Hello and welcome back! I have missed you, and this. (Half of that sentence is a lie. You decide!) How long, friends, since we last met a new crop of Top Chef chefpesticles? Masters and Desserts are not part of the canon according to Vatican II, and therefore only watched by mouth-breathing garbage bag people. And last season of The One True Top Chef was "All" "Stars": not a fresh face among them. In conclusion, without any way to independently verify this information, I am going to say it's been three years since the last round of new Top Chef hopefuls.
And what a large new crop it is. 29 chefs. Um, that's too big a crop. Please throw some of that crop on the fire. "Crop rotation." That is what a farmer would say. He would throw a LOT of this crop on the fire, and he would smile as the inky-black chef smoke blotted out the light of the moon. Why is he smiling? Maybe because government subsidies pay him even if he burns his crops. Am I RIGHT? Nobama 2012! Jk politics shut up.
Why is this first batch of chefs so BIG? Because Texas of course. In case you didn't know, Texas is somewhat renowned for its size (it may actually be a point of pride among its residents?), and they apply that huge-aphilia to many other things they like there, like steaks, trucks, and relaxed fit jeans. When Padma opens the season by proclaiming, "Get ready for our biggest season ever!" I imagine it is a SUBTLE nod to the aforementioned Texas/big connection. I also imagine it's the last time we'll be hearing any Texas jokes. I certainly won't make any!
("Remember to Add-a-mo' pepper!" That is an Italian person on this competition reminding his teammate, at the Alamo, a place where 250 Texan people died, to add mo' pepper to their dish.)
Joining Padma this season are Chef Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons and two newcomers. First is Top Chef Master Hugh Acheson, who is from Atlanta. Is everyone from Atlanta? You'd think going by this show and also food magazines that the only place that people are either preparing or eating food is Atlanta. "I'm doing a modern spin of comfort food" is what all these people seem to say. Cool, finally! My grandma can stop freeze drying me her grits and mailing them to me because there is now finally a place to get a cool spin on Southern cuisine. (My grandmother does not do that. She has been macrobiotic since the 80's and if she saw a grit she'd think it came out of her cat Pierre.)
Alongside Chef Acheson is the legendary Emeril Lagasse. He is a big deal and I'm excited he's now on this show. Does this mean he doesn't work for Food Network anymore? Doesn't Food Network hate Top Chef? I don't really follow these things; maybe he has not been on Food Network for years. What I do know is that Emeril Live was one of the first cooking shows I ever watched regularly, and it is the show that first really inspired me to try and become a bongo player in a cooking show's house band. Unfortunately, when my parents refused to buy me a leather porkpie hat, I had to hang up my dream (on my unused hat rack) and go with my backup plan of recapping television shows for the Internet, an industry that admittedly was in its infancy in the mid-90's. I had to make do with logging onto Usenet as a 12-year-old and calling Babylon 5 "gay," which of course shames me now as being both small-minded and offensive, but was actually pretty ahead of its time.
The other reason I root for Emeril is because of a story Anthony Bourdain told in Medium Raw, a book I do not claim to have finished. (Does anyone know if Tony Bourdain hates bullshit? I wish he'd give us a clear answer.) I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but Bourdain, who has given Emeril a hard time in the past, asked Emeril why he doesn't just cool it on opening Vegas restaurants and selling omelette pans and yelling on TV, and Emeril sighed and explained that he'd like to, but he has hundreds of employees who count on him, and whose families count on him, that he's got children, ex-wives, and so on. The Beast had become an ever-expanding thing, and Emeril owed it to them to keep it going, because all those people had helped him get to where he was. Being a Top Chef judge is part of that cancerous growth rate, and I respect Emeril for that. Remember when he had a sitcom? "Could I BE any more BAM?" - Miss Chanandler Bong.
By the way this year's $125,000 prize is furnished by Healthy Choice. I would like my house to be furnished by Healthy Choice! "Don't put your feet on the Sesame Glazed Chicken!" That's what I would yell at my kids' friends when they are over to watch a football game in the den. Unfortunately we don't have a TV, just a Salisbury Steak hanging on the wall, so they don't stay long, which is fine with me because I'd like to relax by pouring myself a nice big glass of Pesto Alfredo. The wife's not home for a few more hours so maybe I'll fill the tub with Tortellini and zone out. (The tub is a bigger tortellino, technically a tortellone. Or is it a tortello? Who cares.)
I guess we might as well get going with actually talking about this first episode. Do we really have to? There are 29 chefs! Am I supposed to learn their names? Are you? Early-season Top Chef is like a backyard full of baby chickens, in that it doesn't make sense to become friends with any of the chickens because a lot of them are going to be tonight's soup. And also that if any of the chickens give cocky confessional interviews about how the other chickens have never encountered a chicken like this one before, that chicken is definitely getting his head twisted off and fast.
Contestant Chris Crary, who was probably in Sugar Ray, sets the tone for this season immediately: "We arrive at the Alamo and the first thing I think of is: Padma looks hot." Uh, pack your boner and go, Crary. Make sure to tape your boner to your leg before you put on your chef pants, otherwise you're gonna slam it in the oven door and go home crying. "I have to stay in this competition just so I can look at her." I'm literally glad there are cameras on this one 24/7 because let's all watch out for him. "She's lucky there are all these people around." He doesn't say that last one but that's the vibe I get from him.
Honestly, there are too many chefs to keep track of, and I am not going to learn their names yet. I will give them nicknames. For example there are Johnny Two-Glasses and his friend Headband Pencil:
This is King Dipshit:
The last guy I call King Dipshit because he made a horrible casting video and also his face and everything he says. "My name is Stone. Chef Tyler Stone." Woof! I understand that casting videos like this are by their very nature mediocre and attention-grabby, and you do what you can to stand out with something filmed on a Flip cam and edited by your friend who's trying to get a video sketch group off the ground and "knows Final Cut." My first instinct would not be a James Bond parody. But if I WAS going to do one, I think I'd go with, "My name is Tyler Stone. CHEF Tyler Stone." Right? It flows a little better and also puts the emphasis on how he's a chef and not just one named Tyler? No you're right. Instead I wouldn't do ANY of that and would just not be on this show.
Twenty-nine is an unwieldy number of chefs to have on the show, so this season is going to spend a few (more than 1!) episodes whittling that number down to a very manageable 16, like they normally begin with. Not to tell you how to do your job, Top Chef, but that's YOUR job. Why do we have to watch your pre-season? Why do I have to recap it? There is a reason you start with 16, and even that is a lot to handle.
Everybody is broken into 3 groups, because the number 29 is so easily divisible by 3. Each group will compete amongst itself to decide who get a chef coat and who doesn't. (What will they wear while they compete this week? Chef robes?) It is unclear to both the audience and the chefs how many chefs will get coats each round. Those with chef coats advance to the final (the beginning?) 16, but also some will be placed "on the bubble," meaning the judges are undecided and the chefs will have to cook again to prove themselves worthy of a chef coat. Does that mean they advance "into" the bubble, or are they then allowed "off" the bubble? Is the bubble good or bad? This is a lot like the Prisoner.
I will say that the most infuriating thing about last night's episode, and it was a close call, was the show trying to make "on the bubble" happen like it's a phrase we all agree is very usual and applicable here. I looked it up and it originates from car racing. The qualify event at the Indy 500 is known as "Bubble Day." Nope I am still not on board. You load your show up with food and setting-appropriate puns and the best you can do is "On the Bubble?" How about "You just south by south-missed." See? That one is great.
Group 1 enters the kitchen to be judged by Padma, Tom, and Emeril. As far as judging goes, majority rules. Later, that will create no drama, as there seems to be almost no dissent among the judges regarding who will stay, go or hit the bubbler.
There is a pig laid out. There are 10 different cuts of meat on the pig, but they are contained within a smaller number of primal cuts. Eesh, it continues. Do Texans love math or something? "Everything is complicateder in Texas." Chef Tyler Stone volunteers to butcher up one of the primal cuts, even though being a highly-paid private chef to high-rolling media personalities or whatever means he usually pays to have someone else butcher it. I appreciate his confidence! Also I appreciate anyone who says "usually I pay someone else to do this" out loud while they are doing anything. It's just a likable way to get the ball rolling.
Stone Chef Tyler Stone makes a mess of the meat, while Between Jobs anxiously awaits her tenderloin. Stone is laughing it off. It's especially chill and funny when you consider the large animal that died so that he could make porkfetti on television. But it's all worth it when Emeril and Tom come over and survey the mess he's making of the pig. Whoops, he destroyed BJ's tenderloin. What does Tom do? Tom kicks him off! Right then and there. Don't even bother cooking, you are going home. I can't tell you the satisfaction this brought me. It made all the new faces and complicated rules worth it. I wish this show was always able to kick off jerks just for looking at Tom funny. This is what my notes said after Stone Chef Tyler Stone was kicked off: "Best season ever in the history of television. You weird toothnosed arrogant dorkus." I don't know what toothnosed means but I am glad I don't have to look at it for the next 14 weeks.
A lot happens here. Johnny Double-Glasses, Nyesha, Heather, and Headband Pencil all get chef coats. Cotton-Mouted Vegan and Neck Tattoo are both eliminated. Cruise Ship Molly and Grayson Between Jobs both get placed on the bubble. They have to go into the Stew Room. It seems like they might be living there for a while? I hope they brought some MREs or something? The Bubble is a formless, wall-less prison in which time has no meaning. A day is a year is a lifetime. Forget your family and friends because they have already forgotten you.
Johnny Double-Glasses and Headband Pencil actually work together in their Real Lives. They are so excited to see each other in the house! Their spontaneous outburst leads to a shocking reveal. There are CAMERAMEN involved with this show. FAKE! You heard it here first. This show is fake.
Group 2 files in, and Chef Janine says, "it's so breathtaking seeing Gail, Tom, and Padma standing there. It's like when you go to a wax museum and then all of a sudden, they are right in front of you, and it's intimidating." Um, what? I have a lot of problems with that sentence! "We're gonna need a redder pen." "When" you go to a wax museum? Also, assuming one does go to a wax museum, what is intimidating about the wax figures? They do not sneak up on you. Also they are wax and look like melted Real Dolls. Unless she is saying that it's like when you go to a wax museum and all of a sudden, there are the real Gail, Tom, and Padma standing in front of you. I guess that would be intimidating? Because it would raise a lot of questions, like "do you guys really hang out together on your down time?" and "why are you at this wax museum?"
This time, Top Chef has laid out some of its favorite ingredients, and the chefs must all agree on one, and then each will cook their own interpretation of that dish. Chris Crary is all, "how about we cook boners? I mean Padma. I'm kidding! Let's get this wrapper off Padma."
Keith Rhodes, who like so many before and around him cooks Southern food, got caught selling drugs when he was younger and went to jail. It's funny; it's never the selling of drugs that gets you in trouble, it's always the getting caught. Something to (not) think (too) hard about. Depending on how long Keith lasts, I will try to take it easy on how many prison jokes I make about Keith, because I imagine this season will be hard on him. The communal living will bring back tough memories, and you know that anytime someone wakes up covered head to toe with soap-in-tube-sock bruises all eyes are gonna be on him. Unfair!
They decide on rabbit. They cook rabbit! Some girl named Nina doesn't put any rabbit on her plate, and that proves to be a deal breaker with the judges. "There is no food here. Go home." Also, if you thought Stone Chef Tyler Stone's elimination meant a blissfully Tyler-free season, you are only partly right. There is somebody named Ty-Lör Boring on the show! Ty-Lör! Boring! I can't even wrap my head around that right now. He gets a chef coat, so we've got plenty of time to deal with him later.
Keith makes it. Chris Creepy makes it, as does Whitney and Dakota, who has a sick chest piece. Edward Lee and Janine head to the bubble. Chuy gets the 11th chef coat spot. What? 11? This math is very confusing! So there are only 5 spots left for Group 3 and the Bubblers?
Janine thinks that what the bubblers have in common is a lack of ink, and she proceeds to mark up her arm. It probably won't help, but her guess as to how this works is certainly as good as you or mine.
I'm sorry I didn't talk about the food that much. They cooked 20 individual dishes. Did you come here to get an exhaustive recap of food you can't eat? Do you have to pinch your arm exactly ten times every time a blue car drives by? The point is I can't help you, I'm not that kind of doctor.
Next week: Chef Chris Scary draws Padma a pornographic comic strip but producers take it away from him, and Johnny Two-Glasses get a third pair of glasses. Something about bigness or HPV vaccines! Welcome to Texas pew pew pew! (That is the sound six shooters make.)