We have all season to overuse Texas-themed aphorisms (“God bless Texas”; “Don’t mess with Texas!”; “I’m a Texan first, an American second”), but the one most befitting of tonight is clearly “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” For the Lone Star State edition of Top Chef, we’re getting a Longhorn Steakhouse-sized serving of cheftestants. At the top of the season opener, a herd of 29 culinary hopefuls approach the Alamo like cattle making their way to the slaughter. Padma, looking like a beautiful desert rose, “walcomes” the chefs to San Antonio and informs them that they’re not quite finalists yet. The casting team apparently didn’t quite finish its job, so the 29 (why not an even 30?), split into three groups, will have to cook their way into the final 16.
If it seems Bravo is trying to squeeze a few extra episodes from this season, it probably is — not that I’m complaining! Top Chef is probably my favorite reality TV competition out there because it takes people who are genuinely great at what they do and pushes them to the limit without exploiting the drama to an absurd degree. And as great as All-Stars was last season, it’s refreshing to see new faces, although there are too many of them to get overly attached to anyone just yet.
The first group of 10 marvel over the new Top Chef kitchen, outfitted with the LATEST G.E. MONOGRAM EQUIPMENT (thanks, Jack Donaghy!). Mesmerized by the super-shiny floor, it takes a moment for the chefs to realize that cheflebrity and new judge for the season Emeril Lagasse stands before them, along with head judge Tom Colicchio. You can see the contestants physically restrain themselves from shouting “BAM!” to his face.
Tom and Emeril take a second to get to know the up-and-comers. More on each later, but the gist: everyone’s from Chicago, everyone’s a James Beard nominee, everyone’s worked with a world-famous 26-Michelin-star chef, everyone’s a Rising Star … Well, not really. Some cook for cruise ships or fake celebrities or nobody at all.
The challenge: A single pig has been deconstructed into 10 primal parts; each chef will have to create a dish using one of the sections. The chefs have to clamor over the piggy parts Lord of the Flies-style while avoiding trichinella. Tom, Emeril, and Padma will decide whether the contestant receives a Top Chef jacket, has to pack their knives and go, or gets relegated to “on the bubble” status, meaning they have to cook one more time to get into the Top Chef house.
NEXT: One cocky young chef gets cut down to size …