In the season premiere, 16 new contestants compete to make a quick signature deep-dish pizza, then pair off to make the best variations on standard dishes
Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef, ...
S4 E1
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The timing for a new season of Top Chefcouldn’t have been better. My roommate and I just came off this silly cabbage-soup detox thing (eight bananas in one day — what?) on Sunday, so all it took were images of Chicago deep-dish pizza to get us salivating over our glossy faux-wood coffee table. We hope the fresh fare was as good for you as it was for us.

This season, the show’s 16 contestants are battling it out in Chicago, which means pizza, hot-dog, and wind-tunnel challenges are inevitable. Before I sink my teeth into a few new twists, let me quickly introduce the contestants. There’s…

Andrew, 30, from New York

Antonia, 31, a single mother from Los Angeles

Dale, 29, currently a sous chef at New York’s Buddakan

Erik, 38, from San Francisco; says if he wins, he plans to open his own shack in Hawaii and cook in flip-flops

Jennifer, 35, from San Francisco; has same haircut as Richard, and Richard is not happy about it

Lisa, 27, from Toronto and currently living in New York

Manuel, 33; lives in New York

Mark, 29, a sous chef from New Zealand (let’s hear it for a Flight of the Conchords cameo by Bret and Jemaine!)

Nikki, 35, from New York

Nimma, 26, from Atlanta; says she doesn’t entirely agree with her Muslim parents, who think she should live with them until she marries

Richard, 35, who lives in Atlanta; says he cooks with liquid nitrogen (does Marcel have a gang? First Hung, now Richard)

Ryan, 28, from San Francisco; says his father fired two cooks at his restaurant because at the age of 11, Ryan was better than them

Spike, 27, a Floridian who currently resides in the overly hip Williamsburg neighborhood of New York

Stephanie, 31, from Chicago

Valerie, 32, a personal chef from Chicago

Zoi, 30, from San Francisco

Hmm, lots of representation from the Bay Area, no one under 25 (remember Ilan was only 24), and not very diverse racially. During the first meeting, at Pizzeria Uno, Jennifer and Zoi had an announcement to get off their chests: They are a couple. Their competitors responded with ”oh”s and ”oh, wow”s and nods of confusion that were probably meant to be expressions of open-mindedness. In a confessional interview, Spike called their announcement ”bulls—.” I’m not sure what he meant by this — a publicity stunt by producers? But then he thought about it for a while, very deeply, and said, well, ”no big deal, they could go home together.”

As Padma Lakshmi explained what is at stake, I was thinking that you gotta hand it to the product-placement guys. The winner still gets $100,000 — this time furnished by Glad — but they also get to go on a luxury vacation to the French Alps courtesy of Evian, the bottled water, which has to be thriving thanks to the discovery of traces of drugs in our drinking water. One entirely new twist is the $200 worth of secret ingredients the contestants were allowed to pack for the competition (hopefully in a bag separate from their tighty-whities). It raises an interesting question: What five foods would you take with you to a desert island? (I’d genuinely love to know. Post in the comments section.)

Now that the housekeeping is taken care of, let’s roll. For the quickfire challenge, contestants had to create a signature deep-dish pizza in 90 minutes. I gotta say it — that’s a lot of time to make a pie, especially when the judges had the decency to provide prepped dough. (Full disclosure: I am a former Papa John’s employee, which means I not only made pizza and delivered it but once had the dignified chore of dressing up as a slice.) Some chefs obviously did not have much experience with the goo, namely a certain New Yorker and a Chicagoan who made it seem like the only pizza they’d ever seen was out of the freezer aisle. The latter, Valerie, insisted her style of cooking is more upscale and then curiously decided to make a ”meat and potatoes” pie. Er?

Next up was the first secret ingredient to make its debut: Mark’s marmite. ”It’s the nastiest-tasting s—,” my roommate violently blurted out as we watched. ”It’s really bitter.” (It turns out she once had a British babysitter who ate marmite on toast.) On the other end of the kitchen, meanwhile, Andrew was ticked off because Richard had taken two pans to make his pie. The simple, adult thing to do would have been to make Richard give one up; instead, Andrew whined about how ridiculous it was and chose to use a cast-iron skillet — perhaps an adversity-breeds-character ploy for the judges, in case he ended up on the chopping block.

The chefs packed up their pizza and delivered it to Padma and a surprise guest judge at a brownstone, which also happened to be the casa they’ll be living in for the remainder of the season. As the door opened, Rocco DiSpirito seemed overly gratified to be revealing himself in all his greatness. Mark called him a ”rock star” in the culinary world, which is why I’m a bit surprised he’s back. You got a hint of DiSpirito’s celebrity smugness in an awkward but admittedly funny smile he gave Andrew after tasting his prosciutto and heirloom tomato slice. I suppose it didn’t stack up against Richard’s ”peach taleggio pizza” with sweet tea sauce, the most interesting, counterintuitive, and scrumptious-looking of them all. Also garnering kudos was Mark for his ”harmonious” use of marmite. The judges divided the contestants into two groups of winners and losers, the latter being Lisa, Zoi, Andrew, Nimma, Valerie, Manuel, Nikki (who got called out for her dry, overly thick crust), and Stephanie (for gamy-tasting prosciutto). But the judges didn’t name a first-place finisher, who in Top Chef‘s past would get immunity for the elimination challenge — I hope this is not a precedent for future episodes. Padma noted that the results of the quickfire would be weighed in the elimination challenge.

NEXT: Classic mistakes

So that’s that, and they called it a night. Some socialized with champagne and beer in the apartment (which Mark said is a ”freakin’ mansion” compared with his Manhattan ”shoebox,” but just wait until tensions rise), while Nimma hit the sack because she’s not here to have fun; she’s here to work.

Next day, it was time to draw knives. The eight winning chefs had to choose one of the losers to compete against in a classic-dish cook-off. The losers got to choose the dish from a list of standards like lasagna, duck à l’orange, crab cakes, chicken piccata, and soufflés.

It became clear shortly after the trip to Whole Foods that Andrew is going to be a pill. As he and his nemesis Richard began cooking their respective crab cakes, Andrew realized the kitchen wasn’t stocked with mayo, so when Richard pulled out the jar he had purchased at the store, Andrew was frustrated and called him a ”little sly, little shark face.” (”What is up with that guy,” my roommate muttered.) Andrew mixed his own, but then Richard thought better of himself and finally passed over his jar. Andrew, however, felt crossed: ”It won’t be necessary now.” The joke really is on Andrew, who already has quacked ”motherf—a!” at least three times and used air quotes to describe Richard as his ”competitor.” He was fronting as if this were a Boyz n the Hood knife fight, while Richard seemed more focused on finishing the task at hand than intentionally ruffling feathers.

Tom, Padma, Rocco, and guest judge Anthony Bourdain (yay!) then taste-tested the results. Stephanie, Richard (who seems the strongest contestant so far, although that usually doesn’t last long), Nikki, Antonia, Lisa, Dale, and Valerie beat out their competitors, and I for one would have been willing to test all the winning dishes, especially the soufflé (rice pudding and espresso, hell, yes!). While Stephanie, who was down and out on the quickfire challenge, was declared the winner, the bottom four, consisting of Ryan, Erik, Nimma, and Mark, awaited judgment in the (what else?) GladWare-filled storage room. All four were somewhat negligent in their choices: Ryan for not knowing what chicken piccata was; Erik for one of the most unappetizing presentations I’ve seen given to a soufflé; Mark, for conceptual reasons; and Nimma, for making shrimp scampi, an already bland concept, into a dish that had no color or flavor other than that of salt and cauliflower mush. The judges deliberated, with Rocco getting in a one-liner about Ryan: ”It wasn’t only his gnocchi that was dense.” But they decide to give Nimma the ax, which seems right. I appreciated her work ethic, but she had been criticized during the quickfire for a pizza that needed salt.

What do you think? Who annoyed you, who seemed like a sweetie, and who do you predict will make it to the end?

Episode Recaps

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