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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: “The Ultimate Chef Test”

Illustration for article titled iTop Chef/i: “The Ultimate Chef Test”
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Among the promo videos for Top Chef: Seattle, Padma Lakshmi promised us something: that this season would be better than the last. Specifically, she described this season as “back to basics.” In I-can’t-explicitly-denounce-my-own-show speak, that basically means, “Guys, I am so, so sorry for what happened in Texas. We get it. The show is about cooking. We forgot, and we’re sorry.” At least that’s how I’m interpreting it, with great hope for these next few months. The show’s 10th season is an excellent, commemorative opportunity for the producers to right the ship—to step back and evaluate why the show became successful in the first place, and why its fans threw their collective remote at the screen last season.

Let’s be honest: Texas was mostly a disaster. It pushed the show well beyond its limits for ridiculousness and then poured tortured, Texas-themed puns and clichés all over it. The producers chipped away at the good graces the show had earned over the years by embarrassing the professional chefs they should have been promoting. (For the final blow, see “Culinary Games,” in which the contestants had to ski around and then shoot guns at their ingredients in a “culinary biathlon.”) Top Chef needed to renew its focus on what made the show work originally—clever challenges that showcased chefs’ talent and resourcefulness. The best episodes feature restrictions or constraints that force the chefs into surprising, creative territory.


This back-to-basics approach transformed the 10th-season première into an hour that will likely rival the best of this season—a feat since the debut is typically a snoozer episode before the actual competition begins. Instead, tonight’s compelling installment managed to showcase the talents of our would-be contestants, give us a preview of the judges’ temperaments and tastes, and highlight some of the challenges young chefs must overcome to succeed. The basic-skills game is a premise we’ve seen before during debut episodes of Top Chef, but here it’s polished and perfected. Instead of lining them up in a tag-team race to dice onions or butcher a chicken, tonight, the chefs were separated into four groups and dispatched to a judge’s restaurant across the country for their final test before landing a spot on the show. The tasks weren’t just arbitrarily chosen and performed devoid of context this time; the four groups competed in challenges specifically crafted by a judge according to that judge’s experience in the kitchen. Divvying them up like this did wonders for the show’s pacing—instead of a giant pack of 21 chefs all doing the same thing, the episode allowed us to jump between the four locations and to look at just a handful of new faces at a time. The challenge also tells us every bit as much about the judges as it does the competitors.

First up is Tom Colicchio, who alongside Gail Simmons has been around for all 10 seasons, claiming more than 150 challenges judged. He’s also the most hard-nosed of the judges, and his challenge for the chefs in this episode is no different. Tom’s interested in seeing how the contestants move around the kitchen and handle various tasks, but he’s also monitoring who performs well under pressure. (Specifically, pressure from him.) He throws them into his kitchen at Craft, before and during service, to see how they cope with being bossed around by him. And to their credit, most of the chefs handle it well, performing prep work (filleting and portioning salmon, butchering a duck or chicken) and firing dishes. He quickly gives away the first Top Chef coat to our fledgling supervillian, John Tesar, a known (talented) asshole from Dallas. Lizzie Binder and Micah Fields take the other two spots, riding on excellent technical skills and an ability to jump into Tom’s kitchen without fuss.

Meanwhile, the other three judges throw out brilliantly simple challenges: soup (Emeril Lagasse), salad (Hugh Acheson), and an omelet (Wolfgang Puck). Each dish is deceptively simple—served at both dives and fine-dining establishments—but takes substantial skill to execute well. Emeril does a fabulous job explaining what’s required to make soup complex—structure, seasoning, and depth of flavor. He hassles Jeffrey Jew throughout the process for his attempt to make and chill a watermelon and tomato gazpacho in the allotted hour, but Jeffrey surprises him and wins a coat on the spot. (I thought Tom was just showing some flare initially with this behavior, but everyone seemed to do it to mess with the rest of the contestants’ heads.)

Hammy Hugh headed up the most open-ended challenge, salad, and accordingly got the widest variety of plates in return, some of them stretching “salad” into what looked more like a side of vegetables. He also nixed just a single contestant, Gina, whose sautéed and grilled zucchini came out weighty and overdone. She spazzed and threatened to cry; Hugh delivered the best nice-guy consolation prize of the night with a shrug: “It looked nice.” I’m not a fan of Hugh’s comedy, but I am a fan of his put-downs.


Puck’s omelet challenge, plucked from his early days trying to make it as a chef, hits on how difficult it is to cook eggs well—another basic but essential skill, with plenty of room for add-ons or experimenting. Many of the chefs in his pool broke their omelet or overcooked it; there wasn’t a pretty shot in the bunch of those eggs sliding off the pans onto the plate. But the group was largely able to think on its feet, covering blemished omelets with toppings or otherwise disguising the mess. Only one contestant (Daniel O’Brien) failed to move on to Seattle, perhaps an early nod to some leniency from W.P., compared with Tom. He advertised that looking “perfect” was essential to the challenge, which none of the contestants managed to pull off.

The initial cuts delivered a nice mix of early- and mid-career chefs, professionally trained and self-taught, and a few foreign palates. Here’s to hoping we have a season full of challenges that leave us marveling at what the chefs can accomplish, and not the stupid antics the producers dream up for them.


Stray observations

  • Glad to be back for another season covering Top Chef. Even after Texas, there’s still a great deal of love in my heart for this show.
  • Equally glad Gina Keatley was cut early. She + third-person-wielding Eliza + freak-out Carla might have been too much to handle. It might still be too much. I’ll go ahead and predict a major clash between Carla and John Tesar. Or a love affair. One of those.
  • Kuniko is an early favorite of mine. She delivered one of the more interesting dishes of the night—an omelet with chamomile milk, morel mushrooms, and ham.

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