In a recent (transcendent) piece on The A.V. Club, Top Chef was ranked the finest season-long competitive cooking show, by someone clearly in the know. And while I hate to disparage the author’s ranking (it was me), the premiere of season 12 seems a clear indication that the show is well on its way through the slow decline toward complete irrelevance. This trend likely began with the complete shitshow that was season nine, the Texas travesty, continued with the webseries winner debacle of season ten (Seattle), and culminated in season 11’s (New Orleans) controversial finale that had this very outlet questioning the show’s pedigree.
That said, Top Chef isn’t going to let you go without a fight.
“Sudden Death,” the season 12 premiere, is peppered with references to better, happier Top Chef times. “Hey baby, remember season six? We were so in love then. Remember the good times. Here are some friends of Michael Voltaggio and Mike Isabella,” and “Come on, honey. We pulled Richard Blais away from his very demanding cat food hawking to be a recurring judge. You love that guy! You were definitely not upset at the way the All Star season seemed to be orchestrated toward his inevitable victory!” Yet even that is not enough to recapture the magic of years gone by.
We start the season in Boston, with 16 promising new chefs who we won’t bother learning the names of until roughly a month from now. The opening sequence is quite serious as far as Top Chef goes with the chefs stoically telling the camera how winning is a career gamechanger and a James Beard award is mentioned for the first of roughly 400 times this season. The most interesting element of the episode by far are the subtle class politics at work throughout. As the contestants introduce themselves, they spout accolades they’ve earned and namedrop famous chefs they’ve cooked under. They scoff when a fellow chef states that she was named the “World’s Greatest Young Chef” (an award that, admittedly, sounds completely made up) and when less conventionally accomplished chefs introduce themselves their intimidation is clear.
There’s always been a bit of an unofficial social order in the culinary world, in which fine dining chefs look down on more commonplace chefs, who look down on home cooks, who look down on my Seamless order history, so if Top Chef can take this opportunity to explore this dynamic in some kind of meaningful way, something that hasn’t really been successfully accomplished in the genre, it would go a long way toward legitimizing a season that’s starting out on an otherwise mediocre foot.
Padma Lakshmi and Blais are both on hand to welcome the newcomers and introduce the SURPRISE SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE. Apparently these will be happening throughout the season and the prospect has me so excited I can’t stop typing SUDDEN DEATH and thinking about how the real way to revitalize Top Chef is to add a Hunger Games element. Now there’s a gamechanger. The SUDDEN DEATH quickfire is the reliably fun mise en place relay, in which the contestants are broken down into teams and they compete to complete their mise en place as quickly as possible. (For those culinary neophytes: mise en place refers to prepping and organizing your ingredients to facilitate more efficient cooking.) Paying homage to the host city of Boston, the teams will need to prepare four different New England ingredients: three lobsters, 20 oysters, eight Boston mackerel, and 21 littleneck clams. Each ingredient should take the same amount of time to prep, so each teammate will work on a single ingredient while timed. The slowest time on the slowest team will be eligible for elimination.
While I typically love the relay, it feels awkward to feature it in the first episode. We don’t know any of these chefs yet, have little to no rooting interest and the only inter-team strife or dynamic was been established in the few minutes they took divvying up who would prep what. The result is flat and a bit flabby, there were a lot of lead changes that should have built drama, but largely left me trying to remember who was on which team. Eventually the green team wins, notable only because the guy with the goatee (Adam) called his female teammate (Keriann) a beautiful blonde thoroughbred. I think it was a compliment? The red team comes in last with George, business partner of the aforementioned Mike Isabella, pulling the slowest time meaning he’s eligible for elimination.
George is then presented with a choice: He gets to pick his competitor in an SUDDEN DEATH cook-off. He chooses teammate Gregory because Gregory took the mackerel that George wanted. No, seriously, it’s the premiere. The only thing people could possibly beef over is fish. If George wins the SUDDEN DEATH cook-off, he stays in the competition, but if Gregory wins, George gets sent packing. The men are then tasked to use any of the ingredients from the mise en place challenge to create a dish in 20 minutes. Both perform admirably but in the end it’s Gregory’s seafood trio that carries the day.
Ah George, we hardly knew ye. Now pack your knives and get the hell out.
After that filthy business the chefs get to work on the Elimination Challenge which entails preparing an updated version of the first dish they remember cooking for 250 locals at the first ever Top Chef Food Festival. This challenge seems surprisingly daunting for a premiere, as the show generally sticks to head-to-head battles or prepared dishes for a small dinner party. To my recollection, this is the first large scale EC they’ve done in a premiere since season seven. (Washington, D.C.) The chefs all have fairly moving and organic origins for their dish, even as some end up being quite misguided and often redundant. How many riffs on fried chicken or chilled corn soup does one food festival need?
The festival seems to go well, the locals seem to enjoy the food, the contestants definitely enjoy meeting the culinary icons at the booths surrounding them and a fine time is had by all. Except for the judges, perhaps who had the misfortune of consuming some food that looked, honestly, pretty friggin’ gross. The day had highlights however and the judges single out three individuals who prepared their favorite dishes, Doug (Dougie) and his take on fried chicken, Gregory and his ode to Scotch Bonnet peppers, and Mei’s (Michael Voltaggio’s employee) sophisticated take on congee. Mei ends up taking it and she happily remarks that she’ll likely be able to keep her job thanks to not bringing shame upon her employer.
The bottom three are largely unsurprising and include Katie’s fancy take on that broccoli salad from every potluck ever, Michael’s chilled corn concoction, and Katsuji’s squid ink fondue from hell. While the judges spend most of their time trying to name all the ingredients in Katsuji’s dish (there were over 20!) ultimately they eliminate Michael because apparently chilled corn soup with pickled cherries and sriracha caviar is just as disgusting as it sounds. Let’s hope the season to come is less off-putting than that dish.
SUDDEN DEATH Quickfire Elimination: George
Elimination Challenge winner: Mei
Elimination Challenge loser: Michael
Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:
Sorry guys, I’m going to need this space to make it through the season. While I realize that Blais is quite popular with a lot of fans, he frequently makes me want to punch him in his vaguely self-satisfied face. As a concession to your delicate sensibilities, I will try to contain the majority of my anti-Blais propaganda to this space where you can easily skip it!
- I can maybe handle Blais at the judge’s table but in the kitchen he’s basically the worst color commentator ever.
- Wait, I just remembered his elaborate movie metaphor at judging. I take it back.
- Hearing him tell someone that he hates olive oil snow and someone else that their bacon powder was unnecessary made my eyes roll farther than I thought humanly possible. THEY LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU, OKAY?!
- Gregory’s oyster was like a first kiss. What has Blais been… you know what? That joke is too blue for a first review. [INSERT JOKE HERE]
- Marcel called, he wants his hairstyle back.
Phew. I feel better.
- Welcome to your season 12 Top Chef reviews. I’ll be your host Libby Hill, following in the footsteps of several amazing writers, none of whom work here anymore. Let’s hope that’s not an omen.
- Coming up on this season of Top Chef: Baseball! Football! Gronk! George Wendt! Yelling! Padma in overalls!
- The “This season on” also featured Padma saying “Just because you have a gun in your bin doesn’t mean that you have to shoot it.” Clearly she’s never heard of Chekhov’s bin gun.