Welcome once again to the Top Chef blog, as I take you through another season of scallop-searing, demi-glace drizzling fun, this time in New York City, the undisputed capital of America’s culinary world. Having dabbled around in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and Chicago through the first four seasons, the show’s move to New York was both inevitable and perhaps a sign that it needs a boost. In my view, there are few reality shows better than Top Chef, but all of them are slaves to formula and formulas are bound to grow stale, no matter how outrageous the personalities that fed through them. My worry about Season Five: Does Top Chef still have [insert cooking metaphor that’s synonymous to “sizzle” but less cheesy here]? Or has the whole thing gone [insert food metaphor that’s synonymous to “stale” but less cheesy here]?
So after some brief introductions—Jeffrey of the feathery hair, Radhika of the “I’m not going to be pigeonholed as the curry-and-rice Indian chef, here won’t you try my apple chutney” variety, the snooty Europeans—out come a whopping 17 hopefuls, roughly as many as the murderer’s row of economists that accompanied Barack Obama at his first press conference. And right off the bat, I’m wanting to whip out the machete and start hacking away at all the chaff: Culinary students, overachieving moms, caterers… don’t unpack your suitcases. You have no chance of winning, no matter how determined you are to prove otherwise. (Any time a contestant says, “I want to prove that [anyone other than seasoned chefs] can win this competition,” you can rest assured their time is limited.
The three-tiered Quickfire takes a cheeky approach to the whole “Big Apple” concept by having contestants cut apples for two rounds, then make a dish out of them for the third. The first round winnows the field to nine, the second to four, and the last one ends in a would-be Top Chef exiting before he or she even sees the inside of the kitchen or stumbles into the communal hot tub with a heaping glass of white wine. Now, I can understand people who might object over knife skills being the first challenge, but those people are wrong, I think. Knowing how to cut an apple with a knife strikes me as a skillset as fundamental as frying an egg, which has long been the simple standard chefs employ when looking for help on the line. I’d be willing to be that the four of the final five chefs in this competition were standing in the Top Nine after Round One. Not everyone can be Hung, mind—and based on her onion-chopping skills in Season Three, a strong chef like Casey would not make the cut—but I’d guess that a chef’s ability to work a knife speaks to experience and skill even more than a good dish would at this stage.
After two rounds—the second of which has them chopping their peeled apples brunoise-style—we’re left with four bottom-dwellers who are asked to throw together a 20-minute dish incorporating the fruit. Of the four, Leah stands out as by far the most talented, because she’s the one dish I’d like to eat: Seared scallops with an apple hash. The others are clearly doomed now or later, including Radhika, who makes a predictable (if well-liked) apple chutney, and culinary-school chums Patrick and Lauren, who race to last place together by making pedestrian salads. Lauren winds up going back to Savannah for a spinach salad with minimal inspiration, but Patrick doesn’t fare much better with his apple slaw.
The Elimination Challenge replicates last season’s model: Draw knives to create eight two-person pairs and have them go head-to-head with their dishes. Last season, the test involved testing their ability to improvise around culinary standards like steak au poivre, chicken piccata, and the dreaded soufflé. This time, the slight but meaningful twist has them sampling from various ethnic neighborhoods in the city: Chinatown, Long Island City, Astoria, Brighton Beach, etc. With a cast this large, it’s hard for personalities and talents to emerge on the first episode, but there are some standout bad moments, like Patrick foolishly tackling black rice noodles for the first time or Carla being led to her (underseasoned) Russian dish by her “spirit guide.”
The most interesting dynamic to emerge in the first episode is the contrast between two of the strongest dishes: Stefan, who won the Quickfire and the Elimination Challenge, is without a doubt the person to beat, a clearly experienced and sophisticated chef who can barely tolerate his know-nothing competitors. (Though the European snobs versus the American slobs angle was almost certainly overplayed.) On the other side, there’s Eugene, a former dishwasher who never went to culinary school and simply worked his way up the line without formal training. Normally, guys like Eugene are the first to get the boot, but based on his entry—an improvised Indian curds-and-rice dish—he might turn out to be a savant genius. I’m guessing it’s too good to be true and that Eugene’s knowledge gap will come back to haunt him, but if he can pull this off on instinct every week, that would make for one exciting season.
• Forgot to mention: Patrick and his gooey noodles go home. However, this setback will not keep him from his mission to change the world with food.
• Dish Of The Week: For me, it’s Stefan’s lamb and beef skewers, which looked amazing enough even before the judges started raving about his use of cinnamon. Mmmm… cinnamon. Now there’s a spice that’s more elastic than people think.
• Was I seeing things or was one of the contestants wearing an ironic Nancy Reagan t-shirt?