Hello and welcome back to another season of Top Chef blogging. With this following right on the heels of Top Chef Masters, your friendly neighborhood recapper is feeling mighty fatigued—and a little bit hungry, of course—but after a summer of polite professionals turning out great dish after great dish, I’m once again ready for some rank amateurs to serve up a few culinary Hindenburgs.
The sixth season brings us to Las Vegas, which has become a culinary hotspot despite being in a climate where fresh, local ingredients are not really an option. As you might expect, the gambling and tacky glitz of the Strip are not lost on the producers, who appear poised to lay on the casino-inspired gimmicks, like bringing Stardust showgirls into the kitchen just because they can. Based on tonight’s entertaining hour, I can’t begrudge the show for ratcheting up the twists a little, even as I cringe at the inevitable deluge of gambling metaphors to come.
A few stray thoughts on the introductions:
• How many chefs aren’t James Beard Award nominees? I’m beginning to think it’s the most generous awards-giving body this side of the Webbys.
• Kevin ditched an MIT scholarship for cooking school, and his parents still speak to him apparently. Lucky for him, he seems to know what he’s doing.
• How in the world did Hosea win last season? It’s like a bad dream.
• So many tattoos and body-piercings in this season’s bunch. Is this still Top Chef or American Chopper?
• Brother versus brother, a guy who came to America via a 27-day boat trip from Haiti, a woman with lymphoma, another with one of those horrific hoops stretching out her earlobes—a pretty fun-looking bunch.
• Padma takes great pains to point out all the beautiful new GE Monogram equipment. Please be sure to detail in the comments how GE appliances have brought chaos and tragedy to your family. Because that’s the way we deal with product plugs in these parts.
This week’s Quickfire challenge is the first twist, at least in the timing of it. The “mise en place relay” has become a Top Chef staple; in fact, just two weeks have passed since Top Chef Masters employed the relay in its own Quickfire. But to have it as the first one of the season, with the full 17 original contestants, was an unexpected turn and a wise one, as it happens. Dividing into four teams of four—with Robin, the lone gold-chip winner, getting to sit out and have immunity in the Elimination challenge—the chefs cut, peel, and shuck their way through 15 clams, 30 prawns, 5 lobsters, and a giant hunk of beef ribs. The main problem with a four-team, 16-person Quickfire is that it’s hard to keep track of the participants, much less have a stake in rooting for any of them. Then again, two of the teams are buried in the first round—I think poor Pritti may still be shucking clams, and ear-ring Jennifer slices her fingers trying to pry open hers—and the other two are locked in an exciting race to the finish.
The winners of the Quickfire then have an opportunity to cook against each other for a chance to win $15,000 outright and immunity. (Twist #2!) And Robin, the gold-chip winner, has a chance to compete for the fifteen grand, too, if she’s willing to give up her immunity to do so. Incredibly, she declines to risk getting kicked off, despite there being 16 other people who could stand a chance to go home, too. (Mike, who strikes me early on as talented but generally obnoxious, is tactless but correct when he says of Robin, “This is one less old lady I have to worry about.” Someone who shrinks from a challenge like that, with the best odds to advance she’s going to see the entire season, doesn’t seem like much of a threat.) That said, Robin didn’t stand much of a chance against this very strong group, particularly the temperamental Eric Ripert protégé Jennifer C., who wins with a simple clam ceviche.
The Elimination challenge was one of those vague assignments that I don’t generally like: Cook a dish based on a vice. That pretty much gives the chefs license to do just about anything they like, though it was nonetheless startling how many chose alcohol abuse as their vice. (At least six, by my count.) Once again, they had to do battle against their Quickfire teams, with the best and the worst in each group sent in front of the judges. From the beginning, it was obvious that ear-ring Jennifer was in serious jeopardy simply by virtue of her main ingredient: the dreaded seitan. Kevin calls her use of the fermented, compressed soybeans “super-ballsy,” but follows it up with the frank assessment that “nobody fucking likes that stuff.” And when Jennifer actually botches the dish, that sealed the deal; perfect seitan (seriously, even the name “seitan” is suggestive) would have won scowls at best, but the sad brick of stuffed pepper she wound up serving seemed criminal to the judges. (From Wolfgang Puck, who scored several acerbic one-liners tonight: “If you cooked it at home, these people would never come visit you again.”)
Other interesting dishes: Laurine’s bacon donuts with a choice of Belgian beer and chocolate sauce sounded like heaven on a plate to me, but she put the “d’oh” in donuts. (Wolfgang again, after hurling one across the room: “This is like a football.”) The judges seemed perplexed by Hector’s decision to deep-fry a smoked ribeye, but I was fairly impressed by his cultural rationale for doing so; he wins the prize for most articulate in defense of a losing dish. And though no one was going to outstink Jennifer’s seitan, it’s pretty clear that Robin, a nice woman who already seems overmatched, may have reason to not feel confidence in her abilities. On the plus side, you have to love Ron’s bizarre vice of taking a boat to America—though he mentioned some people being tossed overboard, which is kind of a vice—and feel happy that his fish turned out nicely. Quickfire winner Jennifer C. was in contention again to take the Elimination prize with her whisky/bourbon/scotch halibut, so she’s emerging as an early frontrunner (and heavy-drinking terror potentially). Ditto winner Kevin, who justified his MIT drop-out decision with the strange-but-inspired-sounding arctic char with a salsa verde of turnips.
So who do you like? Who’s going home? Who’s Mr. or Ms. Controversy? I’m feeling pretty good about this group—they seem entertaining, contentious and talented overall, which is a [insert some other word for “recipe” here] for a good season.
• Don’t expect posts nearly this timely in the future. I’m working off the one preview screener I get from Bravo at the beginning of each season.
• I have not acquainted myself with Wolfgang Puck the respected chef. I’ve only had Wolfgang Puck: The Inedible Airport Food. He had a steep hill to climb for me, but I’ll admit he made an enjoyably frisky guest judge.
• I hate to sound like an intolerant fuddy-duddy, but I’m relieved to not have to look at seitan Jennifer’s stretched-out earlobes all season. As Nina Garcia once said of Santino’s avant-garde lingerie on Project Runway, “It’s aesthetically not pleasing.”
• Okay, Top Chef Masters finale coming on in three minutes. Gotta run…