Three weeks in, we finally get the true première of Top Chef Texas: Our 16 chefs have been selected, are wearing their promised coats, and step into the kitchen for the first true-format episode of the season. As such, I'll resume A.V. Club tradition here, breaking things down into the quickfire and elimination rounds in these recaps. Scott Tobias started doing this a few seasons ago, and I followed suit, because at this stage, with this many contestants, Top Chef can be a bit of a waiting game. Generally speaking, the lesser chefs have to be eliminated before things get really interesting, and we need to spend longer with the chefs before we're truly attached to any of them. That housekeeping out of the way, let's put some motherfuckin' snakes on some motherfuckin' plates.
Top Chef Texas jumps out of the gate with a rattlesnake challenge—a nice nod to the location and an excellent way to try the contestants' willingness to jump in bed with an unfamiliar piece of meat. Guest judge Johnny Hernandez provides the chefs with more information about rattlesnake than they've historically gotten in this type of situation—famous for cooking game, Hernandez tells the chefs that rattlesnake's actually a delicate meat and won't hold up under heavy spices. Two awesome things round out the challenge: that the producers manage to fake out some of the chefs by putting the dead-and-skinned snakes in boxes with breathing holes, and that Padma gets to say "fuck" twice in the same sentence. Here's to hoping that's not the last time she's scripted to say "motherfucker," preferably delivered the way she did tonight, with the same campy, "gee whiz" enthusiasm seen in, say, the Sesame Street episode from last season.
I wish more time had been spent on the preparation here. That's the bummer of putting this forward as the quickfire challenge—out of the way in under 20 minutes, the time constraints don't allow us to get a great sense of how adept the chefs were with the rattlesnake, or how their dishes tasted. Richie and Sarah both go for lemon, and the seasoning lands them in both the bottom and winning pools. Richie drowned his rattlesnake with it, but Sarah's light zest before the frier landed her in the top. Also up top is crazy-motivated Beverly, who's likely spent a fair amount of time in the self-help aisle at Barnes & Noble. Her rattlesnake nigiri with basil aioli was edged out by Dakota, who wins via one of the Top Chef mantras—when in doubt, beer-batter and fry it.
Another tough challenge here in the first episode—not so much by asking the contestants to cook traditional Mexican food, but by dividing them into teams, especially when they don't know each other very well. Here they're asked to cook for Blanca, a girl celebrating her quinceañera. Teamwork has proved to be the downfall of many cheftestants, and here we see nothing less. The pink team unravels pretty quickly, largely because of Keith, whose huggable demeanor vanishes in the face of precooked shrimp. He figures it will save the team time and money, but has either never seen an episode of Top Chef, or has forgotten the many, many contestants of seasons past whose purchase of pre-made or pre-cooked products has gotten them eliminated. It's akin to offering to make dessert. Lindsay's so baffled by the choice that it sends her into a quiet rage, and the team doesn't really recover after that. They devolve straight through to Judge's Table, where they bicker and point fingers and generally behave annoyingly. Not an endearing way to start off the season. Keith goes home for the shrimp mistake, as well as his soggy, flour-tortilla-wrapped enchiladas.
The weirdest thing about tonight's challenge is that there was no winner—the green team won as a whole, but I can't remember any other time where a winner hasn't been picked from the group. No one from this group gets to move forward with that plume in his or her hat, and that also means we didn't get any serious discussion or praise at judge's table. All around, there have been few early indicators about who the strongest contenders are.
- Thanks to Margaret Eby for filling in last week. Sorry for any confusion about the byline; she filled in last-minute, and it didn't get updated in time.
- It wasn't clear from the way it was cut, but I hope they asked Sarah for her opinion about the flour tortilla—otherwise her jumping on the Keith-bashing boat to say that she'd never made an enchilada that way is super annoying.
- I've got to say, I'm still undecided about Hugh Acheson as a judge (ignoring his antics on Masters as a contestant). He's certainly not pulling any punches, which makes for great TV, but I'm not finding a lot of nuance in what he's saying. He seems quick to trot out the criticism, but not much of it is constructive.
- Beverly's yelling in the meat section. Wow.
- The quick shot of the judges contemplating the leaning tres leches cake was hilarious. And still, she beat out Dakota! Smart to assign dessert to the chef with immunity.
- Blanca! Spot on with her food critique!