Season 11's talented chefs prove that Nawlins cuisine is about a lot more than crawdads and gumbo
Top Chef Recap
Credit: David Moir/Bravo
S11 E1
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Welcome to the Big Easy! More than Seattle, Texas, or Las Vegas, New Orleans as a locale has added a much-needed dash of spice to Top Chef. Everyone I know who has ever spent time in Nawlins speaks about it with a reverential air, and Gail Simmons told me about a month ago that it was hands-down the judges’ favorite filming location to date. They even contemplated buying property there, and I was hoping she meant they’d all buy one house together and live under the same roof and film it. There’d be plenty of drama, I’m sure, because judging from the season preview, the beef that — I’m convinced, or at least, I wish — exists between Gail and Padma has not been sufficiently quashed since Seattle. Hopefully, much more on that as the season continues. #TeamGailObviously

It’s going to take a few episodes to commit these new chefs to memory, but a couple stood out as the most notable. First of all, there was Janine Booth, the buxom blond from Australia. So often Top Chef contestants spend their lives hidden in kitchens for a reason, but Janine strutted in rocking Daisy Dukes and heels, proclaiming, “The fact that I’m not so ugly… usually it’s something that I have to get people to overcome.” Normally that’d be a super-annoying statement, but maybe in her case, it’s just true.

Also notable was Shirley, who runs restaurants for Thomas Keller and, under her own admission, can’t shut her mouth. Then there was Stephanie Cmar, who I knew looked familiar; she was Kristen’s friend from last year who got cut before the competition even got started. She has a hunger for redemption that is equal parts compelling and creepy. I like her. Then there was Travis, the “white guy who makes Asian food.” He loves every part of Asian culture, admitting, “I only date Asians.” Oh, I know guys like this. Trust me. I’ll call him an “RQ” (a hundred comment-“likes” to anyone who can guess what that stands for). In a good way? I bet he, like most card-carrying RQs, makes a yearly month-long pilgrimage to Southeast Asia where he indulges in all the local flavors.

NEXT: Food fit for a swamp…

Tom and Padma entered the contestants’ living quarters slinging beads, and nobody even had to expose their areolas. The beads either read “alligator” or “turtle,” which were the proteins they had to use for the first Elimination Challenge. (No Quickfire!) The chefs would be cooking for 150 people in a swamp cookout, and the guests would adorn their favorite chefs with Mardi Gras beads. I’d argue that the challenge was overly weighted in Janine’s favor. (I’d say the same about Jason, the conventionally best-looking male, but I trust that the guests could sense his douchiness a mile away).

Tom visited the chefs as the prepped their food stations and arrived just in time to witness Jason bleeding into his food. But Jason bounced back from that moment of mortification by finishing his dish “fast as f—,” saying, “I thought this was supposed to be f—ing hard. I’m going to go pick some strawberries.” Is Jason just a cocky bastard, as Stephanie seemed to think, or is he the next Hung? (Wait, what’s the difference?) Only time will tell.

The judges shipped into the swamp on a barge named the Swamp Queen, which Tom joked was Padma’s nickname. It’s funny, I thought of the exact same joke the moment I saw the Swamp Queen moniker. Great minds!

By and large, the judges and the locals favored the female chefs, which bodes well for the possibility of an unprecedented two female winners in a row. Everybody enjoyed Carrie‘s poached frog legs with oyster emulsion and cold zucchini salad. Emeril noted that the New Orleans locals were pleasantly surprised to get cold frog legs, although cold frog’s legs sound a bit too seventh grade science project to me. They also loved rockabilly Sarah‘s “unapologetically spicy” General Tso’s-style deep-fried alligator with smoked chilis, sweet-and-sour sauce, pickled veggies, and pea shoots. The spice from her dish caused Padbot to short-circuit and exclaim, “Holy s—, it’s hot!”

But the win went to Nina, who reminded us many times that she had the pride of Saint Lucia on her shoulders. Knowing that turtle meat could get a bit tough, she decided to break the meat down into tender balls and doused them in curry served with chayote slaw and chutney with raisins. The guests weighed Nina down with beads, and the judges proclaimed her Queen of the Swamp. (We know that title really belongs to Mama Odie, but Nina can borrow it for now).

On the uglier side of the spectrum were Patty, Aaron, and Ramon. Before facing the judges, Muay Thai boxer Ramon counted his very few Mardi Gras beads as if they were prayer beads. He ended up having to pack his knives because the dashi from his braised turtle dish was watered down after he added ice to it. Honestly, who adds ice to the dashi? (I’ve never cooked dashi but it sounds like the wrong thing to do.)

Aaron, who landed in the bottom for his overly al dente pasta, had presented a decent dish but paled in comparison to the other chefs. Patty squeaked by with her poorly tenderized Cajun-style alligator. Curtis noted that none of the bottom dishes were all that bad, but the competition had been fierce.

What did you think of the Big Easy premiere? Has the location livened up the show? Do you feel optimistic about this crop of chefs?

Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter.

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