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‘Top Chef’ recap: These are the people in your neighborhood
Welcome, foodies! It’s hard to believe it’s that time already, but Project Runway has ended, thus leaving room for the classiest show on television: Top Chef. Allow me to introduce myself. Hi! I’m Kate Ward. You might remember me from such fill-in TV Watches as America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. This time around, though, I’ll be with you for the entire season to watch our finest — or at least most attention-hogging — chefs slice and dice their way to the title of Top Chef. But before we begin, you should know the following: I’ve never made a dessert for a fetish party, eaten wasabi with white chocolate, or tried to shave the head of a coworker (yet). In fact, I’ve hardly mastered the art of Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese. But that doesn’t mean I love Top Chef any less. What other show could inspire me to walk into my kitchen to brainstorm what I could make from a piece of chewed-up gum, some chocolate, and a bobby pin? Alas, I’m hardly a Bravo-ized MacGyver, so I’m better off marveling at their genius than trying it out for myself. But here’s where you come in: Since I’m no Grant Achatz — or even Rachael Ray for that matter — I’m hoping some of you more refined TV Watchers can add your knowledge and expertise to our comment board following this article.
Now that we’re done with that, we can move on to the show. And the premiere left quite a bit to cover. We’ll get to the action in a second, but since it’s ever-so-hard to differentiate between our contestants at this level in the competition, let’s first take the time to look at our new crop of chefs — including the first two ousted this season — for Top Chef‘s “toughest season yet” and personify them through some tasty dishes (with some help from EW’s resident foodie, Adam Markovitz).
Current Job: Owner of Café Firenze Italian Restaurant Martini Bar
Why he’ll win: The enthusiastic chef has the drive and enthusiasm to take him to the top. And if the name of his restaurant is any indication, he knows how to prepare quite a vast array of foods.
Why he won’t: Top Chef marks his first time in New York. Will that and a mangled English accent prove a disadvantage?
Cuisine Comparison: Astronaut ice cream, since he’s multi-layered and works as William Shatner’s private chef.
Current Job: Executive chef, Absinthe Brasserie and Bar
Why she’ll win: The tattooed one brings a creative edge to the kitchen and garnered great praise with her first elimination dish.
Why she won’t: She admits that she doesn’t like people telling her what to do. And teamwork is a vital part of becoming a capable chef.
Cuisine Comparison: Baked Alaska. Jamie’s hard on the outside but seems to have a gooey center.
Current Job: Executive chef, executive sushi chef and chef consultant
Why he’ll win: The Hawaii native has a great story: He never went to culinary school and instead, started his training as a dishwasher. Plus, he excelled in his first elimination challenge — without even realizing it.
Why he won’t: He never went to culinary school, and that’s sure to hurt him somewhere down the line.
Cuisine Comparison: Eugene is nice and simple, so I’d peg him as Hawaiian sweet bread.
NEXT: Jeff, Radhika, Arianne, Daniel, Stefan, Richard, Leah, and Alex
Current Job: Chef de cuisine, the DiLido Beach Club
Why he’ll win: Because he somehow figured out a way to escape from House’s clutches to train as a professional chef. Only kidding — I know he’s not Dr. Chase. But he’s just as pretty. And it can’t be that difficult to charm the panel through looks, right?
Why he won’t: We see a hair-related breakdown in his future. Luckily, season 2’s Cliff isn’t around.
Cuisine Comparison: Marzipan. It looks nice but often leaves a stale taste in your mouth.
Current Job: Executive chef, Between Boutique Café & Lounge
Why she’ll win: She’s traveled the world to expand her cooking horizons. And she’s plenty creative, if her quickfire and elimination dishes are any indication.
Why she won’t: If she really wants to avoid being pigeonholed as an Indian-food chef, she should avoid making chutney for her premiere dish.
Cuisine Comparison: Chicken Tikka Marsala. A bit bland.
Current Job: Chef/owner of CulinAriane
Why she’ll win: She’s nice, motherly and seems eager to prove her prowess in the kitchen.
Why she won’t: Ariane second-guesses herself, and doesn’t seem sure whether or not she’s ready to be in the competition. Without confidence, what has she got?
Cuisine Comparison: Chocolate soufflé. It’s warm and inviting, but it can collapse at a moment’s notice.
Current Job: Chef de cuisine, Babylon Carriage House
Why he’ll win: The gruff chef bucks drama, chastising Stefan and Fabio for brandishing their egos.
Why he won’t: Yet, by talking dirty about his competitors, he’s still inviting plenty of drama. And he might be too competitive for his own good.
Cuisine Comparison: Saffron pasta. Robust, if a bit sour.
Current Job: Chef, StefansCatering.com
Why he’ll win: The Finnish chef is bold, creative, and seemingly unstoppable — he finished first in the show’s first two challenges.
Why he won’t: He’s the cockiest of them all, and there is such thing as too much confidence.
Cuisine Comparison: Isn’t it obvious? He’s a Coq au vin.
Current Job: Executive sous chef, Confidential Restaurant and Loft
Why he’ll win: He’s sweet, fun, and talented — he landed at the bottom of the elimination round by just a hair — and according to his Bravo bio, he likes to keep it simple.
Why he won’t: He might get eaten alive by some of his more competitive castmates. And it’s probably hard to meander through the kitchen with those self-described “big legs.”
Cuisine Comparison: Fusilli bolognaise. Because he’s warm and silly!
Current Job: Sous chef, Centro
Why she’ll win: This season’s eye candy knows her way around the city and cooks up a mean plate of Italian food.
Why she won’t: Not every challenge will be her specialty. And based on her work in the quickfire, she’s slow when it comes to preparation.
Cuisine Comparison: A fine Bordeaux — sexy and tasty, but the 27-year-old’s talent might improve with age.
Current Job: Executive chef, Restaurant 15
Why he’ll win: The Latin chef knows how to use spices, and unlike some other contestants, he actually gets excited around food.
Why he won’t: This might explain it: On his bio, Alex claims to have a “personal relationship” with food. I don’t know about you, but I like my chefs to have a non-intimate association with what I put in my stomach.
Cuisine Comparison: A piquant, zingy ceviche.
NEXT: Hosea, Carla, Jill, Melissa Lauren, and Patrick
Current Job: Executive chef, Jax Fish House
Why he’ll win: Hosea’s smart — just look at his degree in engineering physics — and he managed to show the panel his cooking style in the very first elimination challenge. Plus, he seems like a genuinely nice guy.
Why he won’t: Smarts and a good personality will only take you so far in Top Chef (as evidenced by last season’s meanie, Lisa).
Cuisine Comparison: Smoked salmon with faux caviar, or any science-infused dish Richard made last year.
Current Job: Owner/chef, Alchemy Caterers
Why she’ll win: Carla’s out to prove that caterers are just as good as any chef. Pair that with her kooky personality, and she could be a favorite for judges and fans.
Why she won’t: Those spirits that guide her may lead her astray.
Cuisine Comparison: Carla’s sweet, but a little nutty: an almond macaroon.
Current Job: Executive chef, Red Maple
Why she’ll win: We know very little about Jill, but we do know that she can caramelize the heck out of scallop.
Why she won’t: She got a bit of the shakes during the quickfire challenge, so perhaps her nerves will get the better of her.
Cuisine Comparison: A box of Whitman’s. It looks nice, but we’re not quite sure yet what’s waiting for us on this inside.
Current Job: Sous chef, Centro Latin Kitchen and Refreshment Palace
Why she’ll win: Thanks to a severely limited amount of screen time, we don’t know much about Melissa. But I’ll bet that bleach blond hair could easily take on a life of its own and blind the rest of the competition.
Why she won’t: Who doesn’t know how to cook Italian food?
Cuisine Comparison: Salt cod, but only because she looks like Thor.
(And now, the episode’s two losers):
Current Job: Chef tournant, Jag’s Steak and Seafood
Why she might have won: The chef seemed spunky and had a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Why she didn’t: Tom wasn’t enough of a fan of her first dish.
Cuisine Comparison: On Bravo’s website, Lauren labeled herself a “sweet and sassy box of chocolates.” So, sure, we’ll go with that.
Current Job: Culinary student
Why he might have won: At 21 years old, Patrick was young, sure, but he had plenty of ambition and self confidence.
Why he didn’t: His dishes weren’t inspired enough to wow Padma & Co.
Cuisine Comparison: Duck à l’Orange. It has a fancy name, but there’s not much to it.
But let’s move on to the episode, shall we? This season our chefs are competing in New York City, and I have to say, it’s about time. Though San Francisco and Chicago have plenty of cuisine clout, I’m surprised that it took Top Chef five seasons to get to one of the world’s most prestigious, and diverse, foodie-friendly cities. And our contestants were plenty excited as well. Not only did Fabio declare his first trip to NYC to be a “big freaking deal,” but Richard was happy to land in the city, albeit for slightly different reasons: “Of course, the inner queen inside me is screaming to know, Where’s Padma and what is she wearing? Not that it really matters, but I’ve got a bunch of queens back home that really want to know.”
NEXT: Grab an apple and a knife
Upon arriving to New York, the contestants were ushered to Governors Island via ferry, where they were given their first quickfire challenge, described by Padma as survival of the fittest, “Big Apple-style.” (This I felt to be a tad misleading, as our contestants wouldn’t get very far in a real Big Apple-style knife fight by showing their attackers how to julienne fruit.) And there was a surprise in store for our chefs: The contestant who placed last over the course of three tasks would immediately have to pack up their knives and go. The first task? Peeling 15 apples using only — gasp! — a knife. But as frivolous as it sounds, the challenge proved to be more difficult than one would expect — not to mention dangerous. Richard somehow managed to cut his finger while peeling his bunch, but apparently it’s more important to serve perfectly peeled apples than worry about serving bloody apples, so Tom gave him a pass to the top nine. Ultimately, a very cocky Stefan finished first, giving him immunity for the upcoming elimination challenge. The bottom eight were then given two cups of apples to brunoise, which is an unnecessarily hard-to-pronounce term that essentially means “dice.”
Eventually half of the bottom eight adequately finished their brunoise-ing, leaving four contestants in the bottom: Lauren, Patrick, Radhika, and Leah, who then had to cook a dish using apples in only 20 minutes. It seemed like a close race — with Leah and her scallop dish coming out on top of the bottom pack — but eventually Lauren went home for an uninspired apple salad with blue cheese, bacon. and balsamic vinaigrette. And her ouster was an obvious one, thanks to my general rule of thumb for Top Chef eliminations: If I know how to cook your dish — or if it involves words I don’t have to Google to understand — you will go home.
Immediately after the first cut, the contestants were given their next task. For the first elimination challenge, the chefs drew knives and split into teams of two, and then they were instructed to cook dishes inspired by a handful of areas in New York: Richard and Jamie got Astoria (Greek), Hosea and Carla picked Brighton Beach (Russian), Stefan and Ariane chose Long Island City (Middle Eastern), Jeffrey and Fabio drew Ozone Park (Latin), Radhika and Jill got Queens (Jamaican), Leah and Melissa picked Little Italy (Italian, of course), Alex and Eugene chose Little India (guess!), and Patrick and Daniel were given Chinatown. (If you don’t know what type of cuisine that last one is, immediately consult an atlas. Do not pass go.) I was, however, disappointed to see that the chefs never made their way to my area of town — the East Village — as I would have loved to see them filet up a good crop of hipsters. But seeing as hipsters are only the preferred dish of the Cloverfield monster, maybe it’s best they stuck with the regions chosen for them.
But before they embarked on their first elimination challenge, they were able to see their super-sweet new apartment (remind me to acquire some talent so I can join a reality show and live in digs like that) and got the gossip train rolling. What did we learn? Stefan has a huge ego and likes fellow Europeans, like Fabio, who claims to make 200 pounds(!) of pasta per week. Good thing there was some levity to distract from all the ego boosting — while Stefan and Fabio were busy talking about themselves, we watched the formation of the oh-so-adorable Team Rainbow, otherwise known as the season’s gay and lesbian chefs (Richard, Jamie, and Patrick).
They couldn’t get too chummy, though — it wasn’t long before they had to go on a field trip to shop for their dishes. Most of the contestants were nervous about their food genre — Eugene, for one, had never cooked Indian food before — but some of the more confident of the bunch (ahem, Dr. Chase) felt they had it in the bag. Too bad it wasn’t so easy when cooking time came — Patrick had problems with the texture of his black rice noodles, Ariane sensed there was something wrong with her farro, and Dr. Chase hardly had time to finish plating his dish.
Good thing Dr. Chase got away with it at judging, where pro Jean-George Vongerichten sat in as guest judge. Some highlights? Stefan impressed Padma & Co. with his lamb chops with hummus and beef skewers, Leah got high marks for her red snapper and mushrooms, and Eugene cooked an authentic Southern Indian dish — curd rice — without even knowing it. On the negative side, Ariane made the rookie mistake of undercooking her farro, and both Chinatown-inspired dishes bombed. Ultimately, it was Stefan, Eugene, and Leah who landed in the top three, while Patrick and Ariane were left to fight their way out of the bottom. Adding on to his already healthy ego, Stefan bagged a win for the second time in a row, yet he still tried to assign himself underdog status by mentioning that a European has never won before. (Neither has a Norse superhero, but you don’t see Melissa talking about it, Stefan). But alas, the real underdog was the one who was sent packing: Patrick, the young culinary student. And sadly, Team Rainbow has lost one member. But no worries: one day they’ll find it, that rainbow connection.
Phew. Now I’ve said enough. Time to hear from you, friends! What dish had you licking your lips? Who will you miss more, Lauren or Patrick? Who is the Lisa of this season? And how do you feel about Toby Young replacing Ted Allen this season? Until next week!