Top Chef Power Rankings Are Back! Week 1: Winner Winner Chicken Liver

A new season of Top Chef kicked off last night, this time in this year’s hottest hipster fantasy retirement destination, Charleston. Seriously, I feel like I heard dick about Charleston for the first 30-some years of my life and now someone mentions it at every other cocktail party. Beware, Charleston. If all of these awful yuppies actually make good on their Charleston threats it’s going to be dog boutiques and salad restaurants as far as the eye can see out there.

Oh right, the show. After 13 seasons, this show couldn’t go on without a twist, and this season’s twist is newbies vs. veterans. That means eight chefs who’ve been on the show before — all your favorites, from whatserface to that one guy! — competing against eight newbies, fresh from the pages of James Beard’s Food and Wine Michelin Illustrated Thingamawhatever. It’s… just about the right amount of twist, actually. And they brought back Katsuji the Kosher Mexican, so that’s cool.

The eight newbies competed in a quickfire challenge against each other while the veterans watched on a monitor and cracked wise (slash expositarily). Winner got immunity, loser had to go head-to-head with the loser from Veteran quickfire to see who got eliminated. Then, just when you’d processed that twist, the challenge was to take the secret ingredient (a whole chicken) and make AS MANY DISHES AS YOU WANT WITH IT. They got an hour. Again, just enough of a twist to keep things interesting. Well done, producers.

When that was over, the veterans faced off in a quickfire of their own with COMPLETELY DIFFERENT RULES! (Dogs and cats, living together, etc). Their challenge was introduced and judged by “Top Chef Masters alum” Graham Elliot. Hey! You got Masterchef in my Top Chef (ewwwww). Seriously though, I really hate it when someone’s persona is based on conspicuous eyeglass frames but I promise to try to keep an open mind with this guy.

Anyway, the veteran challenge is for the chefs to “put their own spin” on a classic: shrimp and grits! Hoo boy, fusion shrimp and grits? Count me out on that one. The only spin you need on shrimp and grits is “give Vince some.”


The Top

1. Brooke Williamson (Season 10)

Phew, I’m glad Chef Brooke won that quickfire because I was about to look biased as hell choosing the only chef whose food I’ve actually eaten (name drop name drop name drop…). Hey, for real though, it was good. I don’t think there’s much bias in this choice though, Brooke’s scotch egg with shrimp on the outside breaded in grits was about the smartest thing a person could do whilst putting their “own twist” on some shrimp and grits.

2. Jim Smith — AKA: Tennessee Williams, aka Truman Compote

Chef Jim breezed in on Bisquick-scented cloud, delivering bundles of cheer and capturing everyone’s heart by being an adorable mini Alton Brown with twice the charm and none of the obnoxiousness. His genial awww-shucksitude elicited multiple squeals of “he’s so cute!” from the peanut gallery and multiple hands over the heart. This pocket-sized Southern gent with a soprano voice as soothing as pecan pie looked like he was in the weeds, but then wowed the judges with his strawberry-glazed fried chicken livers, hearts, and kidneys. He won immunity even after weathering a “I gave you a whole chicken and this is what you give me back?” diss from Padma. He also revealed that he’s “executive chef of the state of Alabama” which I didn’t even know was a job. Sounds very officious though. Anyway, I eagerly await the baskets of elfin delight this dapper gnome will present to us this season, preferably while playing us his people’s “friendship song” on the kazoo.

3. Shirley Chung (Season 11)

People will think I’m racist if I try to mimic Shirley’s broken English, but broken English is just funny and Shirley is full of winning moxie. I mean come on, she made a dish she called “bowl of hug.” That’s amazing. It was shrimp in some kind of spicy sauce over egg custardy grits, by the way, and it looked delicious, landing her honorable mention. She’s like a Lady in the Water character, if M. Night Shyamalan could write charm.

4. Sylvia Barban — AKA: (*10 minutes of vigorous hand gestures*), aka (*chasing around husband with rolling pin*) — sorry, most Italian jokes are non-verbal.

Newbie Sylvia, fresh offa di boat a from a eeetaly (I feel like I’m allowed to mimic this accent because my name is “Mancini”), made a well-received pasta dish (tagliatelle with chicken ragu and chicken skin, mmm), prompting the sounding of our first TOP CHEF CLICHÉ BUZZER. This on account of the reaction of a fellow chef: “She made fresh pasta?!”

Yes, bro, she made fresh pasta. She had an hour. *I* could make fresh pasta in under an hour. It wasn’t even stuffed pasta, just noodles. If you can’t knock that out in 25 minutes or less, get off this show. (Sorry, that was my new character, tough love guy).

Our second buzz of the cliché buzzer went to Sylvia herself, who, when asked if she liked the way the dish turned out, dropped a “I like very al-dente, because I’m Italian…”

Oh, Italians like their pasta al-dente? I hadn’t heard. Seriously though, now that every foodie has known that al-dente is the “right” way to eat pasta for like 10 years, do Italians *still* eat their pasta more al-dente than non-Italian al-dente eaters? This feels like a race to the bottom. Are Italians going to have to start eating raw pasta just to prove they love pasta the most? “Di raw a-pasta so goo, you canna really taste-a di raw egg!” They might. Honestly, I wouldn’t put it past them. No one is more adamant than Italians about there being a “right” way to eat something, or more willing to inconvenience themselves just to prove a point. “Mamma mia, she don’ even-a juggle-a her a-cabbage a-before a she a mangare! Skifozo, only a barbarino guana eat ’em uppa di cabbage before they been a-juggle!”

5. Amanda Baumgarten (Season 5) — AKA Underdog, aka Bangs

Amanda is supposedly a veteran, though I barely remember her. And apparently no one else did, because the way they edited it, she was the only returning veteran who had to introduce herself. I was waiting for someone to shout “SHE DOESN’T EVEN GO TO THIS SCHOOL!”

Amanda says she’s been out of work for two years because of a “back problem” and now she’s a-looking for redemption. To its credit, Top Chef didn’t overdo the Chopped-style underdog narrative, even after Amanda landed in the top three with her… (*rewatches segment*) “Head on-shrimp and grits with tasso ham, pickled raisins, roasted peaches, and kale.

Yikes, that actually sounds gross. One fruit per seafood dish, please. Jesus Christ.

6. Emily Hahn — AKA Gigi Allin, aka Stormcloud, aka The Angsty One, aka Avril Terrine

Charleston’s own Chef Emily introduced herself to the show by revealing how many times she’s been fired for her “bad attitude.” No regrets though, because she owns it, dropping a perfect, Hansel-esque reality show soundbite: “Attitude is everything.”

So hot right now, Emily. Who cares? It’s only food. That goddamned Emily is so hot right now, she could take a dump, wrap it up in some tinfoil, and feed it to Queen Elizabeth as en papillote. [thus concludes your unnecessary Zoolander digression for this week]

The producers practically had Joan Jett blaring every time Emily got on screen (I don’t give a damn ’bout my food reputation…), but, funny thing, Emily herself seemed… mostly pretty nice, actually. It feels a little like this season has no villain so they’re trying to manufacture one. Anyway, the judges liked Emily’s spicy chicken wings. By the way, only ONE chef made chicken wings? What the hell, man, wings are delicious and almost impossible to screw up.

The Indistinct Middle

The top and the bottom are always clear, but, especially in the first few episodes, there are always a bunch of chefs who weren’t good enough to get mentioned in the top or bad enough to contend for elimination. Some of them barely got any screen time

7. Sam Talbot (Season 2) — AKA Handsome Dan, aka Kutch (a kid thought he looked like Ashton Kutcher on his original season, I can’t believe I remember that)

Aside from being tall and good looking (named one of People Magazine’s sexiest people, as Sam likes to say, I bet he carries business cards), Sam made some half regular milk, half coconut milk grits thing with maple sauce and spicy stuff. It looked good, I guess. Anyway, he’s handsome!

8. Sylva Senat — AKA Haitian Man, aka Not Sylvia

A Sylva and a Sylvia, huh? No way that’s not going to get confusing. Anyway, Sylva is from Haiti and his dish had “grated corn pudding” and buttermilk fried chicken, so without being able to taste the food, he was number one in my heart.

9. Sheldon Simeon (season 10) — AKA Shaka Brah, aka (*the gentle strumming of a ukulele*)

Ahh, good ol’ Sheldon. Sheldon is so chill that he might actually disintegrate. Like, his cells might just relax so hard that they lose all cohesion (note: I haven’t checked the science on this). Anyway, Sheldon made a miso corn dashi grits thing that looked tasty and he seems nice.

10. BJ Smith — AKA Drama Club, aka Ear Plugs, aka The One Who Looks The Top Cheffiest

BJ led the field in screen time this week, but disappeared when the judges were naming their favorite dishes. I can only assume the camera loves BJ because he’s this season’s most stereotypically Top Chef-looking chef. Ear plugs, trimmed beard, Hitler Youth-esque haircut, chunky eyeglass frames, dramatic voice — dude even has FOIS GRAS tattooed on his knuckles. He’s also from Portland which isn’t exactly breaking any stereotypes. I assume this guy got into cooking after he was voted “Most Likely To Be On Top Chef” in high school.

The Bottom

11. Katsuji Tanabe (Season 12) — AKA Professor Kats, aka Sooge Knight, aka Katsuji the Kosher Mexican

And who could forget Katsuji Tanabe, LA’s best Mexican-born Japanese-named Jewish kosher chef? Just like before, Katsuji the Kosher Mexican got dinged for food that just had too many ingredients and “needed some editing,” according to Padma. The first word out her mouth upon tasting his take on shrimp and grits, which included a chile sauce, fish sauce, cauliflower… and some other stuff… was “interesting.”

Which is a word you never really want to hear a diner say. “Hmm, I don’t really like it, per se, but I accept that it’s in my mouth…”

Poor Katsuji. He’s a Japanese Jewish Kosher Mexican who wears bow ties, of course his food is going to be complex. You can’t ask a unicorn not to have a horn.

12. Casey Thompson (Season 3, Season 8) — AKA Miss America, aka Foxy

Buxom, beauty queen blonde Casey is back for her third season of Top Chef, admitting “either I’m a competition whore or a tv whore, I don’t know, I’m one of ’em.”

Mm-hmm, yeah, girl, I love it when you talk dirty to yourself. Anyway, Casey landed in the bottom three on account of grits that “tasted undercooked” (does that mean they actually were undercooked?) and a “clunky” dish. “Clunky” is such a brutal food put down, isn’t it? It evokes nothing about the food, only general unattractiveness. “Yeah, sorry, the potatoes were just kind of dumpy, not to mention tackily garnished. Overall just a dowdy meal.”

13. Jamie Lynch – AKA Rodman, aka Punk Rock Pete, aka Sinead O’Rebellion

Tat-covered Chef Jamie was the recipient of Padma’s tattoo flirting, explaining that “corporate restaurants hate me” because of all of his tattoos. Because, like, whoa, a chef with tattoos, we’ve never seen that before. Shock me shock me shock me with that deviant behavior. Anyway, Jamie wowed the judges with his radical knife skills only to burn his veg. Nice going, IDIOT. I thought this guy came to rock and then all he shredded was my mise en place, womp womp.

14. Annie Pettry – AKA Crouton, aka Chef Cathy, aka Tweek

Poor Crouton. Crouton was such a flustered ball of nerves this week that she sort of reminded me of a Cathy cartoon. Specifically the times with Cathy’s freaking out and has two sweat drops floating above her head. Ack! And of course the tightly-wound princess who admitted to stage fright and performance anxiety got raked over the coals for her inaccurately named bread garnish. Tom went straight wicked stepsister on Annie’s ass, which had to have a delighted Bravo producer bitchily petting his cat somewhere.

YOU CALL THIS A F*CKING PANZANELLA, PROLE?! Get out of my kitchen! Your fleshy commoner’s hands aren’t fit to press the linens!

TOP CHEF CLICHÉ BUZZER: Annie saying “I can’t serve Tom Collicchio raw chicken!”

Oh what, so you could serve Tom Coughlin raw chicken? Who can you serve raw chicken to? Actually, now that I type that, I think we stumbled upon a pretty good idea. I’d actually love to give Tom Coughlin salmonella poisoning (he’s a football guy, food lovers).

Anyway, better luck next time, Crouton. And 10 points for not crying, that’s one of my favorite qualities in a reality show contestant. Minus 10 for making “pan seared chicken breast” though. Hoo boy, two tickets to Dullsville, population zzzzz. If someone gives you a whole chicken don’t cook them the most boring part.

15. John Tesar – AKA Johnny Bracelets, aka Steve Douchemi, aka Greetings Fellow Young People.

John is that one guy you didn’t like from that one season you don’t remember (the kind of guy who has surely uttered the words “I’m not here to make friends” at some point) who has come to Charleston to prove that he’s not as big a dickhead as you sort of remember. John is a whole new John now, and nearly tolerable. Which I’m sure will last another half an episode. Anyway, John rightfully landed at the bottom of the veterans quickfire this week with his disgusting-sounding kim chi spin on shrimp and grits. Jesus, man, kim chi? Why would you ever combine those things?

John’s finish got him stuck in a head-to-head oyster showdown with Gerald. Kudos to John for not showing his disappointment on the way out to the challenge when he realized that this showdown, against one of only two black chefs, was going to be held at an actual former cotton plantation. “No WAY they’re going to let the white guy win a chef showdown in the shadow of actual slave quarters,” he had to have been thinking. And yet… they did! I did NOT see that one coming. Points for a twist, Top Chef, but damn, that’s harsh.

John cooked an oyster soup with warm cream infused with oyster liquor, poured over raw oysters, topped with John’s secret weapon: truffles. It looked pretty good. Said John: “This dish will either be a home run or an anchor in the bottom of the bay.” Definitely, bro. By the way, what sport are we playing, mixed metaphors?

Said Tom: “These oysters are totally raw.”

Yeah, Tom, they’re oysters. They taste good raw.

Anyway, good on John for smugglin’ truffles (I hear he grows them in your mom’s panties), that was truly a veteran move. And he handled himself much better than you’d expect a 50-something dude wearing multiple bracelets to when forced into an awkward conversation about race with a black guy at a plantation. I could barely feel him sweat. The “my mom was active in the civil rights movement?” That was a veteran move too.

16. Gerald Sombright — AKA Big Daddy, aka Hot Buttah, aka Captain Can’t Catch A Break

Holy shit, when’s the last time you saw a Top Chef elimination this harsh? First they gave us a backstory package where Gerald, who can only be described as big and lovable, described living in his car so he could afford to pay rent for his ex and daughter. Then they dropped him in last over his “greasy” sauce, even though that buttermilk-poached chicken thing sounded delicious. Finally, they stuck him with a surprise plantation trip for a face off against a dude who had truffles in his pockets and booted him for a Thai mignonette that wasn’t spicy enough. Christ, I hope this guy wins Last Chance Kitchen, you sadistic bastards.

The “Gee That Sounds Good” Hall of Fame

Gerald’s smoked, buttermilk-poached chicken (I know he ended up on the bottom, but that sounded good as hell).

Sylva’s grated corn pudding. I don’t even know what “grated corn” is, but I’m a sucker for anything with “pudding” at the end.

Brooke’s scotch egg with shrimp instead of sausage. This was such a good idea I almost take back what I said about fusion shrimp and grits.

The “That Sounds Wait, What?” Hall of ???

The great/bad thing about Top Chef is that they never bother explaining what the hell anything is. Luckily I sort of know what a fricasee is and I’ve definitely heard the word “escabeche” before. This episode’s head scratchers were…

– BJ’s “chasseur-style chicken.” Google says: Apparently it means “hunter-style chicken.” Ahh, so it’s just French-ass chicken cacciatore. Now I know.

– Jamie’s “chicken grand-mere.” Google says: “Grandma’s chicken.” Looks like it’s smothered chicken with bacon and mushrooms and a white wine sauce. Sure, looks good. And I hear if you cook it bad, it turns into “chicken grand merde,” harf harf harf I wonder how many times someone’s made that joke.

– “Pedro Ximinez shallots.” Google says: “Pedro Ximénez (also known as PX and many other variations) is the name of a white Spanish wine grape variety grown in several Spanish wine regions but most notably in the Denominación de Origen (DO) of Montilla-Moriles. Here it is used to produce a varietal wine, an intensely sweet, dark, dessert sherry.” Ahh, so, shallots cooked in sweet sherry. Cool.

Tom Being A Dick Of The Week

Tom asking Annie, “I know what a panzanella is, I’m asking why you think THIS is a panzanella.”

Oh snap, Annie just got flambéed with a burn so bitchy it singed my eyebrows. That’s not how you cook bread salad, you IDIOT. Why don’t you go choke on some yeast and die? Good on Annie for not crying even though everyone agreed she was sufficiently humiliated to. “Um, because of the bread salad underneath the chicken, sir?”

Jesus, that was pathetic. And Tom even had to add insult to injury during the judging. “A couple of croutons is NOT a panzanella.”

Oh snap, check out the semantic rigor on Captain Actually over here. Sorry, Annie, but your nickname is “Crouton.” That was this season’s easiest nickname. (Moments of brutal humiliation are the best nickname fodder, just ask every guy who survived middle school).

Padma Being A Perv Of The Week

Padma telling chef Jamie (who describes himself as “the Rodman” of North Carolina fine cheffing) “Are you tattooed everywhere?”

Oh, I see what you did there, Padma. Padma is totally the hot chick who flirts just to watch you turn red. Like a spider tearing the wings off a fly, only sexy. God I love her.