The timing for a new season of Top Chefcouldn’t have been better. My roommate and I just came off this silly cabbage-soup detox thing (eight bananas in one day — what?) on Sunday, so all it took were images of Chicago deep-dish pizza to get us salivating over our glossy faux-wood coffee table. We hope the fresh fare was as good for you as it was for us.
This season, the show’s 16 contestants are battling it out in Chicago, which means pizza, hot-dog, and wind-tunnel challenges are inevitable. Before I sink my teeth into a few new twists, let me quickly introduce the contestants. There’s…
Andrew, 30, from New York
Antonia, 31, a single mother from Los Angeles
Dale, 29, currently a sous chef at New York’s Buddakan
Erik, 38, from San Francisco; says if he wins, he plans to open his own shack in Hawaii and cook in flip-flops
Jennifer, 35, from San Francisco; has same haircut as Richard, and Richard is not happy about it
Lisa, 27, from Toronto and currently living in New York
Manuel, 33; lives in New York
Mark, 29, a sous chef from New Zealand (let’s hear it for a Flight of the Conchords cameo by Bret and Jemaine!)
Nikki, 35, from New York
Nimma, 26, from Atlanta; says she doesn’t entirely agree with her Muslim parents, who think she should live with them until she marries
Richard, 35, who lives in Atlanta; says he cooks with liquid nitrogen (does Marcel have a gang? First Hung, now Richard)
Ryan, 28, from San Francisco; says his father fired two cooks at his restaurant because at the age of 11, Ryan was better than them
Spike, 27, a Floridian who currently resides in the overly hip Williamsburg neighborhood of New York
Stephanie, 31, from Chicago
Valerie, 32, a personal chef from Chicago
Zoi, 30, from San Francisco
Hmm, lots of representation from the Bay Area, no one under 25 (remember Ilan was only 24), and not very diverse racially. During the first meeting, at Pizzeria Uno, Jennifer and Zoi had an announcement to get off their chests: They are a couple. Their competitors responded with ”oh”s and ”oh, wow”s and nods of confusion that were probably meant to be expressions of open-mindedness. In a confessional interview, Spike called their announcement ”bulls—.” I’m not sure what he meant by this — a publicity stunt by producers? But then he thought about it for a while, very deeply, and said, well, ”no big deal, they could go home together.”
As Padma Lakshmi explained what is at stake, I was thinking that you gotta hand it to the product-placement guys. The winner still gets $100,000 — this time furnished by Glad — but they also get to go on a luxury vacation to the French Alps courtesy of Evian, the bottled water, which has to be thriving thanks to the discovery of traces of drugs in our drinking water. One entirely new twist is the $200 worth of secret ingredients the contestants were allowed to pack for the competition (hopefully in a bag separate from their tighty-whities). It raises an interesting question: What five foods would you take with you to a desert island? (I’d genuinely love to know. Post in the comments section.)
Now that the housekeeping is taken care of, let’s roll. For the quickfire challenge, contestants had to create a signature deep-dish pizza in 90 minutes. I gotta say it — that’s a lot of time to make a pie, especially when the judges had the decency to provide prepped dough. (Full disclosure: I am a former Papa John’s employee, which means I not only made pizza and delivered it but once had the dignified chore of dressing up as a slice.) Some chefs obviously did not have much experience with the goo, namely a certain New Yorker and a Chicagoan who made it seem like the only pizza they’d ever seen was out of the freezer aisle. The latter, Valerie, insisted her style of cooking is more upscale and then curiously decided to make a ”meat and potatoes” pie. Er?
Next up was the first secret ingredient to make its debut: Mark’s marmite. ”It’s the nastiest-tasting s—,” my roommate violently blurted out as we watched. ”It’s really bitter.” (It turns out she once had a British babysitter who ate marmite on toast.) On the other end of the kitchen, meanwhile, Andrew was ticked off because Richard had taken two pans to make his pie. The simple, adult thing to do would have been to make Richard give one up; instead, Andrew whined about how ridiculous it was and chose to use a cast-iron skillet — perhaps an adversity-breeds-character ploy for the judges, in case he ended up on the chopping block.
The chefs packed up their pizza and delivered it to Padma and a surprise guest judge at a brownstone, which also happened to be the casa they’ll be living in for the remainder of the season. As the door opened, Rocco DiSpirito seemed overly gratified to be revealing himself in all his greatness. Mark called him a ”rock star” in the culinary world, which is why I’m a bit surprised he’s back. You got a hint of DiSpirito’s celebrity smugness in an awkward but admittedly funny smile he gave Andrew after tasting his prosciutto and heirloom tomato slice. I suppose it didn’t stack up against Richard’s ”peach taleggio pizza” with sweet tea sauce, the most interesting, counterintuitive, and scrumptious-looking of them all. Also garnering kudos was Mark for his ”harmonious” use of marmite. The judges divided the contestants into two groups of winners and losers, the latter being Lisa, Zoi, Andrew, Nimma, Valerie, Manuel, Nikki (who got called out for her dry, overly thick crust), and Stephanie (for gamy-tasting prosciutto). But the judges didn’t name a first-place finisher, who in Top Chef‘s past would get immunity for the elimination challenge — I hope this is not a precedent for future episodes. Padma noted that the results of the quickfire would be weighed in the elimination challenge.
NEXT: Classic mistakes