Top Chef is back! It’s back! And this time, it’s in New York City. Is anyone else kind of surprised that this is the first time that Top Chef has hit up the Big Apple? I mean, not to sniff at Miami or anything, but isn’t NYC the center of the food universe, at least in the United States?
It was kind of shocking to see a whole new crop of contestants after I got so used to the people from season four—and it was even more unsettling that they were all vaguely reminiscent of contestants from other seasons. Daniel, the straight-talking dude from Long Island, has the look and feel of Howie from Top Chef Miami. Patrick, the young, fresh-faced and hopelessly inexperienced culinary student, reminded me of Candice, the young, fresh-faced and hopelessly inexperienced culinary student from Top Chef San Francisco.
But what we’re really all dying to know is, who will be this Season’s Stephen Aspiriano, who is by far the best crazy ego-maniac villain this franchise has ever produced? Who will end up annoying the crap out of all the other contestants, while constantly talking up the superiority of his or her kitchen skills?
Well, we don’t really find out this episode, although the producers seem to think that it’s going to be Giant Finn Stefan (I’ll reserve judgment until later in the season, thank you very much). In fact, the episode is so busy trying to establish characters for all the different contestants that everything is kind of a big blur. It’s difficult to keep everyone’s names and faces straight (17 contestants!), let alone what their personalities and cooking skills are like.
The episode begins, as one might expect, with a bunch of iconic shots of New York, followed by introductions to a bunch of the contestants. It’s clear from the outset that there’s a range of skill levels. Lauren, a 24-year-old recent culinary school graduat, looks like she’s on much shakier ground than, say, the heavily tattooed Jamie, who’s the Executive Chef at Absinthe in San Francisco and looks like she could do a perfect dice in her sleep. After a bunch of obligatory biographies and “why hello, who are you?” vignettes, the chefs get herded onto a ferry and shipped off to Governor’s Island (apparently, one can only cook in iconic, NYC locations).
The chefs step off the ferry and there, in all their designer fashion glory, stand Padma Lakshmi (who is the only reason why WonkthePlank watches this show) and Tom Colicchio (admittedly a big reason why I watch this show). Tom looks great, but Wonk theplank is not pleased with Padma’s casual-sporty outfit, and wants to know where the purple dress with the push-up bra that’s all over the previews has gone.
The hosts make a couple of introductions, but then waste no time getting down to what we all know is coming: the Quickfire challenge. And this time, the stakes are even higher, because whoever loses the Quickfire challenge is getting kicked off the show—before they even get to see the famed Top Chef Product-Placement Kitchen and everything. Oh snap!
The Quickfire challenge is a test of basic kitchen skills, and is a cheesy reference to how they’re in The Big Apple. The chef’s first task is to see who can peel 15 apples (do you get the Big Apple reference?) the fastest, using only a paring knife. The first one done wins the challenge and will be safe from elimination. The first nine to finish peeling their apples will be safe, while the bottom eight have to move on to another task.
Tom makes a big deal about how the peeling must be “perfect,” with not too much flesh taken off the fruit, and I prepare myself for a big apple showdown. But people seem to do pretty well wish this challenge, and Tom doesn’t have a lot to criticize. Pity. Stefan, the Giant Finn, is the first one to finish, winning the challenge and immunity to boot.
The remaining eight contestants have to dice the apples in a Brunoise dice (a very fine, precise, small dice). The first four to finish will be safe. Poor little Plucky Patrick, who didn’t make it through the apple peeling-round, seems to be struggling, especially when he sees that Long Island Daniel is practically killing his cutting board with the speed and strength of his fine dice. Little Lauren, the recent culinary grad from Georgia, also seems to be struggling. So Long Island Daniel, Alex (who lives in LA but is so obviously from New York), Eugene (who never went to culinary school), and Jill (who didn’t really make an impression on me except that she lives in DC’s sister city in crime and failing education – Baltimore), get done with the Brunoise dice first.
It’s down to Plucky Patrick, Little Lauren, Rhadika (from Chicago), and Leah (from NYC), who now have to cook something witht the apples that will prove to Tom that they deserve to stay in the competition, Even though Rhadika makes a chutney with her apples, and serves it over pork. Little Lauren decides to make an apple salad with bacon and blue cheese (I knew this was a mistake when she did this, because even I know that that’s a boring combo). Plucky Patrick makes an apple-yogurt salad (hmmm) served over some type of protein, while Leah cooks up scallops with an apple hash that actually looks like something I would order in a restaurant.
Tom actually likes Leah’s dish (he says the scallops are perfectly cooked), and he thinks that Rhadika’s dish is well balanced and well seasoned, so they’re both safe. This brings it down to the two newbies, Plucky Patrick and Little Lauren. Tom doesn’t talk that much at this point—he just just sort of looks at each of them, obviously unimpressed. He finally chooses Patricki’s dish because he liked it “a little” more than Lauren’s. And with that, Miss Lauren and her blue-cheese bacon salad are outta there.
After this lovely introduction to the show, the contestants get to check out their new digs, which are pretty fabulous (and I think the couch in their living room is from Room and Board. I covet that couch. Covet it. Maybe Bravo can give it to me after the show is over). One of the contestants, staring out at the beautiful, million-dollar view from the Top Chef apartment, talks abut how he didn’t know that NYC could be so beautiful. On honey, it can be—all you need is millions of dollars socked away in a trust fund somewhere. Anywhere can be pretty with enough money.
Also, the producers also make a big deal about how the gay chefs are bonding with each other and try to make it seem like they’re a huge clique, which I thought was kind of overdone. Then I went to the Bravo site and found out that you can “show your pride” by buying Top Chef “team rainbow” tshirts. Um, doesn’t that strike one as a bit, um, cruelly commercial? It’s only the first episode—do we really know who’s going to be siding with whom yet? So some chefs share some common expierences about being gay and all of the sudden they’ve been branded Team Rainbow? And you’re supposed to buy a T-shirt with the slogan? Please.
The next day it’s time for the real deal—the elimination challenge. The contestants have to choose a knife from the knife block, all of which have different NYC ethnic neighborhoods written on them. The chefs learn that the challenge is to create a dish inspired by their neighborhood. There are two chefs per neighborhood, and the chefs will compete head-to-head. Each chef that wins their match-up will be in the running to win the competition, while the losing chef will be up for elimination. This is going to be good.
Once they’re paired up with their competitors, the chefs venture out into their different neighborhoods, shopping at small, ethnic groceries stores to get their ingredients for the challenge. Just like NYC itself, the neighborhoods span a range of cuisines: Brighton Beach (Russian), Long Island City (Middle Eastern), Jamaica, Little Itay, Chinatown, Ozone Park (Latin), Astoria (Greek) and Little India.
Some of the random pairings are genius, and some aren’t as exciting as you would hope. For instance, Leah, who almost got eliminated in the Quickfire, chooses Little Italy, which isn’t that difficult for her, considering that she works in an Italian restaurant.
On the other hand, there are some doozies. Eugene draws Little India, yet has never cooked an Indian dish in his life and barely knows anything about Indian food. Hosea (from Colorado) and Carla (from DC, baby! She heads up Alchemy Caterers!), get Brighton Beach, and both seem to know very little about Russian food. But Plucky Patrick is going to be okay! He gets Chinatown, but he took a class called The Cuisines of Asia, or something, so he’s all set.
After some more shopping, and cooking, and one kitchen disaster (Jeff, the Prettyboy from Miami, doesn’t really have time to plate his stuff), it’s on to the judging. The guest judge is Jean-Georges Vongerichten, which the chefs seem excited about. But really, we’re much more interested in what Padma’s wearing. WonkthePlank approves of Padma’s low-cut, lemon-colored top, but dude, what is Gail Simmons wearing? She’s very pretty, but the bright, color-blocked dress doesn’t do anything for her. Time for a new stylist, Gail. Maybe Bravo could hook you up with Rachel Zoe?
There were so many dishes that it was difficult for me to keep them all straight—and, really, I felt like the judges spent about two seconds judging each dish. The stand-out dishes are Leah’s Italian farro risotto with seared snapper; Eugene’s Indian lamb with rice, and tsatziki (even if what he creates isn’t actually tsatsiki, but whatever, Padma likes it); and Stefan’s Middle Eastern dou of lamb chops and beef skewers.
Then there are the less successful dishes: Ariane’s Middle Eastern rack of lamb with farro, which she undercooked, and Plucky Patrick’s Chinese mirin-lacquered (isn’t that just a fancy word for “basted”?) salmon with bok choy and gummy black rice noodles. The judges knock Ariane on the undercooked farro, and they knock Plucky Patrick on his lack of inspiration and cliched idea of Chinese cuisine (but that’s what they taught him The Cuisines of Asia!).
Stefan wins, setting up his dominance for the season and, I’m sure, earning him the grudging envy of the other contestants. But seriously, who really cares? It’s the first episode. The judges make a big deal about how four out of five times, whoever wins the first challenge goes on to win the competition (great way to spoil the ending guys), but I’m much more interested in who’s going home.
So the judges have to decide who’s worse: Ariane, the executive chef who doesn’t know how to cook a basic grain, or the unwitting Culinary student? They judges mull it over for awhile, trying to figure out what’s less forgivable—a lack of technical skill, or a lack of creativity.
In the end, it surprises no one that little 21-year-old Plucky Patrick is the one who’s going home. He looks sad, but resolute, in that “well I have my whole life in front of me” way that only 21-year-old students and interns can pull off. Whatever, he only got there because of casting, anyway.
Next week: well, they don’t actually show a preview for next week. But it doesn’t matter because OH MY GOD IT’S MARTHA STEWART. OH my GOD. THE MARTHA. SHE’S GOING TO BE ON THE TOP CHEF. I can now die happy. But is she going to bring Eddie, her best-est bud, with her? That would be TV GOLD. I can only dream, folks. I can only dream.