Oh. So. Close.
Antonia Lofaso thought she had made it through to the finale of Top Chef's all-star season last week when Tiffany Derry was sent home. This, she thought, was going to make up for exiting at the last possible minute in season four.
"I really wanted to be there at the end to cook the final dinner and then there, just at the end, just let the judges decide who was better and I would have been OK with that," she told The Stew.
But it didn't work out that way.
Instead, she and Mike Isabella were forced into a one-bite playoff as Richard Blais won the automatic berth into a head-to-head final. By the narrowest of margins, four to three, she missed out on getting to cook in the finale. Again.
We caught up with Antonia to talk about cooking for an Iron Chef, her newfound cousin and who was better from her original season—Richard Blais or Chicago's Stephanie Izard.
Describe your mindset going into the final challenge, knowing that you were cooking for Iron Chef Morimoto.
I would use the word "nauseating." (laughs) I was completely and totally just beside myself. At that moment, you're cooking for the Japanese Iron Chef, one of the world's most respected chefs. You're asking me to recreate a dish that his mother had made since he was a child. It's an overwhelming task. I really just tried to put my best foot forward. But I was beside myself.
Had you ever cooked Japanese food before? Was it daunting to try and cook something which rivaled Morimoto's mother's food?
I was very nervous, no doubt about it. I kind of felt the same way I did with the whole beef tongue situation. Even though it was something I had never done before, there are elements of those dishes that I have done before. And the funny thing is, Wolfgang Puck taught me how to do sushi rice. It was actually very funny. There were certain Japanese elements I was familiar with. I did sort of a roasted Japanese eggplant with unagi. I had made dashi before. Pickling daikon and Asian pear and all those sorts of things. I wasn't unfamiliar with it, but I don't do bento box by any means for a living. In that sense, I definitely was out of my comfort zone. I just had to go for it and I had to not be scared and really just try my best. That's what I meant to Mike when I said to him—these guys are talking so much trash about how great they are. I was like, "Well then go for the Japanese Iron Chef then!" There's so much ego that goes on like, "Oh, I'm the best, I'm the best, I'm the best!" Morimoto was the one who was going to apply the most amount of pressure. When I joked with Mike and I said, "You should have picked the Japanese Iron Chef then," he was making excuses like, "Well, I wanted Michelle because she was a judge on my season." I said, "You wanted Michelle Bernstein because you knew you were gonna get fried chicken."
The hamachi was bad? Was that why you moved to the tuna?
It's all of our jobs as chefs to make sure the ingredients that we use are the highest quality and the best ingredients. When I checked the fish, it was slimy and it wasn't bad yet because I would have smelled it when it came out the package if it was completely rancid. But it was on its way. It wasn't the freshest piece of fish. If you're going to serve a sashimi, it needs to be the freshest piece of fish you can find. There should be no odor or slime to it. Even though I didn't want to serve the tuna—I preferred to serve the hamachi, it would have been the better preparation of raw fish—I went with the fish that was the freshest.
What was your favorite challenge?
Two were really my favorites—Jimmy Fallon and fishing. Being out on the water, I mean, we were sleep deprived but being out on that water and pulling in fish was just outstanding.
What was it like when you found out you were Mike's cousin at Ellis Island?
I have to say that I was relieved. I couldn't figure out why this man irritated me as much as he did. And when it was revealed that we were related, it made sense. It was like, "You're the guy who my mom would have made me share my toys with, who I would have been, 'Why is Mike coming over for dinner? He annoys me.'" And mom would say, "He's your cousin, you have to play with him." Once I got into that mindset, I felt better about his irritation.
You went out right before the finale twice.
Thanks for bringing that up! (laughs)
Which way was tougher?
This one was much harder. The really crazy part is, and I just want to say this, Bravo totally tricked me! It's been the final three forever. So all I kept saying was, "Final three! If I make it to the final three I'll have the opportunity to cook at the end" and then they changed it again. I guess I just had the mindset of "the final three" the entire time, like I just needed to get to that last one, and I ended up totally screwing myself in the end.
It was harder because I felt competed differently. I was much more confident. I really wanted to be there at the end to cook the final dinner and then there, just at the end, just let the judges decide who was better and I would have been OK with that. It's kind of hard to make it right to the very end and not cook in the final dinner.
You talk a lot about your daughter. Has she watched the season?
She has and, let me tell you, she's obsessed. The last time I was on the show she was seven, so she was not as into it. I think she didn't understand and was just kinda mad like, "This show took my mommy away for so long, I don't care, I'm not watching it." This time around she was invested. She actually had parents at her school that were bribing her with like play dates and sleepovers if she would tell them how far I made it.
What was her reaction to your elimination?
When I said, "Kids will make you feel better," it's so true because their perspective on forgiveness and letting go and moving on happens so much faster when you're younger. She was like, "Mommy, it's OK. Can we open up a store?" It was like, let's just move on. It was kind of exactly what I needed to hear. You don't dwell on this. You don't need to make it into anything less than what it was. It's over, you did a great job, move on. Basically that's what she told me in her little 11-year-old way. And it made me feel a lot better.
What would be your last supper?
That was actually one of the questions that Tom had asked us and I said, "I really hope that I get somewhere in my career one day that I have some chef competitor having to cook me my last meal." Mine would be a little easier than what I anticipated Morimoto wanted. And that would be an eggplant parmesan hero. I'm from Long Island. (laughs) I grew up eating eggplant parmesan heros. A nice seeded Italian roll is the way that I'd want to go out.
Padma called your dish "conventional" at a previous judges table. How do you respond to criticism like that?
I said (at the time) I didn't actually take that as a negative comment. I take that I have my voice in food. If you could look at a dish and say, "That's something Antonia did," that means that I have a voice. When you see food and it's recognizable to you as a style of a chef, that to me is a good chef. I've never claimed to be a chef who wants to do this sort of off-the-wall flavor combination. I'm very classic. I enjoy being classic. Certain times I'll take a twist or be a little more playful, but at the end of the day I cook for the guest. I want the guest to be so unbelievably satisfied.
I try to create using memories where someone goes, "Oh, my goodness, that reminds me of so-and-so's mac and cheese." And you know what? It might be a mac and cheese, but it'll be the best mac and cheese you've ever had. It's actually a philosophy that Tom Collichio lives by. He has a saying in his kitchen of, "They might just be carrots, but they will be the best carrots you've ever eaten in your entire life." That's the philosophy that I live by. It might just be a fried fish sandwich, but it will be the best you've ever had. And it will beat the ham foam and corn puree that was done by my competitor because that's how good my fried fish sandwich is.
What's next for you besides a cookbook?
I've been looking into a specialty market here in Los Angeles. Really great produce and prepared foods. Right now we really only have Whole Foods in L.A. who kind of does that.
In season four, you had a ringside seat for Stephanie Izard and Richard. This entire season Richard has said that he "choked" away that title and that was his season to win.
That is actually one of the most unfair comments that has ever been made. Richard, whom I love and thoroughly loved competing with this season and in our last season. You're from the Chicago Tribune?
Yes I am.
Let me just give a shout out to Stephanie, James Beard Award finalist for Best New Restaurant. She is a fierce competitor and the truth of the matter is she beat him at the end of the day. For people to say it was his competition to lose–you left out Lisa Fernandes who did a kick ass job in the finale as well, it's a very sort of unfair comment to make to say that you should have won our season.
I think a lot of people think they should have won that season as well. Because you do so well doesn't mean that you're gonna get it in the end, and I think Stephanie deserved to get it. She worked just as hard as the rest of them. She had great dishes the entire season. She won in the end because she did a better dish.