Unlike other reality shows that either jump the shark or try to use the same formula over and over again, the fine folks at Magical Elves bring us “Top Chef’s” eighth season, but with an awesome twist–“Top Chef All-Stars” on Bravo. It’s not a match of winners, mind you, but of contestants who came close to winning but fell short. That means contestants who are both still hungry and partially or fully bitter. And that makes for genius TV.

Also, after having seasons in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Washington DC, this battle takes place in the heart of it all, New York City. The same host, Padma Lakshmi, returns along with head judge Tom Colicchio as well as Gail Simmons and newcomer Anthony Bourdain (who has been a frequent guest judge).

So the show kicked off last night, and here are the contestants:
# Elia Aboumrad; Season two, final four
# Stephen Asprinio; Season one, top five
# Richard Blais; Season four finalist
# Jennifer Carroll; Season six, final four
# Tiffany Derry; Season seven, top five
# Tiffani Faison; Season one finalist
# Carla Hall; Season five finalist
# Mike Isabella; Season six, top seven
# Jamie Lauren; Season five, top seven
# Dale Levitski; Season three finalist
# Antonia Lofaso; Season four, final four
# Spike Mendelsohn; Season four, top five
# Angelo Sosa; Season seven finalist
# Dale Talde; Season four, top six
# Casey Thompson; Season three finalist and fan favorite
# Marcel Vigneron; Season two finalist
# Fabio Viviani; Season five final four and fan favorite
# Tre Wilcox; Season three, top eight

It’s a “who’s who” of Top Chef chef-testants, and some incredibly talented ones. And oh yeah, the top prize is a cool $200K courtesy of Buitoni.

The quick fire challenge was a “season” challenge, in which there would be teams from each season that would create a dish that reflected the city of that season. Season 1 went with a seafood cioppino gazpacho; Season 2 fish tacos; Season 3 pork with mango; Season 4 Chicago hot dogs; Season 5 (New Orleans) went with Big Apple versions of stuff, but each made their own dish which was risky; Season 6 made bacon and lobster pasta; and Season 7 crab cake “essence.”

The least favorite dishes were Season 1, 2, 5, and 7. The favorites were Seasons 3, 4 and 6. And the winner was Season 4–who made their own sausage and who had Richard Blais make a mustard gelato. Of course he did! Let the games begin, right? So that team won immunity for this week.

Then it was time for the elimination challenge. And this too was genius–take the dish that sent you home, and make it better. The winner would receive $10K, and they would serve half at a time, while the other half dined with the judges and also commented, with a TV in the kitchen so that the other chefs could see what they were saying. Ha!

The winning dishes were made by Spike (pickled mushrooms and scallops with lime dressing), Jamie (pan seared black bass and celery sauce), Richard (pork belly with bread and butter radishes) and Angelo (homemade ramen with pork belly and watermelon)–but Richard was not eligible because he kept plating after the buzzer went off. And the favorite dish was…Angelo. This dude is a monster and the previous seasons had better reckon with him in a hurry. Richard, of course, thought he had the best dish but was disqualified.

The least favorites were by Fabio (pasta with crawfish and crab stew), Stephen (lobster egg rolls and hibiscus ponzu) and Elia (red snapper steamed in ti leaves). Fabio took exception to Bourdain’s criticism that the dish looked awful and didn’t taste good. It was pretty comical. Elia pleaded with the judges not to eliminate her, but in the end, that’s who they chose, because she didn’t do anything different with the dish that got her sent home the first time. That’ll do it.

So we’re now down to 17……this show is awesome and there is going to be a lot of continued ego-fights and fun, with lots of amazing food. Man, I sure would love to be a judge on this show just to taste everything. Thanks for reading and see you all next week….