With Project Runway brought to a close on Wednesday (who would have thought Jeffrey would have ever won?), it's good to know that Bravo has yet another reality competition series for us to get hooked on, and I've been anxiously awaiting the premiere of Top Chef for some time now.
First things first, I think the show has greatly benefited from the loss of the animatronic Katie Lee Joel as host, but I am not totally sold on new host Padma Lakshmi either. She's beautiful, is a renowned cookbook author, but she speaks as slow as molasses. I kept having to use the TiVo to speed through some of her intros as she was just taking way too much time to get through the script. I'm not sure why it's been so difficult to find a host that's knowledgeable, looks good on camera, and has some personality. Plus, I'm not entirely sure why Bravo doesn't just have Tom Colicchio host the show. He's articulate, opinionated, and already providing insightful commentary and culinary knowledge week after week. (Sadly, Bravo TV execs haven't yet learned how to clone Project Runway's Tim Gunn, but they're working on the formula.)
I was especially happy to see Top Chef Season One winner Harold Dieterle acting as guest judge for the season premiere; it was only fitting that the current holder of the title of Top Chef be there to hand off the reins to the next batch of competitors. As always, he was polished, insightful, and honest and it was great to see him at the judges' table with Tom and Food & Wine's Gail Simmons, who along with Heidi, Nina, and Michael from Project Runway are the best reality judges in the business. How Padma will fit into all of this remains to be seen.
(An aside: what was up with Tom's speech to the chefs about how he's not their mentor, he's the head judge? It was oddly antagonistic and very unexpected. Still it set the mood for the chef: he's not there to help you along, but rather to critique, judge, and eliminate the weakest players.)
So far, I have my top three chefs that I am already rooting for, and they would be 24-year-old line cook Ilan Hall, 44-year-old chef/restaurateur Betty Fraser (if you're ever in LA, drop by her delicious restaurant Grub), and 28-year-old executive chef Sam Talbot, who seems like he might be the next Harold in this competition, especially since Sam and Harold both won the initial quickfire challenge in each season's first episode.
In this week's premiere episode ("Into the Fire"), there was no rest for the new chefs who were quickly pushed into the quickfire challenge, which this week consisted of a flambe. I was really wowed by Sam's beautiful shrimp dish. His dish was an unexpected combination of ingredients and was gorgeously plated, and it was easily the best dish there. Sam may very well be the one to beat, especially given his standout performance in the quickfire challenge. The biggest disappointment of the quickfire was Ella, who selected red wine to use as her alcohol for her dish of flambeed strawberries with chocolate. But, um, she neglected to think through the fact that, as red wine has considerably lower alcohol content than hard liquors, it wouldn't ignite as easily and produce the tall flames that by their nature define flambe.
The elimination challenge forced the competitors to cook a dish out of completely wacky and diverse mystery ingredients. One team got the, um, completely yummy combo of escargot, American cheese, roasted peanuts, artichokes, and potatoes. The other group was given frog's legs, chicken livers, peanut butter, cornflakes, and eggplant. While some viewers have complained that this challenge was far too gimmicky (when would chefs ever be forced to use snails AND processed cheese in the same dish?), I think it's perfectly in keeping with the tone of the show. Top Chef is always about surprises and odd combinations and, as a chef, you should be able to adapt to any ingredients, methods, or cuisines. Versatility is the name of the game, people.
The winner? Ilan's dish of baked escargot in the shell, a delicious blend of mashed potatoes, escargot, peanuts, and artichoke baked in the shell and topped with a creamy cheese sauce. It plated beautifully and looked elegant, constructed, and absolutely something you might find in a restaurant. And this is coming from someone who has never tasted an escargot.
I'd also have to give honorable mention to Betty's dish, which was completely different than any of the other competitors. Rather than fry the frog legs like one might a chicken drumstick, Betty opted to transform the frog legs and chicken livers into a cake which was then perched atop a crunchy salad with a piquant vinaigrette. Kudos, Betty, for doing something different than the rest of the bunch. Also, I admire Mia's decision to do the entire meal as a sort of down-home Sunday supper, turning out the best fried frog legs of the group. It will be interesting to see if she can step outside her comfort zone of down-home cooking and turn out, say, nouveau cuisine if that's the challenge. We'll see.
I was sad to see English-born caterer Suyai Steinhauer pack her knives. While last season's first-to-go was an extremely obvious decision (he was crazy, after all), I felt that Suyai's nerves really got the better of her. She was an interesting personality, and I wish that she had been more prepared for the tension and heat of this kitchen. Still, if she couldn't handle the pressure of the very first challenge, I'm sorry to say that I don't know that she would have made it very far in the competition.
It's good to see that the producers of Top Chef didn't forget to cast an obvious villain, and this season that role handily goes to 26-year-old Marcel Vigneron, a CIA-trained master cook at Joel Robuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas. He's just as arrogant as last season's Stephen Aspirinio and loves to try to wow the judges with his mastery of "molecular gastronomy." Whether he can actually produce a dish that isn't overwhelmed by garlic (as his frog legs lollipop was) remains to be seen. But what's a given is that he's already in the first episode alone managed to rub most of his fellow competitors the wrong way, and the scenes from future episodes already show some rather drama-laden showdowns between Marcel and the other chefs. Personally, I think if he gets too uppity, the competitors should force him to cut his wacky hairdo. I swear that thing is sentient.
Next week on Top Chef ("Eastern Promise"): the contestants are asked to prepare sushi for guest judges Ming Tsai and Katana's Hiroshi Shima. (For a sneak peek of images from the episode, click here.) But personally, I can't wait for Anthony Bourdain's appearance as a guest judge. Teehee.
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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions junior exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionary.blogspot.com.