On the season premiere of ''Top Chef,'' the 15 new contestants tackle various exotic land-and-seafood combinations

By Gregory Kirschling
Updated June 14, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The ”Top Chef” season premiere: Appetizing!

Last night, a few hours before the Top Chef premiere, I ate dinner at a high-class restaurant in Brooklyn — one of New York’s best, or so I’d read. Things were off from the get-go. We didn’t get bread plates for our bread. Our suave French waiter didn’t have his English or his menu down. In my starter course, brash grapefruit didn’t agree with tamer snap peas. After that, skate appeared, admirably buttery yet light, but the collards that came with it were doused in three-alarm lemon. Only dessert deserved high marks, but then again, it came out of a bucket: I ordered Thai chili chocolate Laboratorio gelato. And throughout the three courses, nobody bothered to come wipe the bread crumbs off our table.

Do I sound like an insufferable food Nazi? Hey, Top Chef helped make me this way. Used to be I’d gravitate toward the roasted chicken on any menu; spicy tuna rolls were my version of exotic. Then came a few great meals in knowing company. In no time, I discovered Chowhound. And the delightful Frank Bruni of The New York Times. And Top Chef, truly an eye-opening show. It’s not like I really know how to cook — the last thing I made at home was a power smoothie with walnuts, blueberries, rice milk, aloe-vera juice, Vitamin C powder, and spirulina mulch, and boy did it taste gross — but I love this sexy program because it affirms eating as an artful way of seeing. Everybody has pleasure centers on the back of the tongue, and according to Top Chef, we should coddle them, trust them, even make quiet, tasteful love to them. And then also get pissed off when they are slapped around by a poser chef who dares to par-cook his boar chops.

So I for one could not be more excited that Top Chef is back among us for the summer. And last night’s first course was a grade-A slice of meat, immaculately prepared. Our 15 ”cheftestants” — a nonsense word flung around on the Bravo website that I don’t believe I shall use ever again — descended on Miami, where we met a couple of them on their way in from the airport. The ones to remember were Clay, Mississippi bred, who vowed to bring soulful Southern cooking to a show that has for the past two seasons gone without it; Tre, a buff Dallas chef de cuisine with a tattoo that reads ”Gotta Have Passion” running down his arm; and Hung, a Marcel type racing ahead early as the villain, after immediately declaring himself the C.P.A. — ”certified professional a–hole” — of the crew. These hopefuls and 12 others met up for heavy snacks and hellos at Casa Casuarina, the giant former home of Gianni Versace (where — it went unmentioned — he also got shot twice in the back of the head, yuck, ten years ago next month).

Soon our hosts arrived, stoner-mellow Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, smiling assassin. Tom said hi and implied from the outset, just to be clear, that he’s no Tim Gunn. ”I’m not your mentor,” he said. ”I’m the head judge of the show.” Tough! Also tough: Padma announced the first quickfire challenge was…now, as if we all weren’t expecting that. The mission? Make an amuse-bouche in 10 minutes, with whatever they could scavenge from the prosciutto wraps, salami, oysters, kumquats, and deviled eggs over there on the Casa Casuarina grazing table. The winner was Micah, the Boca Ratonian by way of South Africa who put together something she called (quotes hers) ”Tuscan Sushi Revisited,” an upright fish roll-up stuffed with Gorgonzola and some fig. I don’t like figs, but this did look good. Hung, that punk, also finished in the top three, with a hamachi featuring creamy egg rice, hot sauce, grape, olives, and a pesto vinaigrette.

As for the bottom trio, I was sorry to see Mississippi boy Clay fail to impress, because bringing Southern cooking to the show seems like a noble goal to me. (Plus, I grew up mostly in Biloxi.) But his fruit gazpacho, delivered in a bowl he carved into an apple with a plastic knife, was an amuse-bouche big enough for a healthy breakfast. (”Oh great,” I thought. ”The Southern guy is dumb.”) Also finishing in the bottom was our friend Tre, who said (seriously) he was worried about getting depressed after Tom dissed the champagne in his hamachi tartare.

NEXT: The main course

For the elimination round, the chefs were ushered in front of a large wooden table packed with the scariest surf-and-turf ingredients imaginable. As horror-movie music played on the soundtrack, they took turns picking two weird proteins each: There was sea urchin, geoduck, frog legs, alligator, black chicken, kangaroo, snake, eel — everything but blue whale and human flank. Divided into two heats, they each had to prepare a surf-and-turf dish for the judges using their scary selections. And one of the judges this week, we then learned, would be a favorite of mine: Anthony Bourdain, the Kitchen Confidential superchef who’s recently made a mint eating nasty proteins — like the brains of a still-living monkey, as one contestant noted — all over the world.

During the two-hour prep-and-cooking periods, Tom sauntered into the kitchen to stir things up. No Tim Gunn indeed, Tom approached Clay, who was working with scorpion fish and wild boar, and asked the profusely sweating Southerner, only to screw with him, if he was sure his dish was gonna be out-there enough for out-there Bourdain. I swear, in the close-up we got as he plated his dish just seconds before time was called, Clay’s hands were shaking. Later, during the next heat, Tom walked up to depressed Tre and said, ”You don’t strike me as the kind of guy who’s used to losing. A little redemption today?” Brilliant — it was as if Tom had been watching the episode right along with us or, better yet, using secret cameras or whatever other voodoo gadgets he’s got at his disposal to get inside everybody’s head. (It seems entirely possible, in this respect, that Tom has secretly programmed Padma to walk around in a constant state of hypnosis.) Every episode of this series proves it: Chefs are merciless. And this little moment made me love the show’s editing, which is good at squeezing every drop of juice onto the plate, no wasted parts of the bird.

At judges’ table, Tom, Tony, Padma, and Gail Simmons (agreeably perky in her own strict way) waded through ostrich carpaccio, alligator fried steak, spider-crab jambalaya, abalone fritters, and something billed (if I heard right) as ”electric venom soup,” until a consensus was reached. And the two men on top were the villain Hung and — in a terrific surprise — the underdog Tre. These two were a fantastic match-up, and the best reason to start loving the show right away. How rich is it that the evil Hung, who cockily claimed to be able to judge the cooking acumen of all his competitors just by watching how they ”walk toward [their] ingredients,” is also such a great chef? True mastery makes a bad guy more formidable, yet also — in real life at least, if not action movies — more eerily sympathetic. Yay for evil Hung. Obviously I didn’t taste his slow-cooked black chicken with wild mushrooms and geoduck, but I know he’s smart because his black chicken looked 50 times better than the sweet black chicken presented by a chef named Sara M. Black chicken is an ugly thing, and Sara flaunted how disgusting it was by sticking her tarred ”Bad Spidey” chicken parts up front and in your face on her plate. But Hung braised his, thus creating a dish that most of us might actually be amenable to eating. Still, he couldn’t overcome a certain ”beigeness” in his presentation, and the judges ultimately awarded Tre the victory for his roasted ostrich fillet with abalone sauce. Pre-win, in a very classy move, Tre graciously, sincerely complimented Hung’s dish to the judges. (”I tasted Hung’s food, and I knew he would be in the finals with me,” he actually said out loud.) This race is already exciting.

A few minutes later, Clay got eliminated. I’m not happy about it, but at least it gave a tragic rise-and-fall arc to the episode. I liked my Mississippi soul-food brother, and when he revealed in the middle of the show that his dad was a restaurateur as well, one who so couldn’t take the pressures of the job that (gulp) he ended up committing suicide, I kind of wanted Clay to stick around for at least another episode or two, just as a safety measure. But that’s why I’m not a chef; chefs are effing tough. The judges thought Clay’s amateur ”prison chow” par-cooked wild-boar chops with scorpion-fish cornbread dressing displayed a lack of fundamentals. (”It’s kind of got a home-cooking kind of thing,” Bourdain said, ”but it’s a home I wouldn’t want to live in.”) Me, I might’ve eliminated a big guy named Howie, who misjudged his time and failed to plate his ”frog-leg lollipops.” Maybe he should’ve walked just for denying us all the pleasure of laying eyes on something called frog-leg lollipops. But the flub did get a thrilling reaction out of scrappin’ Tony Bourdain. ”I have a question: What is your major malfunction?” he yelled, R. Lee Ermey to Howie’s fat Private Pyle. And then, even better, Howie totally talked his way out of it by quoting an appropriately exculpatory section of Kitchen Confidential back to Bourdain. Everybody cracked up. Wow, was this great TV.

We ended the night with a tantalizing preview of the rest of the season, which featured a clip of Dale, the guy with the mohawk who finished in the bottom of both challenges tonight, gazing teary-eyed into the camera. ”This is not like season 1 or 2,” he moaned. ”Everyone here is a badass.” Cool! Who’s excited for next week? Which contestant is your early favorite? And who else still thinks Sam got screwed last season?

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

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