Charismatic cheftestants and a quotable Wolfgang Puck make for a tasty premiere

By Stephan Lee
Updated November 08, 2012 at 04:43 PM EST
Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo

When I heard Top Chef: Seattle would be starting with 21 contestants, I wanted to down some Pepto in advance. Last season proved bigger wasn’t always better in Texas when we started with 29 chefs and two un-ending episodes of qualifying rounds. Usually I hate when reality competitions load up their first episodes with contestants we never get a chance to care about (ANTM is a notable exception!) but this premiere was refreshing and left me optimistic about the rest of the season. The secret ingredient is some strong casting. There are definitely some stars this time around who came forward, in addition to highly credentialed chefs. Plus, new judge Wolfgang Puck was on fire serving up his one-liners. (I wasn’t a huge fan of his borderline sexist jokes, though. Okay fine, I laughed a little bit).

This qualifying round split up the contestants into four groups spread around the country, each group visiting a judge for a chance to compete in Seattle. Here’s my ridiculously thorough account of how each one did.

FIRST BATCH

Location: Los Angeles

Judge: Tom Colicchio

For the first group in the preliminary rounds, paragon of dignified balding Tom Colicchio didn’t eliminate based on a finished product. Instead, he hovered over his chefs as they worked in his kitchen, looking out for any false flicks of the knife or anyone dropping a slab of fish on the floor and putting it back on the plate (done it, proud of it).

Whether it was his credentials, his actual skill, or his practically guaranteed spot as one of the top Top Chef troublemakers of all time, John Tesar got his chef’s jacket almost immediately. Even though he’s been dubbed The Most Hated Chef in Dallas by a local magazine, and has a “self medicating” past and a reputation for being a hothead, he played by Tom’s rules for now. Let’s hope he’s a Spike-like villain rather than a Sara/Heather-grade a-hole. (Sorry for even bringing them up).

Another chef who earned Tom’s stamp of approval for her totellini-stuffing skills was Lizzie Binder — and Tom didn’t even hear her call him “beautiful”! I’m liking her already, but I don’t understand her logic when she said, “If I win Top Chef, my kids can do whatever they want to.” Either way, another great showing for mom-strength!

Micah Fields came to the kitchen with some excellent credentials: executive chef at the Standard Hotel. The only time I ever get to set foot inside the Standard is when I’m invited to an especially swanky book party, so props to Micah for so much success at age 28. He actually had a tough, sweaty time fileting some black bass, but overall, he out-shined other chefs with his confidence around the kitchen and willingness to jump in and help.

Which brings us to the stragglers. Anthony Gray, who looked a little sad from the beginning, immediately set off Tom’s warning alarms when he tried to break down duck carcasses with a paring knife. Anthony passed it off as his own chef-quirk, but it sort of looked like he was genuinely flustered. I understand wanting to be violent to ducks, though — I’ve hated them ever since a duck chased me around the parking lot at Stone Mountain when I was five, and since last month when a goose made me flip over in a kayak. He won some points back with Tom with his excellently banged-out Hamachi, but Tom wasn’t in a forgiving mood. Too little, too late.

We also lost a hilarious ironic mustache. His ‘stache gave Jorel Pierce a bit too much confidence at first, saying he could butcher chickens with his eyes closed. Unfortunately, he didn’t ask Tom how he wanted the chickens before he started hacking away, and he never forgave him for that.

NEXT: Sexy besties battle it out in Los Angeles for Emeril

SECOND BATCH

Location: Las Vegas

Judge: Emeril Lagasse

Emeril Lagasse, who’s always a been a little bit too subdued as a judge, challenged his crop of chefs to make the perfect soup, which he said isn’t as simple as people think.

Josh Valentine is another proud owner of a mustache, only his looks less ironic and more like the symbol of masculinity and gentility it should be. Josh felt the pressure of the competition because he and his wife were expecting — if he were to move through to Seattle, he’d miss the birth of his child. Plus he’d be laughed out of his restaurant for failing to make a good soup. For his roasted corn and coconut soup with mussels and lime, he actually finished cooking a bit too early with nine minutes left, leaving him to worry about letting his dish go cold. Emeril thought the mussels were cooked perfectly, but he was waiting to taste the chili come in because the whole thing was too sweet. Luckily, that chili was just being a little shy and it did make its way to Emeril’s taste buds. Josh got himself a chef jacket.

With the opposite problem was Jeffrey Jew, an attractive and curious blend of ethnicities. While Josh had too much time to let his soup chill, Emeril doubted Jeffrey could chill his gazpacho enough in the small amount of allotted time, and if it wasn’t cold, he’d be going home. But not only was Jeffrey’s chilled watermelon and tomato gazpacho with a scallop, salmon belly, and rock shrimp ceviche cold, it had a “lot of great depth.” Jeffrey earned his chef jacket on the spot.

Like Chris Jones and Richie last year, we have another pair of close friends in the kitchen in Kristen Kish and Stephanie Cmar (how on earth are you supposed to pronounce that?) — and once again, one appears to outshine the other greatly in skill and charisma: Kristen, a sleek Asian woman with a daring haircut, won a modeling competition in Boston; Stephanie is incapable of facial expression. The two bonded over getting “boob sweat” because they were the only two girls in their kitchen. “It was so hot,” Kristen recalled. In more ways than one? They not only live in the same apartment building but got matching tattoos of spoons. My question is, who’s the big spoon and who’s the little? Kristen denied the inevitable lesbian rumors that swirl around them, but she clearly seems to enjoy the speculation.

But tragically, their hopes of continuing those will-they-or-won’t-they rumors throughout the competition were dashed. Kristen sailed through to Seattle with her English pea broth with thrice-poached lemon peel with seared scallop, apple, and creme fraiche. Emeril called it “one of the best soups I’ve ever had.” Stephanie’s light cauliflower soup with corn, lobster knuckles, and pea tendrils wasn’t quite cauliflowery enough. (Blegh, how could anything not be cauliflowery enough? Cauliflower is the Candy Corn of cruciferous veggies. It’s a cruel joke). It was hard to read Stephanie’s non-expression after getting eliminated. It either said, “At least I can go back to wearing my cat around my neck as a scarf” or “I’m devastated.”

That left forgettable Tina Bourbeau, who decided to forgo the blender like everyone else and instead make a layered soup. Emeril seemed to like her seafood and chorizo soup just fine, just calling it “garlicky” without being overpowering, but it didn’t stand up next to the other dishes.

NEXT: Wolfgang Puck dazzled us with his one-linersTHIRD BATCH

Location: Beverly Hills

Judge: Wolfgang Puck

This was the main event of the evening in my mind, as we saw Wolfgang Puck in action as a regular judge — and he killed it, quashing the culinary world’s doubts about his performance. (By the way, I don’t think anyone doubted or cared, just wanted to raise the stakes a little). In addition to spouting great quotables — “When it comes to judging, I think I’m an easy guy as long as they do it exactly the way I want it” — he seemed to care for the chefs, and also, thank goodness, he eliminated someone who might have annoyed us all season.

Wolfgang presented another deceptively simple challenge: the perfect omelet. He told a story from his youth, when an early mentor said his olive oil-drenched omelet was “like shitting in your own bed.” He would bring those same standards to the contestants’ eggs. Those better be damn good omelets.

Carla Pellegrino, ex-wife of Frank Pellegrino and chef/owner of Bacio, looked as though she took a wrong turn in the Bravo offices on the way to a Real Housewives of New Jersey audition. She declared out of her puckered mouth, “I am loud. I’m pretty sure if you ask some people they would call me a bitch when I turn my back. I would call me a bitch, too, sometimes.” I’m pretty sure Teresa Giudice has been heard saying the exactly same thing at least 37 times over the course of Real Housewives. Her Mediterranean omelet got a little messed up, but she covered it with an arugula salad, prompting Wolfgang to say, “It looks like a woman with a lot of makeup on.” Actually, Carla was the sole target of Wolfgang’s borderline misogynistic comments all night, including, “This stove is like a woman, it never does what it’s supposed to do.” Carla looks like she could cut a bitch, so tread lightly, Wolfgang. You may have saved yourself by letting her through.

Another character arose in Wolfgang’s group: Kumiko Yagi may be my favorite so far. She looks as though she’s seen many a terrifying ghost children in her haunted Japanese house, but the cutest moment of the night was when Kumiko told Wolfgang, “I want to drink the coffee in Seattle.” I’m rooting for her to prove her disapproving parents wrong. Her chamomile-infused morel and ham omelet looked a little too elaborate, but Wolfgang approved. You go, Kumiko!

I also loved handsome chatty gay Tyler Wiard, who also hid the flaws in his eggs with a salad garnish. The resulting bacon, shallot, and asparagus omelet looked a little sad to me, but Wolfgang thought the crispy fingerling potatoes saved the day.

Eliza Gavin also had a couple of make-it-work moments. First, Wolfgang told her he was craving red meat, so Eliza had to deliver. Then, she’d used all her ingredients in her test omelet, which seemed like a silly mistake, and had to dump the egg-covered veggies into a new omelet. That looked like it could be a disaster, but Wolfgang liked the “complicated” and “tasty” results.

Chrissy Camba seemed to have more serious issues. Her Filipino torta omelet with lobster claw, bacon, and caramelized (Bravo seems to think it’s “carmelized” — I expect a lively debate in the comments) onions “needed more salt,” according to Wolfgang. Salt levels are make-it-or-break-it on Top Chef, but Wolfgang appreciated seeing Chrissy’s heritage in her eggs.

Last and perhaps least was Daniel O’Brien of Seasonal Pantry in Washington, D.C. Even before he opened his mouth, I could tell he was super arrogant, but I didn’t mind that much if he could bring the goods. But when he called Kumiko “origami,” he was dead to me. Daniel made a misstep by leaving a residue of bacon grease on his omelet. Wolfgang said if he’d eaten the omelet in the dark he would have liked it, but the presentation alone was enough to send him home. Ouch.

NEXT: Hugh Acheson tosses some salads (in the trash) in the ATL

BATCH FOUR

Location: Atlanta

Judge: Hugh Acheson

Yes, the Hughnibrau still exists, but I’m growing accustomed to its face. As someone who lives on salads (“Look at me!”), Hugh challenges the chefs to impress him with nothing but veggies and leaves. “Not any salad — a beautiful salad,” he demanded.

Who’s ever heard of a knight named Bart? We meet the first Top Chef contestant we should bow to. Bart Vandaele was knighted and ennobled by the prince of Belgium for his valiant chefly duties, although he just wants to be known as “Bart the Chef.” The whole time, Hugh seemed a little into Bart, somehow, entranced by his knightly stature. “That’s a big salad you have” could be interpreted as a pickup line. Bart’s spiny lobster salad — that screaming crustacean sound effect disturbed me very, very deeply — was a little bit busy, but Hugh liked what he tasted.

Hawaiian Sheldon Simeon, a chef who came with a lot of credentials, made a Thai-inspired Brussels sprout salad with a blood orange vinaigrette. Hugh could have used more vinaigrette, but he likey.

Brooke Williamson‘s kale salad with Brussels sprout leaves and fried kale won instant raves and a chef’s coat from Hugh — seems as though fried kale is really in this season. On a side note, these chefs are continuing the tradition of being surprisingly tatted up.

Young chef Danyele McPherson became a chef when she realized a double-major in history and anthropology wasn’t as practical as she once thought. She flashed her tomatoes, which competitor Gina Keatley called “ridiculously amateurish.” Gina struck me as one of those reality TV types who think being an arrogant a-hole is a prime human virtue, even though she cooks for a good cause, Nourishing USA. Despite Danyele’s propane-fueled misstep, Hugh still preferred her watermelon and tomato salad to Gina’s warm salad of sauteed and grilled zucchini with carrots, pea sprouts, and balsamic reduction, calling it “a little weighty overall.” The elimination didn’t lower Gina’s conviction in herself, however. “I’m a movement,” she said. Good for you, Gina!

What did you think of the first episode of Top Chef: Seattle? Did you agree with Wolfgang’s elimination of Daniel O’Brien? How’s Wolfgang doing as a judge? Are you excited about the new crop of contestants?

Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter.

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