We gave it a B
There were numerous reasons to think that Top Chef: Texas was going to be a drag. After eight seasons, there was the risk of inevitable erosion in viewer interest — how many more Quickfire Challenges could quicken our pulses? And there was the setting. Moving the show to Texas for its ninth season might have proved both limiting and embarrassing: all that bar-b-q; all those jokes about everything being bigger in Texas; all those publicity shots of Padma Lakshmi in a strapless denim dress. Plus, Emeril Lagasse was signing on as a judge — bam! — instant guy-who’s-turned-himself-into-a-parody chef!
But Top Chef: Texas seems to have anticipated all of these potential pitfalls and danced a neat two-step around each one. And the show has done it in an admirably surprising, risky way: by increasing the number of potential Top Chefs. Starting out with 29 hopefuls and immediately subjecting them to brutal rejection rounds — kicking one guy out before he’d even cooked because the judges didn’t like the way he cut raw meat! — cranked up the heat immediately. The remaining 16 donned handsome dark blue chef jackets and set to work chopping away at food and one another. A Quickfire Challenge involving the preparation of rattlesnake followed by the creation of a birthday-party menu for an adolescent girl turned into a dramatic, classic under-the-bus-throwing event. Lindsay (rabbity and intense) and Sarah (faux-generous) ganged up on Keith (meek and mild) for buying ”precooked shrimp” — sure, that was a dumb move, but not meriting the instant freeze-out (and, by the end of the hour, eviction) that Keith received. Yes, these potential Tops are a cutthroat bunch.
The judges are nicely al dente as well, biting in their criticism. New judge Hugh Acheson may look like a callow schoolboy, but he’s got a fine, snappish streak in him, and Emeril dials back on his geniality to give grave pronouncements (”The succotash with the clams that Jamie oven-roasted? She shoulda stopped there”). The third episode, with food made for a quinceañera, a Mexican-culture coming-of-age party, typified what’s right about Top Chef: Texas: It worked in local culture logically, and the producers found the right girl in Blanca, who was a sweet child (no My Super Sweet 16 tantrums for her) with distinct opinions (”The chicken tasted like cinnamon,” she said of a failed molé sauce).
As the season moves from San Antonio to Dallas to Austin, there are bound to be some silly reality-show howlers (one male contestant gushed that ”seeing Padma on a horse is pure beauty” — there’s an edit he’d probably like to make). But so far, at least, this is a much stronger outing than last season’s tedious All-Stars session. These newbies just seem hungrier. B+