It’s interesting to remember various Top Chef contestants when they were newcomers - Richard Blais, Carla Hall, Fabio Viviani and Spike Mendelsohn, for example. We can say we knew them when. And it’s not just the winners we recall. Richard is actually the only winner in that group I listed and it took him competing in Top Chef All Stars to win the crown. Spike has already been eliminated in his effort to become the next Iron Chef. Carla is finding her way on The Chew and Fabio is all over the place, including here. Many Top Chef chefs have gone on to, if not culinary greatness, momentary stardom either on television or through their other projects.
And who can forget the Voltaggio brothers? As unlikable as I found them for much of their season, they really could cook. I’m a little hesitant to admit I caught them on MTV recently, promoting their new cookbook. The host was a culinary moron (actually, just a moron in general) and so they were at a gross disadvantage explaining to her the crazy stuff they were cooking – clams that looked like spaghetti, freeze-dried something or other. They came off as coming from Mars…with their food not far behind.
I really think what someone wants in a cookbook is to get some idea of how to cook REAL FOOD, not pellets of stuff or stuff that you have to guess if it’s even food. And, PS, for some reason, Amazon isn’t selling their cookbook at the moment because “customers have told us there may be something wrong with our inventory of the item, the way we are shipping it, or the way it's described here…We're working to fix the problem as quickly as possible.” Strange.
Anyhoo, a new season of Top Chef (in Texas) began last week and I’m looking at these chefs with an eye to seeing if they have staying power. I seem to be the worst judge of this, because typically my favorite is gone in the first few weeks. I can’t recall ever choosing the winner in the early days and, even later on, it seems as if the producers always manage to throw a wrench into the works. All of a sudden, my top choice, Dale is gone, or Jennifer is eliminated and we’re left, in some cases, completely mystified by the choice of winner.
So here we go and this won’t be an easy season to predict, even if I were good at it. Because we're in Texas, they've super-sized the number of contestants and THIRTY chefs arrive at the Alamo.
Padma looks stunning in a strapless, flowing red dress that is blowing ever so gently in the hot San Antonio breeze. She looks as cool as a marble statue. She explains that the 30 chefs will be competing for 16 spots. One guy and one gal are really po’ed that they’re not already in the top 16. I wonder if they all told their families, friends and colleagues that they were going to be on Top Chef and now they could be eliminated in the first 15 minutes. That would stink.
The chefs go into the kitchen and they are greeted by judges Tom and Emeril (new this season…cool!). Both are wearing whiter-than-white chefs' whites. They almost look like naval officers. (WHY Tide doesn’t sponsor the show is a mystery.)
Tom does his usual smirk as he introduces Emeril. Emeril tries to sound serious, but he does let a little smile escape as he tells them the challenge.
Oy, Tom says he wants to hear a little about each chef. (There are thirty of them!) Is this their way of giving each of them a tiny bit of face time, since so many will be chopped in this episode? Oh, we’re only hearing from a group of 10 now. They have to choose (or fight over) which cut of pork they want to cook of the ten that are sitting on the table. They also have to butcher the meat themselves. Emeril and Tom will be walking around watching them butcher and cook.
I don’t like this full-of-himself Tyler guy. I do like that Tom and Emeril hated the way Tyler butchered the meat. Oh my, Tom hated it SO much that he kicked him off immediately…before he even started cooking. He was supposedly cutting the tenderloin for another chef, Grace, and she was left with a 3 ounce piece of meat. Will she be gone too for not taking control of her own ingredient?
Okay, let’s see. Tom asks Grace why she allowed Tyler to hack away at her meat like that. She said she thought it would buy her some extra time. Tom said it’s a mistake to make assumptions about your competitors. He doesn’t send her home for some reason.
Colin runs out of time and, as he pours his soup into little containers, he spills and splatters it all over the plate. Tom and Emeril take one look and HE’S gone. They don’t even taste it.
Padma explains that the majority rules in deciding who goes and who stays. 2 out of 3 of the judges have to agree that they should stay. (Finally, Padma is being treated as a full-fledged judge.) If the judges can't decide, the chef has to compete in another challenge. Chris is THRILLED to get one of the 16 coats. Sarah who works at Spiaggia for Tony Mantuano is the second chef chosen. She made pig skin into a fantastic (so they said) sausage.
Tenderloin gal Grayson is nervous. She and ship cook Molly are “on the bubble” and have to cook again.
I like Chef Heather saying, “This is it, you’re showing all your cards. You have one moment to prove to the judges that THIS is why you deserve to be here.” That’s Top Chef in a nutshell. That’s why it can be so heartbreaking, when you have a momentary lapse which can change everything.
Nyesha has worked for Robuchon. Is it possible that she won’t get past this initial round? Don’t think so. They love her pork shoulder. She’s through. Emeril says it’s incredibly balanced and Padma says it’s beautiful.
Articulate Heather giggles as she learns she is through to the next round. Self-taught Simon‘s dish is overcooked and there’s too much going on. Sous-chef Richie makes it. Emeril says his dish had depth.
Oh no, we have to go through all of this again with group two. This time it’s Gail who is judging and we have to hear the chefs’ introductions for this group too.
One amusing thing. Keith Rhodes is giving his credentials and going on a bit longer than the others. Then he says he’s a 2011 Southeastern James Beard Best Chef of the Year…Pause…NOMINEE. That reminds me of Dwight calling himself Assistant Manager and Michael always correcting him by saying he was Assistant TO the Manager. Funny.
In the second group, all the chefs have to agree on ONE ingredient from a table with lots of good stuff on it and they have to each cook the SAME ingredient. They go with the rabbit.
This is what we learn: Keith spent time in prison for drugs, but now cooking is super important to him. Some gal chef thinks she’s got an edge because she’s putting chocolate in her rabbit dish. Nina cooks at a gastropub and Tom taunts her a little bit saying the other chefs have more experience than she does. (She didn’t even have time to get the rabbit on the plate. She’s the first in this group to be given the boot.)
Keith makes it. I think they like his story as well.
Oh gosh, we have ONE MORE GROUP. Who did the chocolate dish? Dakota gets a coat. Ty-Lor (???) gets one too. And cute guy Chris from LA is one of the first 16.
Some other gal (names please!) is mad because she forgot the sauce and so they put her in the bubble to cook again. The four, who have to go on to another round, decide it’s because none of them has visibly huge tattoos.
That’s it for week one. Keith is the only name I remember, so I guess I’m raring for him to go further. I don’t mind the way they changed it up with more chefs competing for the 16 spots. But I do wish they displayed everyone’s name more frequently. And as far as who will be the star of this series of Top Chef...The twist with thirty chefs at the start gives me a much greater opportunity to be wrong for far longer than when they just got right down to it.