Top Chef is back, baby! This season — season 16, for those of you keeping track — is set in Kentucky, and you know what that means: horses, bourbon, funny hats, maybe a splash of obesity. Oh, and fried chicken. Sprinkle some special herbs and spices on Colonel Sanders’ grave on the way to the baseball bat museum, friends.
It was a Kentucky Derby challenge this week, which was great for Graham Eliot, who finally had a chance to wear some loud clothes. Usually so understated, that guy. I admit, this could be a “me” thing, but I have a scab on my brain that makes me instantly hate anyone with white-framed glasses. Should I see a shrink? Pair some white glasses and a polka dot bow tie and you have a sure-fire recipe for “please don’t talk to me.”
In spite of Graham’s basic visual offensiveness (bring back Gail!), it was a pretty good episode. We already have a villain, a human interest story, comic relief, and a mildly tragic elimination. Not bad for episode one.
Oh, and did I mention that we already had TWO CRUDOS in the top three? If there’s one thing I know about the Top Chef judges, it’s that they f*ckin’ looove crudos. One of which was made with tilapia, which I always thought was a no-no for some reason? Take a note, y’all, hot food is passé. Whip me up a dirt fish tartar or get the hell out of my face.
Now then. To the rankings! We don’t have too much to go on after just one episode, but when has that ever stopped us from making wild assumptions?
1. Natalie Maronski — AKA: Backstory. Shaolin.
Natalie is an early favorite in this competition, soaking up both screen time and the win. We discovered that she’s been out of the game for a while, taking care of her mom, who has Parkinson’s, and wondering if she even belongs in the kitchen. Everyone loves a redemption story, and so Natalie emerged from her monastery, rocking tied-back hair and a utilitarian t-shirt, proverbially shadow boxing in the corner in a grey hoodie (Natalie is the Eminem in 8 Mile of this competition). She ended up vanquishing the opposition with, you guessed it, a god damned crudo.
Natalie’s halibut ceviche with laksa curry sauce blew away a couple tough competitors who had also made crudos. Cru-don’t mess with this lady.
2. Pablo Lamon — AKA: Smooth Pablo. Ol’ One Plug. New Fabio. Brint.
Smooth Pablo, the handsome foreign man, and his one ear plug showed up looking like one of Derek Zoolander’s roommates. I bet he wears only the finest sample size designer garments. I would have nicknamed him “Eurotrash” if only he hadn’t turned out to be from Argentina. Pablo is the only chef in this episode who finished in the top three in both the quickfire and the elimination challenge, meaning you could certainly make a case for him being ranked number one. But his Tilapia crudo ultimately lost to Natalie’s halibut ceviche. Live by the crudo, die by the crudo.
That said, I’m more interested in this one ear plug thing. Is that a fashion statement? Are we sure he’s not secretly getting advice from that thing? “Oye, Pablo, it’s jour ear ploge. Make Padma some feesh!”
3. David Viana — AKA: Maybe. Frankie Valli.
Sweet lil’ Jersey Boy David got the first backstory package of the episode when he revealed that he grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the same hometown as Tom Collicchio. Thus David said that he’s trying to become the second best chef to come out of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Come on, David, at least aspire to be better than your heroes. KILL TOM AND BECOME HIM! Burn his house down and adopt his kids!
Actually, David’s goal to be second best seems on brand for the guy. David… seems to? Describe everything? With a question mark at the end? Hence the nickname “Maybe.”
Anyway, Maybe forgot the flour for his gnocchi at the store this week. The coolest editing trick was the shot of David looking flustered in the checkout line because he forgot his flour, and juxtaposing that with a shot of the Whole Foods cashier, who was wearing a vest that said “forgot something? ask me to get it!”
Be more assertive, David! Boss that cashier around next time! Without flour for gnocchis (which Tom cryptically said one didn’t need for gnocchis, without elaborating) David had to make a vegan soup instead. The tasting of which produced our very first baffled Tom face of the season:
In a huge twist, Tom was actually good baffled, wondering why it was so good. David landed in the top five. I predict David gets the win when his guardian angel sings him a song about believing in yourself.
4. Nini Nguyen — AKA: Brooklyn.
Chef Nini came out hot sporting the coolest clothes and most distinctive eyeglass frames (no easy feat on Top Chef). She is nicknamed “Brooklyn” for obvious reasons. Memorable for her pink jumpsuit, she also won her heat in the elimination challenge with a blackened catfish which, to my eyes, appeared to be drowning in cabbage. Hey, Nini, is this Top Chef or Top Cabbage? Surprisingly, the judges loved Nini’s cabbage, so that must’ve been some damn fine cabbage.
Nini also got to be our stand-in this week, putting voice to our collective annoyance with Bossy Brandon The Conversation Monopolizer. “I really want to beat Brandon,” Nini said, and we all silently agreed, and she did. Great job, Nini! Nini is poised for a run at the top. Plus she’s the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who grew up in New Orleans. That just sounds like someone who’s going to be really good at food.
5. Kelsey Barnard Clark — AKA: Wine Mom. Elle Woods. Roll Tide. Can I Speak To Your Manager?
Early Impressions: Sort of like if vocal fry was a person.
With her raspy drawl, debutante clothes, and boozy affect, I kept thinking Alabama-bred Kelsey was about to slosh her drink on me and explain why I’ll always be a doorman. Weirdly, this is charming.
After accusing the help of stealing her salad (turns out she had misplaced it), Kelsey warned the competition that if they think she’s only going to cook Southern Food, well Buster, they’ve got another thing comin’. She promptly followed this pronouncement by serving up a pimento cheese deviled egg.
Apparently, it was damned good though (and to be fair who doesn’t love a deviled egg) and landed Kelsey at the top of her heat. I can’t decide if Kelsey is a true top seed or if the Kentucky Derby Party challenge just really played to her strengths. I bet Kelsey has an entire extra room in her house just for fancy hats.
6. Michelle Minori — AKA: Screen Time. Who?
Michelle wins the award for least screen time this week, hence why I had to use a stock photo. That being said, on second viewing, she actually conceptualized her team’s entire quickfire dish — rabbit over corn cakes — and it probably would’ve done well if Maybe hadn’t overcooked it.
Also, judging by looks alone, Michelle had the winning dish this week:
Pasta made from carrot tops and a dish inspired by chicken and dumplings? Hell yeah, that looks good. I don’t know how the hell Screen Time’s incredible pot pie pasta got beat by Maybe’s mystery soup, but I don’t think her finish in this challenge reflects her true potential. I see a favorite here.
7. Eric Adjepong — AKA: Ghana. Sports.
Ghanaian-American chef Eric looks like the tallest and fittest of the group which counts for… I dunno, something. Eric technically didn’t finish in the top of either challenge, but something makes me think he’s a competitor. He did a West African spicy scallop in the elimination challenge that surprisingly didn’t land him in the top of his heat. Still, West African food seems like a good angle. As we all know, Padma, she like-a the spice.
8. Justin Sutherland — AKA: New Spike. Scat Man. The Weez.
There’s always one fedora per crew and in episode one that fedora belonged to Justin, who seems to be the clothes horse of the male chefs this season. Justin seems smooth and likable, but unlike Chris from last season, maybe a little too smooth. Like he seems like he should be fronting a jazz trio, or emceeing a night of jazz trios. Telling you about the specials instead of cooking them. And so forth.
Justin was in the top team in the quickfire and in the middle of his heat in the elimination challenge, so it’s really up in the air where he belongs just yet. I’ll be honest, it could be that I subconsciously docked him a few slots for the hat.
9. Brandon Rosen — AKA: Heydrich. Biff. Shhhh.
It wouldn’t be Top Chef without at least one annoying guy, and that guy is Brandon. Brandon is a personal chef in Atherton, in Silicon Valley, which presumably means he cooks for rich techies and old money Bay Area types, so it’s fitting that he instantly became the villain. Brandon also, if Top Chef‘s editors are to be believed, bosses everyone around and forces them to laugh politely at the lame jokes which he says too loudly. You could hear the collective groan when Brandon pronounced, to no one in particular, “The good news is, my polenta cakes are awesome. The bad news is, my polenta cakes are awesome.”
Ha, cool story, Brandon.
Despite the Jewish-sounding last name, Brandon combines an overweening manner with an Aryan haircut, and thus a Brandon victory would seem to be a real triumph of the will. Hey, Brandon, why doncha try shuttin’ up for a while?
According to his bio, Brandon grew up in the family chocolate factory. Place your bets now on how soon this will become a Top Chef storyline. I say episode three.
10. Eddie Conrad — AKA: Smiles. The Accountant.
We’re calling Eddie “Smiles” the same way you call a fat guy “Tiny.” Whether it was losing his train of thought mid-confessional, accidentally repeating the same small talk snippet twice when trying to charm customers, or not hearing when his teammates talk to him, Eddie seems to lack… um… people skills. One of the show’s most priceless moments came when Kevin asked “How you doin’ over there, Eddie? [… … …] Eddie’s focused, I guess.”
He certainly is that! In terms of food, Eddie was solidly center of the pack this week, but he’s already one of this season’s most memorable characters so I hope he goes far. I like to imagine he goes into a completely dark room and rocks back and forth while listening to metal for exactly 7 minutes and 33 seconds to clear his mind before each menu plan, like Ben Affleck in The Accountant.
11. Sara Bradley — AKA: Party Mom.
Memorable quotes: “Kelsey and I are basically the same person, she just has a smaller ass and fake blonde hair.”
In a season full of moms, Sara stands out as the coolest. The only Kentucky-born chef, Sara revealed that it wasn’t her first time at Churchill Downs. In fact the last time, she said, she was in the infield. “What we were you doing there” Padma asked, sexily. Surely she knew what the answer would be.
“Getting drunk,” said Sara.
Padma is the sexy devil on everyone’s shoulder. Always has been. Anyway, I immediately pictured Sara running across the tops of porta potties with a lampshade on her head because apparently my brain is an 80s movie. How old do you have to be for lampshades on the head to have been a current joke? Older than Sara, probably.
Sara was on the winning team for the quickfire and cooked a delicious looking pork belly in the elimination round that Tom said was “cooked perfectly.” He then proceeded to place her last in the heat. FICKLE MUCH, TOM? Go figure. Anyway, Sara seems cool.
12. Adrienne Wright — Nicknames: NPR. Hollow Bones.
Smily Adrienne burst onto the Top Chef scene this week, distinguishing herself by her annoyance with Brandon (understandable!) and apparent inability to open jars or screw top lids of any kind (hollow bones, like a bird). She was going to make tortellini but let Brandon talk her out of it, believing she wouldn’t have time. She ended up having to make fettucini instead and Tom immediately spit it out like a mouth full of cow dung. “Not toothsome enough!” he shrieked, while his handlers tried to calm him down.
Adrienne lost her heat, but does seem like she knows what she’s doing. I could easily see her turning it around next week. Hopefully there aren’t any challenges that involve lifting more than seven pounds or cooking in a 10 mph breeze.
13. Brian Young — AKA: The Hair. Son of Frames. Hipster Joe Flamm.
Brian’s hair got more screen time than his food this week, having dubbed himself “The Hair” and expressing dismay that Brandon also has a pompadour. I suppose that’s true, but whereas Brandon’s pompadour is more Hitler Youth, Brian’s says “I used to sing in a hardcore band before I went back to grad school.”
Brian made a mint julep-inspired pork loin (I dunno either, man) that Graham said was undercooked and Brian tried to say was just pink because of the brining. Never disagree with the judges, Brian! Even when it’s Graham. This also left the door open for Padma to say “maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t like briny meat.”
Aw, dang, is Padma trying to reverse her policy on overt sexual innuendo? That was one of my favorite parts of the show. Anyway, Rough go for poor Brian. He was in the bottom in both challenges and barely avoided going home.
14. Kevin Sharpf — AKA: Napoleon.
In a season full of raspy voices, Kevin’s stood out as the most Napoleon Dynamite-esque. Tina! Come get some ham! Let’s see… Kevin got left hanging by Eddie, clowned on by the Scar Man, who implied that Kevin’s ricotta and beets dish with pedestrian, ended up last in his heat, and to top it all off is from Iowa. Kevin needs a win, but as we all know, Napoleon Dynamite ends with a heartwarming crescendo of public redemption. I’m hoping for the same for Kevin.
15. Caitlin Steininger — AKA: Mouse Mom. Raspy.
Poor Caitlin. She charmed us all with her tiny, midwestern rasp, and I actually said “Mmm” out loud when I saw her biscuit-topped tomato cobbler. Have you ever had tomato pie? It rules. There should be more savory pie, that is my platform.
Sadly, Fancy Graham the clothes horse man, peering pedantically through his ostentatious eyeglass frames, declared that the biscuits soaked up too much of the tomato juice. Wait, isn’t that the whole point? To be fair to Graham, apparently, no one else liked it either. Which is kind of a bummer, it sounded and looked really good. Perhaps Caitlin over-promised?
I’ll be rooting for Caitlin in Last Chance Kitchen, but I think we all know she isn’t going to win 14 in a row or however many she has to. Maybe a return appearance next year? I feel like she got a raw deal. At the very least, I really feel like a tomato pie now.