Of the Top Chef hopefuls this go-around, producers selected an array of personalities – from villains (season 2's Marcel Vigneron) to comic relief (season 5's Fabio Viviani) and fan favorites (like season 5's Carla Hall and season 7's Tiffany Derry) – to make sure the competition is anything but bland.
Add to that mix guest judge Anthony Bourdain, whose prickly personality, sharp way with words and exacting palate will hold the chefs up to the highest of standards.
And, since all 18 competitors came this close to clinching victory on their respective seasons, you can bet they're not here for recipe practice.
It was obvious from last night's episode that the chefs are being held to the fire starting from the very first challenge where they are asked to remake the dishes that sent them home. And they have to use same the ingredients and undergo the same restrictions they initially endured.
Time may have given the chefs a chance for reflection, and Wednesday's episode finds many approaching their ill-fated dishes with thoughtful revisions. But it certainly hasn't dulled their competitive instincts. Or their fighting temperaments. Many sassed the judges back, especially Fabio, who was less than thrilled with Bourdain's withering critique of his food.
Alas, the second time wasn't the charm for Elia Aboumrad, who was the first chef asked to leave the competition, leaving Fabio and Stephen Asprinio in the bottom – but still safe for another day.
And one of the distinct pleasures of watching Top Chef: All-Stars last night was the possibility that it's absolutely anybody's game. Who's a frontrunner in a competition of frontrunners? The competition insists you check your preconceptions about these chefs at the kitchen door and just let their work surprise you in this new context. And surprises are in store.
As the chefs gear up for another week, here are the three we're rooting for this season:
Carla Hall: A third-place finisher in season 5, Hall took herself out of her comfort zone in the finale, trying out new techniques and steering away from the soul food that endeared her to fans and judges. Here's hoping she sticks to her own singular (and joyful) vision this season. Can we get a hootie-hoo?
Jennifer Carroll: Edged out of at the very end of season 6 and leaving an all-male finale, the Philadelphia-based chef is super-serious about her food. We love her steely determination, precision and tough-as-nails attitude in the kitchen and wish that her laser-like focus will propel her to the finale once again.
Richard Blais: The Atlanta-based chef, and molecular gastronomy guru, faltered in season 4's finale, but his innovative touch and intellectual (and unexpected) combination of ingredients has rendered him one of Top Chef's most inspiring contestants ever. Here's hoping his signature coiff and scientific approach to cooking lead him to victory this time.
Tell us: Are you excited about Top Chef: All Stars? Were you sad to see Elia go? And which contestants are you rooting for?