A new season of Top Chef is like when a produce patch bears its first signs of the delicious bounty to come. Sprouts break through the topsoil as we begin to get acquainted with a new crop of cheftestants. Some will be the spicy peppers, enlivening our weekly watching. Others will be the spinach, resilient even when temperatures run hot or cold. A few will be the tomatoes, perennial favorites that please the crowd. And some will be weeds, pulling at the garden around them and sucking the air out of the room.
In recent years, the Top Chef garden has sourced from more prestigious production sources as established chefs hope to use the show—now in its 12th season—as a speedy springboard out from under their more-famous forebears. It seems like with each passing season, there are more Beards (James, that is) and more (Michelin) star power chasing $125,000 and that elusive feature in Food and Wine magazine.
For me, that’s kind of a mixed uh… salad, though. I take eating as seriously as anyone, but as the show draws from a more prestigious, temperature-regulated pool, the bumbling line cooks of the past aren’t going to be drawing knives here on Boston Common and embracing the absurdity of competitive cooking. Instead, we’ve got gastronomers and confident chefs who want to take themselves too seriously—have you ever heard so many bleeped words on an episode not featuring Dale Talde? And while I’m sure they’re talented, these new chefs have come with some sharp, sharp knives in their bags.
Covering 16 people (most of whom will only last long enough to make us not want to eat at their restaurants) is tough, but there are some clear standouts, both for personality and seeming skill. Gregory, a former sous chef at Jean-Georges, gets to be the first one who talks. That’s got to count for something, right? Katsuji’s a Jewish-Mexican-Japanese-American whose food seems to draw on all of those influences at once. And Keriann was named the World’s Greatest Young Chef in 2008 by some organization none of the other chefs seem to have heard of.
It’s always fun to predict who will finish where. Stacy’s the hometown chef (I bet she makes a wicked awesome chowdah)—she’ll probably make it past the halfway mark but never contend. Joy seems likable, but being intimidated by your competitors before you’ve even drawn knives or made that first sprint to the Top Chef kitchen pantry isn’t a good sign. Katie, Rebecca, Melissa, and James are the root vegetables of the garden—staying under the surface until they’re pulled out of the ground and probably chopped up before the finale, though James might be more celeriac than carrot. Ron looks like the one whose elimination will feel the saddest; Aaron seems like the one whose will be the least so. Doug has the look of a contender, and Adam and George are convinced they do… just ask them. But for my money, Mei—a Michael Voltaggio protégé—looks like the early favorite for no reason than her swag factor. She just has it.
With all these prestigious chefs, a Sudden Death quickfire right off the bat will help thin the herd, and Padma and new recurring judge and Top Chef‘s favored son Richard Blais are in midseason form early. I’ve always thought that there was no reason to eliminate only one chef per week, especially in early episodes when it’s clear which chefs are going to spend most of their time squirming in front of the judges. So there’s no better way to get things going than the mis en place race, a series standby that always highlights the standouts.
NEXT: Misery en place