase Jordanian cuisine and discusses how he’d “normally cook this dish underground,” but is instead smoking the dish today with some charcoal and aluminum foil. May says that her dish is inspired by her mom. She came out to her mother when she was 13 and was not initially accepted, but she eventually “let [me] be whatever [I] want to be” and May swears to do her best to prove to her mom that “being me is OK.” (Note that almost all of the May content/confessionals in this episode is scored with different music than the entire rest of the episode). Sylwia adds vanilla salt (?!) to her rice dish, Fun Tom jokes about perhaps being Indian and not German because he’s so impressed with his biryani, and Dale talks about being from Saskatoon as the guests and judges start rolling in. 

“Top Chef: World All-Stars” contestants (David Moir/Bravo)The judges love Sara’s everything rice with salmon, cucumber and cream cheese, but they’re iffy on Luciana’s kedgeree and Nicole’s negitora maki with crispy furikake rice and pickled ginger aioli. Begoña’s lemon carnaroli rice with pickled ginger, beets and seaweed is a hit, while Sylwia’s dish leaves a bt to be desired. Gabri’s mole works out beautifully and as Gail puts it, presents a “perfect balance of the dark earthiness of the mole and the freshness of the herbs.” Fun Tom makes Sri Lankan biryani with fermented and pickled raisin and goji berry salad with green sauce and gets top marks, May’s rice dessert of puffed rice, sweet potato and salted coconut goes over very well, and Charbel’s dish of spiced basmati with chicken, mint cucumber yogurt, toasted nuts and fried parsley gets positive feedback (and his chicken looks amazing). 

Gabri’s mole works out beautifully and as Gail puts it, presents a “perfect balance of the dark earthiness of the mole and the freshness of the herbs.”

We then see a quick moment of another doubtful Dawn scene, with Amar noting that her dish is one dimensional, followed by an odd edit of Dawn’s trying her food and shrugging. This doesn’t exactly set her up well for judge feedback. Ali’s lamb ouzi goes over very well, while Amar’s dish is not as successful. Dawn’s black venus congee with black bean and five spiced braised oxtail, with rice that was “fried from raw,” is, as expected, not great. Gail thinks that she wouldn’t have known it were a congee had Dawn not introduced it as such, remarking that it feels “like a mix of broth and crispy rice, not a creamy congee like a porridge.” Padma notes, though, that her oxtail is delicious. (Unfortunately, other chefs’s dishes didn’t get much exposure at all: Specifically, it seemed like Buddha and Victoire were almost skipped over). 

Gabri Rodriguez on on “Top Chef: World All-Stars” (David Moir/Bravo)Tom states that picking favorites is tough, but signals out Gabri, Begoña, May and Ali, with a special mention of Dale’s surprisingly great short rib congee. 

Judges’ table

Padma walks in to the stew room and asks for Gabri, Dawn, Luciana, Ali, May and Sywila, in what is — at least to us — a pretty incredibly clear paradigm between the good and the “bad.” Of course, the top group are our two episode stars — May and Ali — as well as Gabri, rounding out the Top 3 with his mole negro and arroz verde, stating that he feels redemption after last week. Ali speaks to the smoking technique in his dish, which was so different that it “woke [Gail] up.” May, in another lovely, heart-warming moment, dedicates her dish to her mother and grandmother. The same sentimental musical note from May’s earlier tender moment also plays over this scene. Padma compliments her in that kind, earnest way that always tells you when Padma is being empathetic and genuine, not putting on airs. When Padma’s voice and demeanor soften in that manner at judges’ table, I harken back to how she interacted with Fatima in such a wholesome, warm manner, as well as many other cheftestants she was particularly fond of. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the best episodes of “Top Chef.” (Something similarly sweet, but in a slightly different, more humorous manner, was how she spoke to Luke last season). 

When Padma’s voice and demeanor soften in that manner at judges’ table, I harken back to how she interacted with Fatima in such a wholesome, warm manner, as well as many other cheftestants she was particularly fond of.

Ali takes the win, joking “sorry, mom, today I cooked better ouzi than you.” Sweet! 

This, of course, leaves us with our bottom trio: Luciana, Sylwia and Dawn. The feedback is what we’ve heard before: Luciana’s fish was cooked well and her eggs were great, but her rice was seemingly both overcooked and undercooked, yet had no flavor. Dawn’s rice ate “like a black rice soup, not a congee,” and Sylwia, while happy with her dish, notes (again) that rice is just not her favorite. The judges also remark that her decision to use vanilla salt is befuddling and off-putting, adding an overtly saccharine note to an other savory dish. Padma even calls it “weird” and unbalanced, but the judges remark that while Sylwia was open about the fact that there were problems and rice wasn’t her forte, they aren’t sure if Dawn or Luciana “understood the issues.” 

Shortly thereafter, our fallen hero Dawn is told to PYKAG. It’s, honestly, a bit of a relief. It’s such a challenge to root for her, but I want her to succeed so badly. She acts brazen and unfazed, but in a confessional, she says that this just wasn’t in the cards and she’s made mistakes, but it’s amazing to even be included. She may have lost on “the world stage,” but she’s not done and says she’ll do her best in “Last Chance Kitchen.” I hope so! I’m rooting for her.

My two pence

This episode has the air of a later-season episode, with such positive moments from Ali and May, as well as lots of continually positive content from Sara and Dale, rounded out by Tom’s light, jocular playfulness and Gabri’s positive presence throughout. This seems, at least from a TV/personality perspective, to be such a well-rounded, good natured, likable cast, who also seem very strong in cookery, as well. Begoña is a bit quieter than this episode, but I’m intrigued by the “Top Chef: Spain” champ, who almost never seems bowled over by her own work, but consistently receives top marks (except for when she’s unable to plate in time). Let’s not forget her Michelin star . . . 

Let’s not forget her Michelin star …

Final takeaways: I’m looking forward to Dawn’s hopefully doing well in “LCK” — as well as Tom C’s absurd hat and glasses as shown in the promo. Until next time! 

“Top Chef: World All Stars” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Bravo and streams next day on Peacock.

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