While we’re waiting for the arrival of Top Chef Junior, which seems like it’ll never actually come to pass, regular old grownup Top Chef has cycled back on itself for season 13 and returned to the entire state of California, where it’s already been twice. The credits flashed cities in California that we’ll be visiting, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. I’m genuinely hoping for at least one Vanderpump Rules crossover in which the chefs take over SUR and deny sleeping with exes of Brandi Glanville.
We’re at the point in the season where there are SEVENTEEN chefs, and we haven’t yet had time to be able to distinguish them by unique tattoos and other identifying body art/rockabilly fashions that are so popular with Top Chef contestants. Padma immediately asks the group who has a James Beard Award — seriously, James Beard Awards must be as plentiful as Seamless Frequent Eater Awards, which my friends and I all have won — and who’s an executive chef. Basically, everyone is a James Beard Award winner and/or nominee and also an executive chef, except Frances, who’s a sous chef at Buddakan. (That’s still pretty fancy — the only time I’ve ever stepped foot in Buddakan was to go to the bathroom and sneak a peek at where they filmed Carrie’s rehearsal dinner in the first SATC movie.) In other news, Grayson Schmitz, from the very dramatic Top Chef: Texas season, is back! I’ve always liked her for her willingness to fire back at Tom, whether or not it’s justified.
Seriously, though, there are too many chefs. In seasons past, I would obsessively try to note something unique about every cheftestant in the crowded premiere episodes, but I’ve learned my lesson. Here are some of the more interesting personalities: Phillip, who’s addicted to competing in cooking shows like some people are addicted to joining support groups; Renee, who talks like a sassy, inspirational refrigerator magnet come to life; Wesley, who’s a self-described “pig” in the kitchen; and Garret, the son of academics and a serial mansplainer who seems to think he’s way smarter than he is.
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The first Quickfire Challenge starts with a mise-en place race, where the chefs have to prep one of five “California” ingredients, such as “eggs.” The top nine finishers in that phase of the challenge will move on to the second.
The chefs who chose to break down chickens have the easiest time, except for Grayson, who nabs the last spot in the second part of the challenge by the skin of her … chicken. Garret — who gave THIS speech at one point in the episode: “Cooking is a continuation of philosophy; it’s a study of aesthetics … gustatory aesthetics, but there’s nothing more connective with human existence than the cultural manifestation of cuisine”; all of which, if you make the mistake of close-reading it, means NOTHING — had a really hard time breaking eggs.
NEXT: A quickfire win before elimination
The nine who passed the mise en place then broke up into three teams for a blindfolded challenge where they each have to take turns cooking one group dish without knowing what their teammates did before them. The Blue Team, consisting of Renee, Frances, and Amar, won for their minty sweet-and-sour chicken with marinated slaw, gaining immunity. The Red Team, with Jason, Jeremy, and Wesley, face-planted with their burnt chicken and carrot puree and way too much anchovy. I couldn’t tell whose fault it was — Jeremy, for leaving the chicken in the oven where it’d be hard for Wesley to find it, or Wesley for not looking in the stupid oven.
Soon after, the chefs were underway on their Elimination Challenge, which was refreshingly straightforward: Cook whatever the hell you want for a ton of food bloggers/critics, who are scoring the dishes.
While the chefs raid Whole Foods for ingredients, here’s another roundup of observations/fun-ish facts about the new cheftestants: Isaac knows Emeril from New Orleans; Kwame referenced his apparently storied, troubled past but still looks 16; Frances met her wife while blindfolded — now, there’s a story I hope we get to hear; Phillip is super-fixated on the Los Angeles food media world and smoked his dish with burnt, poop-stained grass; Carl is adorably enthusiastic; Chad, in my notes, is labeled “Beardy” and will remain “Beardy” until he does something memorable on the show; and Garret is still being insufferably pretentious, calling Top Chef All Star Mike Isabella’s food “one of the worst bastardizations of Italian food in the history of the world.” Which sounds like an overstatement, given the existence of Olive Garden and Spaghetti-os, but Garret probably isn’t familiar with those because his parents are academics. Oh, and Wesley is truly a slob. He licked his spoon right before dipping it into the food he was about to serve Tom and Padma. Padma wasn’t having it.
From the critics’ top picks, the judges chose their top three, which were Amar for his pork belly meatball paired with a cream cheese purée with “Everything Bagel” spices, which sounds too delicious to be believed; Carl for his Turkish-inspired spiced carrot soup; but the winner was Jeremy for his Pacific snapper crudo with kombu gel. (I just googled “kombu gel” and the first result was anti-cellulite cream.)
Then out of the critics’ bottom picks, Renee and Frances had immunity, so Angelina, Garret, and Grayson ended up in the bottom three. Angelina, the youngest chef this year, came up with a cold goat cheese croquette that was described as “not that crispy” and “safe.” Garret made an Italy-meets-Vietnam brodo in chicken pho. Gail and Emeril loved it — theirs was cooked perfectly — but Tom and Padma had overcooked, bitter garlic in theirs, so it was a matter of inconsistent preparation, not lack of inspiration. When Grayson got (deserved) flak from Tom and Padma for her basic-as-hell meatballs in tomato sauce, she fired right back, sarcastically offering to put “sparkles” on her balls. I must say, I usually don’t like it when reality contestants get defensive at judging — when a queen talks back to RuPaul on Drag Race, I’m not having it. But unlike RuPaul, Tom Colicchio is not god. He’s made enough glaring errors of judgment in this show’s history to deserve some good backtalk, so I’m Team Grayson all the way. (But those meatballs DID look like they belonged on a Subway sandwich, if I’m being real).
Okay, so even though I’m not a Garret fan and I’ve made fun of him relentlessly in this recap so far, his elimination feels wrong to me. It seems like Tom and Padma eliminated him to prove some kind of smug point: “ONE mistake can send you home! The competition is THAT steep!” (Or maybe they think he’ll be a fitting villain to Last Chance). Still, I think an imaginative dish that worked really well for two judges and then had burnt garlic for the two other judges is better than Angelina’s dish, which she admitted was safe AND was poorly executed. Either way, goodbye to Garret, and see you tomorrow night for part 2 of the premiere.