As you probably already know, this edition of “Top Chef” is going to be supersized — and not just because the chefs will be galavanting around the great state of Texas. Twenty-nine chefs will compete for the 16 “real” slots on the show — in the first challenge. In other words, don’t get attached to anyone. In a recent interview, judge Tom Colicchio said he felt this mega-challenge actually improved the show, and I’m inclined to agree. A chef knowing that he or she has almost a fifty-fifty chance of being knocked out immediately clearly amps up the tension, plus this gives candidates who might look good (or not so good) on paper a chance to show what they can do under fire, so to speak. I hope this is a tweak they stick with. Now, putting Emeril “Bam” Lagasse on the judges’ table, that I’m not as sure about, but I’ll try to keep an open mind.
Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Hugh Acheson and (yes) Emeril Legasse will be our judges this season, and even if I have my qualms about Emeril, I’m thrilled to see Hugh Acheson on board. Some of you may remember how much fun he was on “Top Chef Masters,” and I think his dry wit will be a nice counterpoint to Tom and Gail’s earnestness without the meanness we sometimes got from Anthony Bourdain (love him, love “Kitchen Confidential,” but I wish he wouldn’t be so entranced with making punny critiques rather than actually offering useful advice, which you know he has) and always got from Toby Young. I’m really hoping Toby doesn’t return to the show. Like Bourdain, he seemed to see the show as an opportunity to show off his ever-so-refined palate rather than offer insightful critiques. Unlike Bourdain, I suspect the only thing he ever actually cooked were ramen noodles over a hot plate in his apartment. Bourdain earned his snottiness, while Young was just, well, snotty.
Padma kicks things off by dragging all 29 contestants out to the Alamo so that they can see that, yes, there are a lot more chefs than they may have bargained on seeing. While I was thinking it may not be worth the trouble to remember anyone’s name (as half of these people are getting the boot), I can’t help it — a few people stand out right away. Chris Jones and Richie Farina are co-workers at Moto in Chicago. Rather, Richie is Chris’ sous chef, which creates a pretty interesting dynamic right away. While Colicchio mentioned this pair in his interview and it seems Richie will lag far behind his boss, it’s gotta be weird competing against someone you may someday depend on for a job recommendation.
Another chef quickly stands out — as a pompous ass. Tyler Stone cooks for CELEBRITIES. He wrote his own cookbook in THREE AND A HALF WEEKS. Bet it’s great. He’s done more than people TWICE HIS AGE! He’s INCREDIBLE in his own estimation! I hate Tyler Stone, and I half expect the celebrities he cooks for are the imaginary ones who come to his teddy bear tea parties. “A lot of people mistake my confidence for arrogance,” he assures us. Um, no, I’m pretty sure that’s arrogance.
The 29 are divided into three groups. The first group will be judged by Lagasse and Colicchio, and their challenge is to prepare a dish using one cut of a pig.
The divvying up of pig parts happens quickly and relatively bloodlessly — but then Tyler steps up to butcher one of the pieces of meat. And mangles it beyond belief. The pork tenderloin Grayson, another chef, is waiting on is turned into a pork McNugget. Of course, Tyler is only concerned with getting to the cut HE’S using. What a pig, no pun intended. He hands Grayson a pile of pork chops. Is he simple-minded? When did a pork chop become a tenderloin? If his celebrity clients are real, they’re not going to be his clients after they see this show.
Tom sees the mess Tyler is making — and asks Tyler to leave immediately. Wow. Good for Tom. But Tyler knows where he’s going — right to the top. Um, no, Tyler. No, you’re not.
Colin is a chef at a vegan restaurant and he hasn’t dealt with pig in any fashion in ten years. I don’t have high hopes for Colin.
Simon is self-taught and has some serious neck tattoos, and I think Tyler hacked up his cut of meat as well. Unfortunately, he also overcooks said cut of meat, so Simon may be in trouble. Grayson may also be in trouble, as Tom isn’t letting her off the hook just because Tyler ruined her tenderloin — she never should have trusted the little nitwit to cut her meat in the first place. Oh, touche!
Molly is a cruise ship chef, and she swears she doesn’t make industrial, mass produced food. Let’s see what the judges say. I have more faith in Sarah, who works under a “Top Chef” master in Chicago and learned her craft in Italy.
Before the judges even dig in, they take one look at Colin’s messy plates (he spilled his soup while pouring and ran out of time) and tell him to go home. This is going to be a ROUGH season.
Ah, Padma announces not everyone is going home immediately (Tyler and Colin, yes, but not everyone). If the judges aren’t in agreement, a chef is declared on the bubble — meaning they get one more chance to cook their way into the top sixteen.
Tom like Chris’ candied apple stuffed with braised pork belly. Emeril agrees that it’s damn tasty. Thus, Chris becomes the first chef to move into the top sixteen. Sarah also gets a coat for her pig skin ravioli. These two already seem like tough competitors.
Not everyone gets glowing reviews, of course. Tom and Emeril are on the fence about Molly, the cruise ship cook. Her smoked sweet potato soup with pork cheek isn’t quite porky enough. She’s on the bubble. Grayson is also on the bubble for her mushroom stuffed tenderloin.
Nyesha and tex-mex ravioli are a big hit with the judges — another jacket goes to her. Richie’s onion soup with pig ears, also a hit — though the judges make him sweat it out for a moment. Simon’s ham roulade is deemed overcooked and he’s given his walking papers. Heather, who is going to turn 40 this year and just wants to prove she can play with the young ‘uns, made baby back ribs that are also deemed worthy of a jacket.
The first group of qualifying chefs are shown their luxurious digs, and there’s lots of hugging. Enjoy it now, guys.
The next group competes for Padma, Gail and Tom. Boy, I admire Tom’s dedication, but he’s going to be puking fine dining once he gets to the end of the qualifying round.
Again, we’re quickly introduced to a fleet of James Beard nominees, executive chefs, restaurant owners, and a protoge of Rick Bayless. I have to say, this is a pretty impressive bunch of chefs — and we’re not even down to the finalists yet.
Luckily for Tom, this is not another pork challenge. This time the chefs must all prepare a dish using the same ingredient, which means they all must agree on one ingredient — quickly. For whatever reason, they pick rabbit.
Again, a lot of people to remember (or, actually, forget), but the one who stands out is Keith. Not only is he super tall, he served time for drug dealing and now owns a bunch of seafood restaurants. You’ve got to love that story. Oh, and he’s a James Beard nominee, so we know he can cook. Janine also stands out, as she’s had a rough year — her father died and she broke up with “somebody” (I guess that means a girlfriend), so she needs a check in the win column. Edward also needs to win, because his Korean parents don’t respect chefs — but apparently they’ll change their tune if their chef son wins a reality TV cooking show. Go figure.
Nina (whom we don’t learn too much about, but that’s just fine) gets the boot after she runs out of time just before she plates her rabbit. Whitney made rabbit su-go with tomatoes, asparagus and shallots. Keith did… a bunch of stuff. Okay, it’s a seared tenderloin, chicken fried rabbit, yukon potato hash and braised rabbit confit. Thank goodness for the pause button — this show is flying by. I will say, that’s the only drawback of stuffing this much show into an hour. Edward did butter poached rabbit. Whitney, who used to work for Hugh so really needs to make the top 16, gets a coat. Keith does, too. Edward, however, is on the bubble, as his rabbit wasn’t entirely cooked.
Janine, the one who’s had a bad year, does a rabbit nugget, rabbit rack and rabbit loin saltimbocca — but doesn’t have time to put on her sauce. Chuy, who grew up eating rabbit and tricking his sister into believing she wasn’t eating a pet but actually chicken does a rabbit loin with cashew pipian and grilled zucchini. Chris C. makes a duo of rabbit. Ty-Lor makes a confit of rabbit with pickled cucumber (aren’t those just pickles?). Dakota makes rabbit crepinettes with vanilla, which sounds disgusting so it had better taste great.
Tom liked the vanilla rabbit and Dakota gets a coat. Ty-Lor, who has cooked around the world and seems like an interesting character, also gets a coat. Chris, who is a chef in the Voltaggio vein, gets a coat. Janine is on the bubble. Chuy… will get something after the commercial break.
In the stew room, Janine notes no one on the bubble is heavily inked. So, she draws a tattoo on her arm in purple sharpie.
Chuy gets the 11th spot, which concludes this part of the mega-challenge (more to come!). The next batch of chefs pile into the house, and again there’s hugging — though this time, it’s between Ty-Lor and Heather, who used to work together. This season more than any other, I’m starting to get the sense that the culinary world is pretty darn small, at least at this level. And this level seems to be impressively high. I think we’re going to be seeing some good food — and some seriously tortured judges. Once we get to the top sixteen, we’re not likely to see “easy outs” like Nina (who didn’t plate her main component) or Tyler (who couldn’t butcher) anymore.
What did you think of the supersized challenge? Any early favorites? And were you glad to see Tyler go before he got the chance to cook?