Top Chef is back this week, and not a moment too soon. Some things we desperately needed in these troubled times: cooking ideas, hope that we will one day be able to eat at restaurants again, people on television to make fun of. Check, check, and check.
This season, the show’s seventeenth, takes place (took place, really, it was shot in 2019) in LA, with a finale in Italy (Top Chef‘s first in Europe), featuring a cast of all-stars from past seasons. Ay, mama, why-a you bring-a me these-a old-a contestants? Which does means I had a head start on some of these contestant nicknames, so if they turn out bad I’ve no excuse.
Our first episode featured a classic quickfire challenge: the ol’ mise en place relay. The chefs had to clean an artichoke, segment an orange, and shell some almonds in timed heats — three things that, as an experienced home cook, I have never once done in my life. Okay, I take it back, I have shelled almonds, but only because the golf course I used to play was near an almond grove. But does anyone ever actually clean an artichoke like that? You just cut the pointy stuff off, steam ’em, and dip them in aioli/mayo/ranch dressing, right? What the hell is that little WWI German soldier hat thingy they’re making? I think we need to declare a national emergency to fund artichoke education programs.
After that, the gang all headed to the beach in teams of three to cook over open flames (no electricity!). Kudos to those of you who had “all of the deep fryers being used,” “not enough time to make the pasta dough,” and “something made with hibiscus” on your Top Chef bingo cards. RIP to anyone who used “chug every time someone makes a crudo” as a rule in your Top Chef drinking game. My God, so many crudos. Anyway, there are 15 damned contestants to get through this week so let’s get to the rankings.
15. Joe Sasto
AKA: Mustache Joe, Joey Crystals, Rollie Fingerlings, Freddy Mercurioli, Joey Sauce, Stoney Whiplash, Brodo.
I fear I may have cursed Mustache Joe (season 15) by giving him too many nicknames. Of course the guy who gives me so much material would get sent home first. Joe may have also cursed himself by making that mustache his trademark while such a young man. Hope you like that thing, dude, now you’re stuck with it. Anyway, this crystal-loving, mustachio’d macarolo made the classic Top Chef mistake of trying to make pasta with not enough time during the quickfire challenge. Which lead to tortelloni that were “doughy, dry, and chewy” according to Padma (just like your mom’s labia). Guiseppe, skifozo, you make-a you mama cry! Still, he was carried along by his team (Kevin, Bryan, Jamie, and Melissa) in the beginning, who went on to win the quickfire.
His teammates couldn’t help him in the elimination challenge though, when he tried to make, uh, a clam uni flatbread with pomegranate and aioli (mmm, just like ma used to make). Editing was slightly unclear, but Joe may have been hosed by the fact that they had to serve family-style. Which meant his flatbread ended up on the same plate as Lee Anne’s watery-sauced fish — just soaking into it. You never want soggy bread with your uni and pomegranate, right? Big time uni flatbread faux pas right there.
Poor Joey. Anyway, arrivederci, paisan. (*plays Joe off with mournful yet somehow absurdly jaunty accordion tune*)
14. Angelo Sosa
Angelo, still looking just as handsome as he was back in seasons 7 and 8, albeit now with a grey stubble beard (hence “Two-Tone”), received the harshest criticism of the episode, when guest judge, legendary restaurateur Jeremiah Tower, first compared his oyster in rice porridge to “baby food.” Tom Colicchio went on to compare it to “a bit of phlegm.” Pretty harsh, but yeah, no raw-yet-warm oysters over porridge for me, thanks. If I wanted warm phlegmy oysters over raw porridge I’d have ordered the “your mom’s V” (am I really still doing terrible your mom jokes in these? Yes, yes I am).
It’s still early in the competition, but Angelo looks like he’s going to have to step it up.
13 Lee Anne Wong
AKA: Loud Mom. Queasy.
This feisty Hawaiian from season 1 made her first comeback in season 15 but had to leave early after she came down with altitude sickness while pregnant. In this, her second comeback, she made the rookie mistake (according to her, anyway — I wouldn’t have known this, I’m very dumb) when she tried to pour oil directly onto a hot grill and caused a flare-up that scorched her fish. Hey, man, if I wanted to smell scorched fish I’d do your mom’s laundry (Top Chef Power Rankings drinking game: drink every time Vince makes an immensely regrettable “your mom” joke).
Tom called Queasy’s resulting dish “muddy” and it’s unclear if it was actually her fault that Mustache Joe’s flatbread came out soggy.
12. Lisa Fernandes
AKA: Salty. Grimes. The One That Dale Hates. Who?
Sadly, I didn’t remember Lisa until the recap montage, where she fought with Dale and had an eyebrow piercing. I don’t remember anything about that season except for Dale fighting with people and an abundance of eyebrow piercings. Lisa bitterly reminded us that she was a runner up behind Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard and future Season 8 winner Richard Blais after she was picked last in the elimination challenge. Then she promptly made a ceviche. My God, not even an open flame cooking challenge can stop Top Chef contestants from making a damn ceviche!
Anyway, I have no real idea where to put Lisa in these rankings, but she does seem to have a chip on her shoulder now. Maybe that will be… good?
11. Brian Malarkey
AKA: Grandpa Fancy. Shenanigans. Squirrelly. The Emperor.
Apparently Guy Fieri nicknamed Brian Malarkey (from season 3) “Shenanigans.” And now I’m kind of ashamed that Guy Fieri is maybe better at nicknames than me. Anyway, Malarkey may be the biggest character this season, or at least the loudest. He spent most of this episode reminding the other characters of olden times (“back in my day…”) and talking up his own skills with the open flame (“I hate electricity. I’m like a caveboy.”). A caveboy with statement frames and excessive baubles, sure.
He also took charge of team Joe Sauce, even though Joe Sauce was captain, guiding the ship straight into an iceberg. Malarkey is like a foppish dandy and Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man character from SNL all rolled into one. He also has this odd way of speaking where it looks like he’s overenunciating but all his words come out underenunciated.
Shenanigans was on the losing team but got the best reviews of his team, for his hibiscus-flavored ceviche (hibiscus and ceviche, chug both your drinks!). Though he should probably share a decent portion of the blame for his team losing since it seemed like he sort of hectored Joey Sauce into making that clam uni disaster. I may be sandbagging Grandpa Fancy a bit in these rankings putting him at number 11 (I’ve actually eaten at that fire-themed restaurant he was talking about and I must admit it was delicious), but really I think the X-factor here is whether he’ll be able to keep his excessive wrist jewelry from getting into the food.
10. Nini Nguyen
AKA: Broad City. Quipz.
Nini is like a breath of fresh air, with her colorful outfits and biting yet somehow sweet confessionals. She kind of reminds me of a not-grating, Asian Kat Dennings. I felt like Nini went home too early last season, and right now she’s the best soundbite-giver since the loss of our dear departed Fati (damn, I miss Chef Fati).
Foodwise, Quipz didn’t stand out too much this episode, but I did enjoy “I assume Kevin is good at making fires, I mean, he has a beard.”
9. Eric Adjepong
AKA: Ghana. Thesis. Uncle Rico.
My favorite competitor from last season didn’t get much screentime this episode, other than bragging about his lightning reflexes only to get boxed out by the other chefs in their rush to grab seafood. “How much you wanna bet I could throw a football right over them mountains?”
Uncle Rico seemed to get decent reviews of his dish, but until he brings his bouillon thesis knowledge to bear he’s still middle of the pack.
8. Jamie Lynch
AKA: Midnight Olive Oil. Henry Rollins. Immunity. Worm.
Jamie comes to us from season 14, getting eliminated in the episode where he chivalrously renounced his immunity in the quickfire and was promptly eliminated. I was trying to work this into a Lethal Weapon 2 joke (diplomatic immunity!) but I couldn’t get there, let me know if you have any ideas. Anyway, Jamie — sounding like he eats cigarettes and gargles with Joe’s crystals — actually had a pretty good episode, landing in the winning team in both the quickfire and the elimination challenge. That being said, it was hard to tell if that was actually due to anything Jamie cooked, or if he just lucked out on teams.
Jamie scorched his cream with some fire embers in a mussel dish, which everyone seemed to agree was an inspired idea that worked, though Tom also noted that his mussels were a little dried out (something something your mom). Anyway, if he gets sent home early he can always write a hardcore song about it.
7. Karen Akunowicz
AKA: Good Witch.
Maybe it’s just me, but I get the feeling Karen has some word art, maybe a bumper sticker, about being a Wiccan. But hey, that’s James Beard award winner Good Witch to you. Karen — chosen for Team Yoga Class with Melissa and Angelo — received largely positive reviews for her scallop in the elimination challenge, but then how much can you say about a scallop?
Nonetheless, Karen squeaks into the top half of the competitors this week.
6. Kevin Gillespie
AKA: Hops. Oops All Kevins.
Why do I feel like Kevin looks like both every guy that’s ever described the variety of hops in an IPA to me and every guy that I’ve ever met named Kevin? Kevin is the final boss of Kevins. Anyway, Kevin was in the winning team in the quickfire, and then in the elimination challenge cooked by far the most visually appealing and descriptively enticing dish of the episode — a swordfish sitting in a chorizo sauce thickened with crushed, fire-toasted sourdough bread. That sounded and looked amazing. Unfortunately, all the judges all seemed to agree that it was a big disappointment.
“Stunning visually but it’s a disaster,” said one judge.
“Kevin, that swordfish was hammered, man,” said Tom.
I think Kevin’s fatal mistake was cooking swordfish. Excuse this controversial yet brave stance, but swordfish fucking sucks. It’s overcooked 95% of the time and even when it isn’t, the texture is more like overcooked roast beef (yadda yadda your mom) than fish. Swordfish are too strong and athletic. They’re like the American Ninja Warriors of fish. Give me the fish who spends all day relaxing near the bean dip.
5. Jennifer Carroll
AKA: Calamity Jen.
Calamity Jen is foul-mouthed, aggressively fastidious, and anxiety plagued. Is it weird that I’m developing a crush? I want her to toilet train me at gunpoint. Anyway, a fun drinking game to play is to drink every time someone points out that Jen Carroll used to work for Eric Ripert. Oh, did you used to work for Eric Ripert? I hadn’t heard.
After getting stuck in the loser’s bracket shelling almonds in the quickfire, Jen received high marks on her elimination challenge dish, one of two that Tom named as his favorite (the other being Melissa). They loved the sauce. Not surprising that Calamity Jen would do well in a fish challenge though. I mean for chrissakes, she used to work with Eric Ripert!
4. Stephanie Cmar
AKA: Sour Grapes. Underdog. ???
I’m very sorry, but I also did not remember Stephanie Cmar from season 11. “Stephanie Cmar” sounds like the Nigerian Scam Stephanie Seymour. Stephanie seems like she’s acutely aware of her underdog status (apparently having gotten kicked off not for her cooking but for her front of the house performance), which naturally made for great human interest story editing from the show. Stephanie made some shrimp over corn (which seems like a no-brainer dish for a seafood fire challenge) which received good marks and was instrumental in her team’s victory — “this was the meal we expected and deserved,” said the judges.
Keep using that big brain, Cmar. Gonna have to start calling her Stephanie Sea-mar after this.
3. Bryan Voltaggio
AKA: Cool Dad. Kyle Shanahan. Linkin Clark Griswold.
Hey, everyone remembers the Voltaggio brothers, right? It’s just an easy name to remember. But whereas Bryan’s brother Michael, who actually won their season (6) is your typical squinty-eyed, snot-nosed punk younger brother, if you scrape away the tats Bryan seems like the most dad-ass dude that ever lived. Strong Flatbill Dad energy from that guy (hence “Kyle Shanahan”).
Anyway, Bryan (can we as a society choose one spelling of “Bryan” please?) appeared to be the driving force in his team’s quickfire victory but then divided the judges in the elimination challenge. Half called his dish “sophisticated” and a “step forward,” but the other half just thought it was “mushy.” One mushy bite for man, one giant leap for culinary kind…
Nonetheless, I have to think Cool Dad is a favorite. He probably has the most name recognition.
2. Melissa King
AKA: Zen Master. Shutterstock.
Chef Melissa King from Season 12 always looks happy, chill, and artfully put together — like an extra in a stock photo about restaurant owners. Melissa was on the winning team in the quickfire challenge and then got rave reviews for her charred radicchio. Marcus Samuelsson dorked out completely and Tom yelled “now THAT’S how you grill!” like he was auditioning for the next Michael Bay movie. Colicchio, radicchio, let’s call the whole thing off.
Melissa chose her team based on chillness (Angelo and Karen) and it seemed to work out for her. Let’s see if she can maintain this same level of zen when Shenanigans is chewing her ear off about making a hibiscus-bruised geoduck with pine needle emulsion.
1. Gregory Gourdet
AKA: Kravitz. Hepcat. Lids. Slick.
Gregory dresses like a rock star (he’s the only contestant I can imagine pulling off a giant scarf, hence the nickname Kravitz) but acts more like the bassist. Pleasant as hell, but preternaturally chill and I’m pretty sure his eyes only ever open halfway. I have to think that kind of calm is only going to help him in this competition. I was actually shocked when he didn’t win his season (12) after looking like a lock the whole time.
In the elimination challenge, Kravitz made a habanero-Fresno chile sauce with salmon that the judges raved over, and it’s pretty impressive getting anyone to rave about a salmon (unless they’re a bear). I’ll give him the benefit of the victory and go with Gregory as my favorite… for now.