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June 17, 2010 at 05:05 AM EDT

Image Credit: David Giesbrecht/BravoWelcome back, Top Chef fans! It’s been a while since we last spoke (Padma had a baby, if you hadn’t heard), but season seven kicked off last night and with it, we met a crop of new cheftestants eager to take home the prize and achieve reality show fame. Branded non-stick pans and barbecue sauce await!

Last season in Vegas, TC was all about gambling and casinos, so naturally with this season set in the nation’s capital, we can expect plenty of flags and Yankee Doodle music. Best of all, though, Eric Ripert has joined the panel as a permanent judge. Can I get a double amen? He was one of my favorite guest judges, thanks to his focused opinions and clearly prolific resume.

As for the contestants, after six seasons, it’s become our M.O. as viewers to categorize the chefs as soon as we meet them. You may say don’t judge a book by its cover, but I dare you to watch a reality show and not pigeon hole at least one person as “the shy one” or “the racist one” or “the skanky one.” It’s our voyeuristic right (and pleasure) to see if our picks really pan out.

Right now, it’s too early to know what the real deal is with all 17, but here’s the 411 on the lineup and some musings on those that got more screen time. Let’s get on with it and meet the cheftestants!

Stephen, 40

Current gig: Executive chef of Seablue in Las Vegas

Angelo, 35

Current gig: Chef/owner of Xie Xie in New York City

Food for thought: Ego alert! Much like Stefan and Mike Voltaggio from the last two seasons, Angelo seems to talk the talk and, fortunately for him, walk the walk. But his insufferable chatter about Monte Carlo was pure torture!

Alex, 33

Current gig: Executive chef of Ivan Kane’s Café Was in Hollywood

Kenny, 36

Current gig: President/owner of Passionate Culinary Enterprises; chef/partner G’s restaurant group

Food for thought: Take Angelo’s talent, remove the bravado and you have strong but silent Kenny. But will his lack of a fiery personality hurt him in the reality-show long run?

Kelly, 33

Current gig: Chef/owner of Restaurant Kelly Liken

Food for thought: Right off the bat, she asks the other chefs about their style of food. She may crack under pressure (as evidenced by the potato peeling), but at least she’s a tenacious competitor.

Tracey, 34

Current gig: Executive chef of Table 1280 in Atlanta

Food for thought: In response to Kelly’s question about what her food, Tracey responds, “It’s good…?” Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath for her to crack the top three.

Lynne, 51

Current gig: Chef instructor of the Culinary Institute of America

Food for thought: She said she doesn’t have tattoos or crazy hair. Kids these days!

Jacqueline, 33

Current gig: Chef/owner of Jacqueline Lombard Events in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Arnold, 33

Current gig: Chef/owner of Cha Chah in Nashville, Tenn.

Food for thought: Arnold hired a personal stylist and got a facial before taping started. I think this guy’s going to add some much-needed sparkle to the season.

Timothy, 40

Current gig: Chef/owner of Prime Steak House in Baltimore, Md.

Kevin, 31

Current gig: Executive chef of Rat’s Restaurant in Hamilton, N.J.

Food for thought: That has got to be the most unfortunately named restaurant. Also, will he be this season’s Mike Isabella?

John, 43

Current gig: Chef de cuisine at The Lark in West Bloomfield, Mich.

Ed, 32

Current gig: Executive chef of Plein Sud in New York City

Amanda, 27

Current gig: Sous chef of Water Grill in L.A.

Tiffany, 26

Current gig: Executive chef of Go Fish Ocean Club in Dallas, Tx.

Food for thought: She barely flinched when Padma came out. “Hey Padma’s here.” It’s nothing against Tiffany, but it did make me realize the difference between a Padma entrance on TC and an entrance by, say, Tyra on America’s Next Top Model, where shrieks and tears ensue.

Andrea, 39

Current gig: Chef/owner of The Water Club, Talula Restaurant and Creative Tastes Catering in Miami, Fl.

Tamesha, 24

Current gig: Sous chef at the Oval Room in Washington, D.C.

Food for thought: One can never underestimate the youngins’. Just look at uber-successful Christian Siriano of erstwhile Bravo series Project Runway.

Things got underway with a back-to-basics mise en place quickfire challenge, where the cheftestants had to peel potatoes, dice onions, break four chickens into eight parts and prepare a dish with only the top competitors moving onto the next round.

In perfect TV dramatics, the challenge — and high stakes prize of $20,000 — eventually whittled down to Tim, Kenny, Kevin and Angelo. If the challenges continue to go head-to-head between Kenny and Angelo, the other cheftestants can kiss their screen time g’bye. The producers are clearly going to milk this rivalry.

And for good reason. Angelo is on a mission to win every single challenge, which would be a first in TC’s history, and frankly, very impressive. It probably won’t happen. But he’s clearly grooming himself for a post-TC career as on on-air personality.

When time came for the elimination, we got one of those great personality-based projects. In this case, it was to create a dish that reflected where each of the chefs was from. They were working in groups of four and from each group, a best and worst would be chosen.

But they didn’t draw knives for this one. Forming groups was a bit like elementary school kickball. The top four of the quickfire — Tim, Kevin, Kenny and Angelo — picked their competitors, naturally choosing the worst ones first. Tracey was none too happy to be a first pick, but that’s what they call survival of the fittest.

The gang was cooking for 300 Washingtonians attending the kick-off to the cherry blossom festival, and side note: one of the locals in attendance was Andy Baldwin from season 10 of The Bachelor. Local celebrity alert!

Upon first glance, everyone came out the kitchen relatively unscathed except for Jacqueline whose duo of chicken liver mousse looked more like red meat chocolate cake (…and now I’ve made myself sick).

Ripert didn’t have much good to say about it either, calling it coarse and bitter. Gail was more shocked that she nixed fat from the recipe, and she was right. Some things in life — gourmet coffee, ice cream and mousses — are best served with a nice, rich fat.

When time came to actually judge the dishes, it’s no shocker that her mousse didn’t place in the top four. No, that glory of the top four went to Angelo, Kenny, Alex and Kevin, an almost identical combination of the day’s top quickfire cheftestants.

Kenny made one of the evening’s most delectable-sounding dishes — cinnamon coffee-rubbed trout, which the judges loved for its flavor and balance. Kevin got the thumbs up for his tender Pennsylvania lamb that was simultaneously simple and complex — an interesting, if not confusing, description.

Personally I thought Alex’s deconstructed borscht showed the most creativity. Like the judges said, he truly honored what he intended, not to mention the premise of the challenge. But in the end, Angelo took home the win, and was thus one step closer to his win-every-challenge mission.

Based on his Connecticut upbringing, Angelo made an arctic char, marking the first appearance by the fish that got tons of play last season. I wasn’t there to taste his food and his dish probably was quite excellent, but there’s something really admirable about Kenny’s understated attitude. He doesn’t make for the best TV like Angelo, but he seems solid nonetheless.

In the bottom four were Stephen, John, Jacqueline and Tim, which was kind of embarrassing for the Baltimore chef, considering he had made the top four in the quickfire. I think this may foreshadow his inconsistencies to come.

Until then, it was John’s soggy maple mousse Napoleon that did him in. I once had a divine strawberry napoleon in San Diego, and I could see how balancing the creamy ingredients and crisp pastry dough would be tough. Taking chances can be a good thing, but this is the first episode, a.k.a. the weeding-out episode, and dessert was a risky move. Appreciated, but ultimately not smart. John said it himself: “I guess I was just being stupid.” Well, now, that’s just kind of sad.

Do you guys think John deserved the boot? And how do you think this season will pan out? Anyone else holding out for an Obama guest appearance?

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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