This season on Top Chef… knives, fire, emotion, cursing, crying, cursing, cursing, a guy saying he has two speeds, “full boar and dead”—and yes, I think that’s a pig pun either he or I just made.
Pack your knives and LET’S GO. Top Chef is back, and it’s in California with chefs we’re probably going to love and/or hate in three months when one of them gets to pack his or her knives… and become super-famous in the food world.
Top Chef is the foie gras of food competition shows—luscious, insanely delicious, unnecessarily decadent and, honestly, different from everything else in a way that’s mostly good but sometimes just plain weird.
As we meet our cheftestants for this season—17 of them in all—there is just one who isn’t already an executive chef. That’s Frances, who is a sous chef at Buddakan in New York, where my old friend from high school—and one of my best friend’s exes who lived with us in college for a year which got kinda weird, but that’s another story for another recap—recently got married to Brian Ray, the restaurant’s executive chef. Plus she has my dead grandmother’s name. I’m now rooting for Frances. (If I don’t get a free appetizer out of this plug, someone is going to fry.)
Frances is intimidated by being relatively under-qualified.
And she should be, because the other cheftestants include Renee Kelly, the self-proclaimed “super-sassy chef from Kansas City,” who instantly became Top Chef Villain #1 of the season. Congrats. You win nothing.
Padma then asks, “Aren’t there a few James Beard nominees in this room?” Tom raises his hand. God, Tom, you are such a dick and in the greatest possible way. We missed you so. If we were still doing #TrueDetectiveSeason2 memes, my pick would be—and always will be—Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi.
There are, it turns out, a few James Beard nominees, including one chef who was missing the awards that night to be on the first episode of this season. Wow, she better not get packed up and gone tonight.
There are a bunch of other chefs we’ll meet along the way, and a lot of female chefs to boot, which Top Chef has always done a remarkable job promoting, especially compared to other cooking competition shows which seem to recycle the same five or six female celebrity chefs in everything they do.
Hey, look, Grayson is back. She competed in season 9 before getting emotionally burned out and packing her knives earlier than she had hoped. “Four years later, I’m a little bit older, I’m a little bit fatter and hopefully I’m a lotta bit better.”
Words of wisdom, Grayson? “NOPE.” It’s on.
And so is the first Quickfire. The mise en place race. That’s where we meet Kwame for the first time, who gives us the first “I never thought I’d get here from where I was” of the season.
The cheftestants have to peel eggs, potatoes, asparagus, chickens, oranges and other things that are harder to prepare than most of us think.
Hey, look, it’s Phillip, who has won Chopped, Guy’s Grocery Games and Cutthroat Kitchen, which I think officially makes him a staff member at Food Network, so this seems like a conflict of interest.
Sassy Renee wins the quickfire race butchering chickens. Wesley finishes second. He’s a two-time James Beard nominee and he just took over Richard Blais’ restaurant The Spence in Atlanta. Hey, that’s where I first tried foie gras and I swear I didn’t know I was going to be able to tie that in so quickly.
Phillip just got an orange in the eye! And then almost everyone finished their mise en place and there are only two spots left and Garrett calls for a check on his eggs and has a few broken yolks and needs JUST ONE YOLK to qualify for the yolk playoffs or something, I’ve lost track, and of course he can’t do it because it’s Top Chef and they probably planted a bucket full of exploding egg yolks just for the drama of it all.
My favorite part of this screen capture is Padma, intently looking as Tom checks the yolks. Tell me this wouldn’t be the best crime drama on TV.
The last spot goes to Grayson, by the skin of her chicken (yes, Tom made that joke) which means the Chopped winner with the orange in his eye and the yolk dude are out for the chance to earn immunity. They aren’t kicked off the show yet, which is disappointing.
Oh my God—we’re only 10 minutes in, which means we’re about to skip a lot of relevant details.
The nine cheftestants who advanced are paired into groups of three and they’ll have to cook as a team, where two of them have to stand blindfolded while one cooks and then they tag in. Insert sexy-blindfold joke from Frances then more cursing.
Then one chefstestant who can’t tell his partner what he did put his chicken in the oven! How will he ever find the chicken you just hid in a closed box when he couldn’t see? In the history of Top Chef, that’s the dumbest thing ever done in a team challenge.
Shocker, the red team lost. Losers. The winners were the blue team, despite “clunky” knifework. Immunity to them!
Which brings us to the Elimination Challenge. It’s a two-part challenge, because why wouldn’t it be?
There will be 200 VIP guests at their first event, which is the kind of Top Caterer challenge most fans of Top Chef hate and the producers don’t seem to care because chaos gets better ratings than beautiful food and feeding all the people who write about your show seems like a smart business model. The cheftestants go to Whole Foods after a commercial that told us part two of the premiere is tonight, so I have to do this all over again, and man alive—that’s a lot of cursing in one week.
Grayson said she has “raves about my balls” which is probably the only reason to cook meatballs for 200 food snobs, I mean that to say critics and bloggers. Then the sassy chef asks if someone stole her cart. Nobody did. Drama!
There’s a cooking montage for the next few minutes, with chopping, yelling of how much time is left and a few people talking about their dishes. More balls, noodles, and seafood.
Garret is the philosopher of the group, telling the audience watching on BRAVO, “If you have your head up your culinary ass, you’ll never grow as a chef. Cooking is a continuation of philosophy because it’s a study of aesthetics; gustatory aesthetics, but there’s nothing more connected with human existence than the cultural manifestation of cuisine.”
The guy made noodles. For 200 people. Hello Villain Number Two!
Then Wesley—the guy who took over Blais’ joint—purréed a tomato with the tag still on it. Stick that up your gustatory aesthetics, Garret.
Emeril showed up as a judge, and he knows New Orleans chef Isaac, so the fix is in. Cut back to Wesley, who is a mess. Cut back to Isaac again, who gets called out by Emeril because collusion isn’t really a thing in cooking shows when everyone knows everyone anyway.
And… scene. Let’s see the cheftestants’ Los Angeles crash pad for a few minutes. See, they are real people. Hey, Frances’ wife looks just like Renee. Karen’s wife went to the Beard awards for her. (Karen didn’t win, but she won in her wife’s heart. That doesn’t fill a restaurant though.)
In day two, the chefs set up in the shadow of the Hollywood hills for a jaunty montage of setting up cooking stations. I know I write like I hate the nuance of this show in its inherent inanity, but it’s what sets it apart from every other show on TV and the exact reason why so many of us love it.
Garret hates Mike Isabella, calling his food “one of the worst bastardizations of kind of Italian food in the history of the world.” THIS GUY IS THE WORST PERSON EVER. Of course Marjorie works for Isabella, so that’s why it came up. Or just because Garret is a horrible person.
More montages and wild dogs running around. And… tasting time.
Isaac makes his grandmother’s shrimp dish and, shocker, Emeril loves it. Collusion!
We’ll skip most of the food shots, but basically some were good and some were not. Amar, who has immunity, says he is a “porkaholic” which is a term probably more people should use in daily conversation. Don’t pork and drive, Amar. A reviewer from People Magazine loved his pork.
Emeril comments next on how together everyone is, which means the next person they show is going to be screwed.
Hey, it’s Grayson again! Grayson’s balls were in “Jersey tomato sauce” which, living in Jersey I know EXACTLY what Tom meant. Padma says Grayson could have done more and she yelled—yelled—”I made four hundred balls!”
Carl made a soup and says “I like herbs, I like acid, I like spice” and I think that’s the first time he’s been on the show.
The guy who put the chicken in the oven, Jeremy, made a good dish. Happy for his redemption.
Wesley, already the class slob, got yelled at by Tom and Padma for using a spoon he’s cooking with to taste. See, here’s a picture of it.
Let’s stop here for a second. I see this all the time on cooking shows, and most times the producers include the judges ripping chefs for it. Other times, it passes without a conversation at all. But how often do you see super high-end professional chefs throwing their fingers in a dish to taste it and nobody says anything. I’m not suggesting a used spoon is better than a finger, but it’s barely worse. What’s happening at our local chain restaurants if the top chefs on, well, Top Chef, are this disgusting with their preparation?
Of course, they both liked Wesley’s food.
Gail Simmons is paired with Emeril and they ate Phillip’s crab and veggie dish and loved it, giving us the Gail Simmons line of the night, as Emeril said Phillip is the new California cuisine, followed by, “He is it, with his man bun and his white teeth and his puffed amaranth. Exactly.”
More quick food shots from cheftestants who don’t yet stand out but won’t be eliminated this week. They bang out about five or six in the matter of 45 or 50 seconds.
The dubstep cuts of random people eating and talking is wonderful, and then Padma and Tom show up at Garret’s station, where Padma tells him his noodles are broken and his dish is bitter from burnt garlic. That literally made me smile.
The chefs comment on how much food they just ate and run down the critics’ favorites. Tom calls their choices interesting, which means he hates every one of them.
The bottom chefs were four women and Garret. The top five were all dudes. So much for progressiveness.
As only Top Chef can manage to pull off, two of the bottom five—Renee and Frances—have immunity, leaving returning cheftestant Grayson, Angelina, who is the youngest and clearly the least experienced, and Garret, who won’t go home because he’s way too valuable to the show as the obnoxious villain.
Tom lays in hard on Grayson, questioning her ambition, which sets up a sure-fire fight in the elimination chamber, er, judges table.
At judges table, Tom said everyone did well. Yay, they’re all safe! No, they aren’t, don’t be silly—this is Top Chef.
Amar, Carl and Jeremy had the best dishes from the critics’ picks. Gail gushes about Amar’s balls. Padma loved Carl’s soup. Tom called Jeremy’s dish predictable but really, really good. Emeril called him organized, and everyone stares at Wesley.
The winner is Jeremy, which goes to show you that being predictable but good is better than making something that’s taking a risk. Or has Jersey sauce.
The bottom three defended their dishes and Angelina gets chided because she didn’t push the envelope enough. But the guy who won didn’t push the envelope either! This show. Man, this show.
And then came the Grayson scene we had been building to all episode, which was the kind of judges-table fight we love on Top Chef.
Emeril: “I’ll cut through the bulls**t, okay and just, like be straight. I had more expectations from you.”
Grayson: “I’ll put sparkles.”
No way she’s gone. She’s too valuable as the snarky “been here done that” character. No way. It has to be Angelina. (Feverishly forwards through commercials.)
Tom gives some sage advice about making the most of the opportunity before passing to Padma who says…
“Garret, please pack your knives and go.”
That, I did not see coming. Neither did this guy.
Top Chef is always full of surprises. And that’s why we love it.
Top Chef is the best food show ever put on TV, one that punches you in the gut while simultaneously making it grumble with hunger pangs. Part two tomorrow, where the cheftestants have to make soup out of cheese the moon is made from. That, or open four pop-ups in Los Angeles in one day.
Someone’s bossy! Someone doesn’t know how to make wings! Find out who… next time.
(Note: We decided to do this because we love Top Chef, but mostly because we miss the weekly recaps at KSK from @Unsilent. This is my 2,300-word hat tip to him. Subsequent episodes may get shorter reviews or none at all. We’ll see how this is, ahem, digested. And yes, now I’m starving.)