Welcome back to Top Chef coverage here at The A.V. Club. This ninth season takes us to Texas, where all kinds of tired clichés involving horns and boots surely await us—thankfully between some damn-good cooking and a few nods to Padma's hotness. It's been about a year since I've sat down with the Top Chef franchise, and I have to say, as that ham-fisted Texas montage hit us at the top of the episode, I got excited about the season. I'd been suffering a little from Top Chef franchise overload, so this year, I sat out on Just Desserts and Masters. The distance between last season and this has done me well. I'm back ready to delight in all the terrible puns the producers will make Padma and Tom say, and most of all, I'm ready to see a new crop of chefs cook. (I like eating more than I like reality shows.) By the time the opening spiel was done, I was ready to settle in with my old pals and try to identify the real contenders. Then my old pals went and messed with the formula.
Kicking off any elimination-based reality series is tough enough: There are too many characters to keep track of, we've only the scantest hint of their back stories, and it's impossible to foster any sort of meaningful attachment to any of the cast. Meanwhile, the serious players have yet to emerge, and we're waiting for the minor contestants to be eliminated. (Anyone remember Lynne Gigliotti? Valerie Bolon? Me neither.) The first few episodes of any season of Top Chef are a little bit of a slog. Nearly doubling the number of contestants and bringing 29 chefs to compete for 16 slots is great big Texas insanity. It takes that normal hazing of the first few episodes and amplifies it by 81.25 percent.
The première is essentially part one of a bloated two-part casting episode, in which we get the faintest of introductions to these people, straight down the line, and then frantically try to keep track of who they are and what they're cooking. The chefs are split into groups to compete, but they're not actually competing as a group. The producers have just split the group into manageable chunks, or "heats" (Hot like a quickfire! I'm going to start counting puns). What this means, though, is that we watch the same thing three times in a row, with a slightly different set of parameters. Historically, the first Top Chef challenge has been about testing core skills—the past few seasons have seen chefs tested on how quickly they can perform various kitchen operations: chopping a bucket of produce, butchering, etc. This episode's challenge seems innocent enough—the first heat of chefs must each cook a part of a pig. They stand around, adorably indecisive about whether they should be grabbing at parts or politely asking. It's an awesome portrait of awkwardness, with many of them standing with their hand claiming a sign, while asking, "Is this okay?" It will be fun to watch that courtesy disappear over the coming episodes. (TC contestants are more civil than most, but running and grabbing ingredients has always been fair game.)
It's a bit of an easy get, as far as quickfires go. No tough restrictions on cooking time (one hour), ingredients, or style. The setup won't produce any reality-induced shenanigans, but we do get to see this crop do what they do best. For Sarah Grueneberg, that's creating a beautifully executed pork-skin ravioli; for self-proclaimed wunderkind Tyler Stone, that's haphazardly butchering a piece of meat with a hacksaw. Seeing him eliminated was the highlight of this episode for me. Cast as a villain from the second his smug little baby face appears on the screen, Stone says all the things you have to say when you're destined for reality-show failure: Celebrities love me, other chefs hate me. I'm a child prodigy and really famous.
His demise is every bit as delicious as some of the food on the screen, and that's really what saves the episode for me this time: Spur-of-the-moment elimination! Tom Colicchio asks him about his butchering, insults him, and tells him to get out. I realized just a few moments before Stone did that Colicchio was serious; the deftness with which Colicchio erased the cocksure grin off of that kid's face was incredible. I wish this moment had come a little later in the episode. From that moment forward, I hoped Colicchio would be sneaking around in the kitchen, just waiting for the contestants to screw up so he could speak to them in an abrupt monotone: "Your risotto isn't spreading on the plate. You don't stand a chance. Get out. …No, I'm serious. Get off my television show right now." But alas, once Stone was gone, everyone else made it to the judging.
A couple of contestants failed to pull it together on time, like poor Colin Patterson (Sutra, Seattle), who was cut because he did a truly horrific job pouring soup. Chefs won a Top Chef coat if they received two "yes" votes, were eliminated with two "no" votes, or were placed "on the bubble," which means they cook again in the elimination round… which doesn't take place until next week. Bravo might as well have slapped a giant "TO BE CONTINUED" at the end of 40 minutes and called it a night. There's no real cohesion to the episode; it's essentially just paused mid-drama, with the second chapter delayed. And after that chapter, the regular season really begins with our 16 chefs. So far, it's a Chicago-heavy competition, with five of the 11 chosen chefs hailing from the Windy City, including two a single restaurant—Homaro Cantu's Moto. Countering the Midwestern influence, though, is a mixed bag of specialties, from more experimental cuisine to gastropub. Even though this episode was a bit of a false start—not so much a première as a teaser of things to come—I'm hopeful about this season. I look forward to following it with you guys.
- I'd like to nominate Keith Rhodes as Kevin reincarnate. His Southernness and beard are promising. (Speaking of Kevin Gillespie. Kevin of Season 7 is dead to me.)
- I'm also rooting for Molly, whose cruise-ship cuisine automatically makes her an underdog. Ditto Grayson, who's "between jobs" right now.
- A couple of these listed their credential as "culinary artist." Wikipedia insists this means "chef." Anyone know anything different?
- New judges in Emeril Lagasse and Hugh Acheson, who seem to be polar opposites: Emeril being one of the most recognizable chefs out there because of pervasive product and cookbook empire; and Hugh Acheson (Top Chef Masters, season 3), a relatively affable Southern chef with a relatively short list of credentials.