Top Chef Duels recap: 'Mike Isabella vs. Antonia Lofaso'

Two all-star chefs compete family style.
Ep. 03 | Aired Aug 20, 2014

DUELING COUSINS Antonia Lofaso and Mike Isabella face off in a three-course family-style dinner.

Nicole Wilder/Bravo

With a handful of restaurants between them now, both chefs seem to have been Aspirino-ed, with the knives out of their hands and cameras in front of their faces, which makes Mike's cheekier contest—a teasing speed test that he knows he's more equipped to win—a fun callback. As Curtis narrates the chefs cutting into still-quivering prawns, it's a nice return to a quickfire favorite that has always held an important place in the journey to the finale: For me, the once-a-season speed quickfires have always separated the favorites from the pack as Tom scrutinizes one perfectly manicured artichoke or Frenched rack of lamb at a time.

Though Antonia's en place pretty quickly, Mike gets first choice, which forces her to work with mackerel and Mike to get prawns for himself. This week's Top Chef was almost educational at times—and I mean that in all the best possible ways. Hearing Antonia's justification for cooking a tough protein whole (taking her own stab at Mike's prep-based challenge) or having Gail explain how Mike's Mediterranean balls allowed sweet ingredients like cardamom and cinnamon to function in a savory style was the first of many times when the show taught me something new. It might seem obvious that cooking mackerel whole can make it easy to prevent overcooking, but this week's panel offered criticism in a way that reflects why the show's non-chef judges have always been more than merely professional eaters.

Antonia's whole-grilled mackerel with spiced yogurt, mint, capers, lemon, Fresno chiles, and, of course, fennel seems to impress the judges, but Mike's spicy scampi soup with grilled oysters and clams plus chive and lemon yogurt really wows the Calabrese in Chiarello. While Curtis picks Antonia and offers another strange criticism—how can something have too much flavor to be a soup?—the aggressive complexity of Mike's meal (which reminded me of the comments he earned on All-Stars) is enough for Gail and Michael to award him his due.

And for all the complaining I did about the emphasis on the cousins theme, what we all really wanted was a family style cook-off, right? What's even better is that the three courses—an heirloom family favorite, an eggy carbonara, and a re-envisioned dessert—seem to play to the chefs' relative strengths evenly. With la famiglia at the heart of the episode, it was fitting to sit the respective sides of the clan down for dinner, but adding the pick-your-own-sous-chef wrinkle was an appropriately endearing touch in a feel-good episode.

NEXT: Family style

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