Top Chef season premiere recap: 'Top Chef' season 12 premiere recap
Sixteen new cheftestants battle in Boston for the season premiere of TV's top culinary competition.
A new season of Top Chef is like when a produce patch bears its first signs of the delicious bounty to come. Sprouts break through the topsoil as we begin to get acquainted with a new crop of cheftestants. Some will be the spicy peppers, enlivening our weekly watching. Others will be the spinach, resilient even when temperatures run hot or cold. A few will be the tomatoes, perennial favorites that please the crowd. And some will be weeds, pulling at the garden around them and sucking the air out of the room.
In recent years, the Top Chef garden has sourced from more prestigious production sources as established chefs hope to use the show—now in its 12th season—as a speedy springboard out from under their more-famous forebears. It seems like with each passing season, there are more Beards (James, that is) and more (Michelin) star power chasing $125,000 and that elusive feature in Food and Wine magazine.
For me, that’s kind of a mixed uh… salad, though. I take eating as seriously as anyone, but as the show draws from a more prestigious, temperature-regulated pool, the bumbling line cooks of the past aren’t going to be drawing knives here on Boston Common and embracing the absurdity of competitive cooking. Instead, we’ve got gastronomers and confident chefs who want to take themselves too seriously—have you ever heard so many bleeped words on an episode not featuring Dale Talde? And while I’m sure they’re talented, these new chefs have come with some sharp, sharp knives in their bags.
Covering 16 people (most of whom will only last long enough to make us not want to eat at their restaurants) is tough, but there are some clear standouts, both for personality and seeming skill. Gregory, a former sous chef at Jean-Georges, gets to be the first one who talks. That’s got to count for something, right? Katsuji’s a Jewish-Mexican-Japanese-American whose food seems to draw on all of those influences at once. And Keriann was named the World’s Greatest Young Chef in 2008 by some organization none of the other chefs seem to have heard of.
It’s always fun to predict who will finish where. Stacy’s the hometown chef (I bet she makes a wicked awesome chowdah)—she’ll probably make it past the halfway mark but never contend. Joy seems likable, but being intimidated by your competitors before you’ve even drawn knives or made that first sprint to the Top Chef kitchen pantry isn’t a good sign. Katie, Rebecca, Melissa, and James are the root vegetables of the garden—staying under the surface until they’re pulled out of the ground and probably chopped up before the finale, though James might be more celeriac than carrot. Ron looks like the one whose elimination will feel the saddest; Aaron seems like the one whose will be the least so. Doug has the look of a contender, and Adam and George are convinced they do… just ask them. But for my money, Mei—a Michael Voltaggio protégé—looks like the early favorite for no reason than her swag factor. She just has it.
With all these prestigious chefs, a Sudden Death quickfire right off the bat will help thin the herd, and Padma and new recurring judge and Top Chef‘s favored son Richard Blais are in midseason form early. I’ve always thought that there was no reason to eliminate only one chef per week, especially in early episodes when it’s clear which chefs are going to spend most of their time squirming in front of the judges. So there’s no better way to get things going than the mis en place race, a series standby that always highlights the standouts.
NEXT: Misery en place
The ingredients to be put in place draw from the local bounty of New England, with three lobsters, 20 oysters, eight Boston mackerel, and 21 littleneck clams awaiting high-speed deconstruction at the hands of some very nervous chefs. It’s funny to watch four groups of four chefs who’ve just met jostle for their preferred products—everybody seems to think they have the best technique, but nobody really seems that confident about anything.
The order seems to go from easiest to most-difficult, though each product seems to stick for at least one team. The production is fairly merciful to the slowpokes: Joy on the oysters, Gregory on the mackerel, and Katsuji on the clams. The fastest knife in the kitchen appears to be Ron, who gets a “holy mackerel!” from Dickie Blais as he cuts through his fish. Most of the chefs sit somewhere in the middle, though, so each team is only as strong as its weakest link.
The green team—Aaron, Adam, Doug, and Keriann—finishes first, mostly due to the lack of a weak link on their line. Thanks to Ron, the yellow team survives, and it comes down to Katsuji and George (he of the hair gel and Mike Isabella name-drop) in a clam-shucking battle for last place. I have to say that both chefs do a pretty awful job of shucking clams, but Katsuji’s team gave him enough of a lead that he holds off George and staves off his own elimination.
Despite his trash talk and Joy’s troubles with her oysters, George is the slowest of the slow. But it’s not the end for him because Padma offers him a possible reprieve—he gets to challenge (or Duel, if you will) another chef. A win and he gets to stick around; a loss and he’s packing his knives.
This opportunity presented an interesting test to see which chefs George thought were the immediate weak links. Unfortunately rather than picking easier prey, George challenges Gregory, who he somehow blames for his lot, even though Gregory’s faulty fillets were faster than whatever George did to his clams.
Both chefs prepare pretty solid-looking dishes, with George the Greek’s pan-seared mackerel with fennel, orange, and kalamata salad appearing more pleasing to my eye than Gregory’s trio of oyster with yuzu and ginger mignotte, Mirin-marinated mackerel with bonito, and lobster with coconut and tomato sauce. Richard’s right, as usual, that a trio represents three chances to do something wrong; it’s exciting to have him on the other side of the judges’ table to lend perspective and call attention to the recurring mistakes that chefs make no matter how many seasons of the show air. But George’s dish lacks heat, Gregory’s makes Richard tingly, and we’ve got our first departure. Yiá sas, George.
It’s high time Top Chef threw a real food festival, and they’ve wasted no time throwing the chefs into the deep fryer with a 250-portion service alongside culinary luminaries such as Barbara Lynch, Todd English, and Ming Tsai and local series favorites Tiffani Faison and Kristen Kish. The challenge is one that can be loosely interpreted—an updated version of their very first dish—and the chefs’ are off on their first mad dash through Whole Foods.
No matter how talented the cheftestants are though, year after year once the clock starts ticking, mistakes get made. Really, you can see the problem dishes coming hours before they make it to the plate, can’t you? For instance, after months of anticipation and preparation, Katie chooses to prepare a broccoli salad as her first foray into the competition. Flat-brim-wearer Aaron is probably right to criticize her, but he seems like a huge tool and is risking his own issues with plans to braise pork belly for 250. Expert Top Chef tip, Aaron: If you’re asking yourself, “Do you really have enough time for this?” the answer is usually “no.”
In another welcome return to tradition, head judge Tom Colicchio makes his first appearance, dipping his illustriously bald head into the kitchen to make the chefs question every choice they’ve ever made. Colicks is wearing that mischievous grin as he grills the chefs about their decisions, but the stupefied faces he and Richard make as Katsuji explains his entrée might be a first for the show. Maybe I’ve given these chefs too much credit after all.
NEXT: Festival frenzy
There don’t seem to be any major disasters during prep, and as the chefs assemble at the Museum of Science, things are pretty calm for a premiere. For all the star-power cooking around them (hi, Kristen!), the chefs seem to be acquitting themselves fairly well as Padma, Tom, Richard, and Gail Simmons (the All-Stars of judges) make their rounds. Personally, I’d opt for Stacy’s pulled chicken salad, with a sweet pea green goddess, cranberry mostarda, and a potato chip and Melissa’s spicy pork ma po tofu over spiced rice with eggplant, Szechuan peanuts, and pickled cucumbers, but Gregory’s “funky” Haitian stewed chicken with fried bananas, spicy pikliz pickles, and Scotch bonnet chili relish displays the most distinct culinary perspective.
Gregory’s chicken, Doug(ie)’s fried chicken with pickled jalapeños, watermelon, and a lot of dill, and Mei’s congee with caramelized pork, fish sauce caramel, and black garlic puree earn the highest marks from the judges. I expect we’ll be seeing them at the top a lot. I would’ve gone with Gregory for the uniqueness of his dish (and the guts to offer Scotch bonnets), but Mei is the obvious choice, and she takes the first elimination challenge. In all three cases, though, the dishes seem as composed as the chefs serving them—nobody’s trying too hard.
That distinction goes to Katsuji, who serves a “petroleum shrimp” with saffron couscous, serrano aioli, squid ink fondue, and about 10 other things that prompts Padma to make the same face as she eats it that Tom made when he first heard about it in the kitchen. The cardinal sin among the cast seems to be an overemphasis on showy foods, with Richard in particular delivering some serious critiques of every gastronomical leaning.
Traditionally, many of the show’s best chefs are the ones who let the ingredients tell their stories and who value simplicity and clarity over bells and whistles. For all the talent and technique these guys seem to have, their souls aren’t coming through in the food they’re plating, and the results, on the whole, seem worse than what I expected at the start of the episode. The judges seem to sense it, too: They’re pretty punchy for week one, critiquing the chefs fairly harshly as they bite into their food. There’s even a little poetic justice watching Padma spit out Aaron’s so-fatty-you-can-see-it-in-standard-definition tamari braised pork belly, and her dressing-down of his messy station is warranted.
Tom’s pork was braised enough, it seems, and Aaron avoids being on the bottom for now, with Michael, Katie, and Katsuji earning that sad distinction. Katie’s salad fared as well as you’d expect it would, earning extra knocks for playing to the public with bacon powder. Katsuji’s dish was overwrought and overloaded; the fact that he thinks he could’ve added even more ingredients makes me think he shouldn’t bother unpacking any more. But ultimately, Michael’s chilled corn soup with pickled cherries, salmon roe, and sriracha caviar is the one that draws the judges’ ire.
In a fitting final example of this cast’s attitude, Michael blames Tom, insisting he’d created a good dish and it was the esteemed judge’s lack of an open mind and age that doomed it. Career note, Michael: You should care what Tom thinks. Regardless of all the acclaim the newest crop of cheftestants earned before the cameras began rolling, the judges are the ones who will have the final say when it comes time to harvest.