Top Chef is back, and with it, so is Grayson and the classic relay race Quickfire Challenge!

Let’s take it from the top though: to celebrate its 10 year anniversary, Top Chef takes us back to California, where it all began 13 seasons ago. The show has come a long way since San Francisco’s season 1 and L.A.’s season 2 – no more Tiffani acting like a brat (although she completely redeemed herself since the All Stars season, and her Boston restaurant Sweet Cheeks serves the most delicious biscuits ever), no more Marcel and his hideous attempts at rhyming and rapping (he’s also come a long way since then), and thankfully no more Elia, with her head-shaving antics and increasingly bad attitude (unlike Tiff, she was awful on All Stars).

Fortunately the show has shifted its focus in later seasons from the drama-filled kitchen back-stabbing to the reason foodies actually tune in: the food, casting high quality chefs instead of loud personalities that are destined to clash with each other.

So what’s new this season? So far, it seems like they’re revisiting the Texas season format, which has them traveling around the state. I’m not sure if this is a good idea – sure, the journey from L.A. to S.F. is supposed to be symbolic and it makes for a nice change of scenery, but it takes away from the main goal, which is to give us amazing food. Watching the chefs sweat under the Texas sun was fun, but I don’t really care if they can camp out in the desert, adapt to working in makeshift kitchens and using fire pits as their only heat source; I’d rather watch them cook under normal circumstances and produce beautiful dishes without worrying about the weather, cramped kitchens or impossible time restrictions. Isn’t that why they dropped the (heavily featured in earlier seasons) limited budget device in the first place? To give the chefs a chance to cook what they want without reading every price tag when they shop around Whole Foods? I’d rather not see them tired from driving along the PCH and packing every couple of days, but I guess it remains to be seen.

The episode begins, as always, with a brief introduction of our new crop of 17 chefs. All of them are executive chefs save one, the obligatory gay female sous-chef, Frances. She seems super cool, questionable hairdo aside, and her Filipino heritage will probably make for some interesting dishes.

The one chef that sticks out the most during the introduction is the first one to speak: Renee is quick to point out that she’s the super sassy chef from Kansas City, and there’s a collective eye-roll going around the room. Seriously, who says that about themselves? Ugh. Other stand outs: Karen, a James Beard award nominee, who is missing the  ceremony to be there, Garrett, who seems absolutely lovely, and of course the returning Grayson, whom I really liked in her season but God, could she talk more slowly? Every time she opens her mouth is as if she’s trying to explain rocket science to a dim-witted toddler.

Quickfire Challenge

Without further ado, the Quickfire Challenge begins, and it’s the all-time favorite relay race. Each chef can choose whether to break down chickens, turn asparagus stalks, separate eggs or segment oranges, and the super sassy chef is surprisingly in the lead, while Grayson makes it last by the skin of her teeth (or, rather, by the skin of her chicken, as Tom commented). One by one, the 9 available spots are filled by the fastest chefs, who will participate in the next round: cook a dish using at least one of the ingredients you just prepared.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple on Top Chef: not only does every chef in each of the 3-person teams take his turn to cook for a ten minute period, but also the other two will have to remain blind-folded until it’s their turn, and there can be no communication among them. Now, this always makes for fun TV viewing, but you don’t have to be a contestant to realize how incredibly hard this challenge is, which means we never get phenomenal dishes as a result. Ten minutes is not nearly long enough to gather your ingredients and start prepping your mise-en-place, let along do some actual cooking to set the next person up.

This challenge is all about smart cooking – and smart thinking. The first member needs to carefully plan out a dish and leave enough clues for chef #2 to continue in the same vein, the second member has to pick up where chef #1 left off and set person #2 up for the win, and of course the one that goes in last needs to wrap everything up neatly in a tight, cohesive dish.

Out of the three teams, Green and Blue worked seamlessly but Red Team was off to a rocky start: the minute we heard Jason say he doesn’t actually have a plan for the dish and his strategy was to provide a ‘range’ of ingredients, we knew they were doomed.

red

Next up, Jeremy sealed their fate by popping the chicken into the oven, hoping in vain that Wesley would think to look there. Instead, poor Wesley ended up using the only pieces of chicken he could salvage from the legs that had been cooking on the grill and were, by now, burnt to a crisp, and was a little heavy-handed with the anchovy, throwing the tiny portion of a dish out of balance.

Green team’s breaded chicken with brown butter, mushroom and asparagus was well cooked and looked (and apparently tasted) great…

green

…But in the end, blue team picks up the win the win – and immunity for all three members – on flavor alone, as Tom seemed to really enjoy their sweet & sour chicken with marinated slaw.

blue

When they finally go home to unpack and relax before the Elimination Challenge, sassy Kansan chef makes a slightly homophobic joke about bunking with Frances, which really bugs me, but let’s just call this bad humor for now.

Elimination Challenge

For their Elimination Challenge, they each have to cook a dish, any dish they like, for 200 people. That’s a tall order for any chef, without a crew to help out with food prep and serving, but it’s their first opportunity to impress the judges and showcase their style of cooking. A lot of food critics and bloggers attend the event, which adds extra pressure to all these chefs trying to get their name – and restaurants – out there.

top chef

They are the ones who will decide who will land safely at the top and who’s on the bottom, and of course the judges (Tom, Padma, the lovely Gail Simmons and returning judge Emeril Lagasse) will make the final decisions.

Although most first eliminations usually feature one or two catastrophes, this time we’re treated to more-or-less very professional, calm and collected chefs. Looks like we’re off to a great start!

Karen’s salmon and apple tartare and Jeremy’s snapper crudo with kombu gel and lime zest were a hit among the judges.

So was Wesley’s à la minute shrimp and clam dish with mustard potato salad, however neither Tom nor Padma were happy about his sloppy work station, and especially his tasting habits (never a good idea to put your tasting spoon back in the food). They totally call him out on it, even taking a second jab at messy chefs in general when they praised Jeremy’s clean bench at judge’s table. Take note, people.

Wesley

The judges seemed to enjoy Phillip’s ‘California produce with flavors of the Pacific’ dish as well, even though he had thrown everything but the kitchen sink in there; he seems to be the quintessential California food representative on the show, manbun and all, and won’t hesitate to point that out to everyone who will listen, as evidenced by his name-dropping every single critic or food blogger he saw at the event, which understandably irked the other chefs.

Frances’ mung bean soup with bitter melon was a bold choice, since most people don’t really enjoy the bitter taste, but I love how she played to her heritage and just went all out to make a statement.

Tom liked it, but, predictably, it wasn’t exactly a crowd favorite.

Carl’s choice of spiced carrot soup was equally bold, but for different reasons: going too simple is a smart option when you have to serve so many people, but will it impress the judges’ palates? Apparently so, because it was a balanced and delicious bowl of food.

Equally simple was Grayson’s dish, but there was nothing exciting about the pork & veal meatball in tomato sauce. When a judge tells you it tastes like the food you’d get from any number of italian restaurants all over the country (ouch!), it’s never good news.

Amar’s meatball, on the other hand, was a resounding success: sherry glazed pork belly meatball with celery root cream cheese puree?

Yes please!

 

Garrett’s vietnamese chicken brodo had the judges torn: Gail and Emeril enjoyed the dish, but by the time Padma and Tom went by his station, his garlic was burnt and his home made noodles were not a success. Consistency is key for any chef, so this is a huge no-no.

Garret
Angelina, the youngest chef in the competition, and Renee didn’t really impress anyone with their soggy goat cheese croquette with parsnip puree and under-seasoned pork loin with polenta dishes, respectively.

Tasting done and results tallied, the judges looked pleased with the chefs’ performance. No one made anything inedible, no one ran out of food, so once again, looks like we’re off to a great start this season.

Judges’ Table

At judges’ table, Amar, Carl and Jeremy land on top. Isaac’s shrim court-bouillon and Kwame’s spicy romaine mah haw with shrimp, pork, pineapple & peanuts were also ranked high by the critics and also enjoyed by the judges, but I guess not enough to make them contenders this time. On the other hand, Chad and Jason’s dishes were favorites among the judges but didn’t impress the critics.

In the end, Jeremy takes the win. I was a bit surprised, since both Amar and Carl’s dishes were not only crowd pleasers but also unanimously praised by the judges, but they’re the ones who actually tasted all three dishes, so who am I to say otherwise?

Out of the critics’ least favorite dishes, Renee and Frances have immunity, which means Grayson, Garrett and Angelina are up for elimination. Seems fair, as no one really enjoyed Angelina’s croquette, Garrett’s plates were inconsistent, and Grayson’s addition of lemon zest to her meatball wasn’t enough to make it a stand-out dish.

What’s incredible, however, is that Grayson was actually surprised – pissed off, even – at landing on the bottom. She of all people should know what the judges are looking for in this competition, having been through it before. She jokingly mouths off at them a little, apparently thinking that making 400 meatballs should have been enough (seriously?) and fails to understand what’s so unremarkable about a pedestrian meatball swimming in tomato sauce with some gremolata on top, promising to put ‘sparkles’ on it next time. Meh. I don’t see her lasting too long this season if she keeps it up. These contestants should use this simple piece of logic as a rule of thumb, as far as I’m concerned: could a home cook produce an equally good version of your dish? If the answer is yes, just pick something else. [Also, is it just me or did she say she followed the challenge perimeters (instead of parameters)? You’d think the advantage of speaking so slowly is that they have ample time to pick the right word to use…]

After a bit of deliberation, the judges decide that it’s Garrett’s time to go, as neither of the other two chefs made a serious mistake on their dishes, and I’m sad to see him go. He seemed like a nice guy, and he takes his elimination like a man, calling it a humbling experience. Maybe he’ll fare better on Last Chance Kitchen and return for the finale – who knows? [I think I’m going to skip LCK this season and actually be surprised when it’s time to bring the finalist back.]


All in all, an enjoyable season premiere.

California produce and talented chefs suggest we’re in for some interesting food for this 13th season of Top Chef, and hopefully we’ll get to see fun challenges and plenty of cool guest judges. I’m rooting for Anthony Bourdain to return as a judge – he always made of a very interesting (and hilarious) judges’ table!

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