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.