In the 1989 “classic” Road House, Patrick Swayze plays James Dalton, a bouncer at a roadside bar whose goal is to keep the peace. He’s a badass, but, like any good muscle, he’s supposed to remain in the background until the situation calls for him to assert himself.
It’s certainly a stretch (if not downright sacrilege to some) to compare Top Chef‘s bespectacled, shaved-headed James to the ’80s icon, but when you sport ink of the Soviet invasion-stopping surfer crime-fighter, there’s automatically more to you at first glance. Heck… I called him celeriac last week, but I promise I meant that in the best way possible.
James says he admires Swayze’s “craftsmanship and commitment to excellence” (one wonders if he’s talking about “that scene” in Ghost), and those words, it seems, are ones that these chefs brought to the kitchen in a competitive premiere episode. As the chefs pick up the pieces from last week’s first elimination challenge, the positions within the kitchen crystallize further as the personalities who are going to get the most screen time emerge. Mei’s the chef-to-beat, who’s “so good she beats you with rice porridge.” Katsuji’s 20-component “taco” was fun, but it almost got him sent home, and he knows it. And Aaron and Keriann are about to try to rip out each other’s throats with their bare hands à la Swayze.
From the outset, Aaron had “villain” written all over him. But unlike in past years, which gave us Robin’s off-kilter snarliness in Las Vegas and Josie’s agonizing performance art (and that laugh) in Seattle, Aaron’s not unlikable because he’s annoying, unstable, or clearly inferior. He’s all three—and he’s an a–hole. After 12 seasons and nearly 200 chefs, I can’t recall another person who has set out to offend so deeply on so many levels.
Once Boston was announced as the location for the season, a few destinations, stories, and ideas were always going to wind up prompting culinary correlatives. Stone-faced Todd English is among the cobblestone streets for this quickfire, which incorporates Paul Revere’s ride toward the Old North Church with a “one if by land, two if by sea” dynamic. The challenge is to create a surf-and-turf dish, where each time the lamps light, a new item (either by land or sea) must be added to the in-progress dish. It’s a fairly clumsy integration of the theme, but any chance to watch the chefs scramble toward the tables or stand awkwardly waiting for the lamps to light is easy comedy.
Over the years, America’s general food awareness has increased thanks to programs like Top Chef, and the pool of ingredients, which includes uni, ramps, boar bacon, and hen of the woods mushrooms, seems to epitomize the high-cuisine knowledge of the audience. On menus and in cookbooks, the degrees of specificity suggest a higher literacy, but also beget the snobbishness these chefs have been displaying during this young season. Thankfully, though, there’s also Cap’n Crunch, pretzels, and something called dried crab snack waiting for the chefs who are so self-serious about their food that they miss the lights going on.
NEXT: The cheftestants’ wild quickfire ride