Last night was the second episode of Top Chef season ten but the first in Seattle, Washington, the home of Dr. Frasier Crane, tossed salad, and scrambled eggs. If I had three wishes, I'd use all three to have Roz — the character, not the actress — be a guest judge this season. But I've yet to be given one wish, much less three. Six chefs did not make the trip to Seattle, and all are probably upset about it. But maybe none more so than the community food program founder whose name rhymes with Purina, like the dog food. I'm not writing her name out because she clearly has aggressive Google alerts set up; within 25 minutes of my recap going up last week she sent me a Facebook message that attempted to both insult and shame me while also asking me to please read her linked press packet. In 45 years of writing Top Chef recaps, nobody on the show has ever bothered to personally reach out and be offended, so congrats Purina: I will remember you, and I bet your food makes dogs' coats shiny.
During last week's premiere, Padma Lakshmi was heard and not seen and I began to worry that maybe she'd had an accident of some kind, that she was just a brain in a jar somewhere recording monotone voice-overs and appearing on QVC to sell jewelry and spice mixes. But to my great relief last night she arrives to greet the fifteen contestants in the Top Chef Kitchen, wearing an outfit, as she often does. Padma's clothes are very confusing. She is a television personality and former model, and basically a brand at this point. But if on average she wears two outfits an episode, for 13 episodes a season, and now this is her 9th season, has she run out of normal clothes? Do you think she buys off the rack? I do not know. She is gorgeous but she dresses like a mean rich aunt who invites you to dinner then clucks her tongue when you wear jeans, and you're like, "it's a weeknight, so relax," and she's all, "wouldn't it be fun if I took you shopping?" and, uh, no it wouldn't, because most people who shop where you do have dentures and see-through hands. Here is Padma a few weeks ago at a Halloween party at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Padma is joined by three former Top Chef contestants, who will act as judges for this first Quickfire: CJ, Stefan, and Josie. I did not watch the season Josie was on, but CJ is tall and once made terrible broccoli, and Stefan was a favorite of mine back in season five, which was a very fun season. He has a thick accent and thinks he's super. The contestants are bummed to see former Top Chefheads as their judges; they assume their judgment will be harsher. Of Stefan Chrissy says, "What I remember about Stefan is that he looks like a thumb." Are you kidding me, Chrissy? Stefan was robbed in season five by the ultimate Thumbhead Hosea, and Stefan is the one you remember as looking like a thumb? I don't even know what to say. History always favors the winners, I guess.
The fifteen chefs arrange themselves into five teams of three. Padma explains that each team has twenty minutes to create a dish that highlights local shellfish. The veterans each give the contestants advice: twenty minutes is not a lot of time. That is super advice. A lot of the young bucks vying for this season's title were murmuring to themselves how twenty minutes was almost too much time. "I hope I don't get bed sores from all the naps I take in my downtime." Luckily now they know it's not much time. As Padma explains the razor clams and the geoduck and other things, John Tesar starts whispering to his teammate Kuniko about cutting up the fish. Padma snaps at him. "Excuse me. I'm not finished."
The chefs scramble around to grab ingredients and flash-plan a menu. They barely know each other's names yet. It is cute, like they are working on ropes courses on the first day of camp, though I don't remember campers being encouraged or even allowed to handle anything looking remotely like a geoduck on the first day of camp. It's probably illegal. Kristin says, "It looks like a penis. A really big one." The few geoducks are taken by John and Kristin, and Eliza has to settle for razor clams. Last season's dreamboat Chris Crary tweeted this at me during the show:
Not right, Chris Crary. I do not agree that the reason the ladies can't find geoduck is because Kristin is stealing the geoduck to bring back to their house. And even if I was willing to admit that, I don't think she's going to use it for self-pleasure, like you are implying. I think she's preparing it in her team's dish. That's why the ladies can't find any. You have a dirty mind, Crary, and I won't be dragged down into the mud with you.
Carla is no Fabio, but her mania and subtitles make her close. "I want to be a James Beard, but I also want to have a nice ass." "I can't be running around like a stupid!" No you can't, Carla. In other foreign chef news, Kuniko admits she is not good at speaking English, but she is happy her teammates understand what she wants. Kuniko, Team Zissou's Sheldon, and John are hummin'. John says, "Who says the most hated chef in Dallas can't get along with people?" No one said that, John. Are you really going to remind us once an episode about your big cover story? Chef Bart says that Belgian cuisine is so fascinating because they have absorbed the cuisines of all the people who conquered them. Did he also absorb that scarf?
Padma, CJ, Josie, and Padma taste the dishes. Their tastebuds are worn down by years of cigarettes and hard liquor, and all the dishes taste bland and unsalted to them. CJ announces that the Yellow team (Eliza, Danyele, and Josh) had the least successful dish, an under-seasoned razor clam corn chowder. If only Kristin had not smuggled those geoducks back to the house, right Chris? Chris, am I right? The winner, according to Stefan, is the Blue team's geoduck sashimi. Kuniko, Sheldon, and John overcame a language barrier and cut the fish thin. John says that winning the first Quickfire is probably in the list of top five best things to ever happen to him in his life all time. He is real happy but also that bums me out in a major way. How great can the other things on that list be? His top 20 sounds bleak. The Blue team draws knives to see who wins immunity; it's John's lucky day. His list is going crazy! "Every single second of my Top Chef experience is tied for first best thing that's ever happened to white people, followed closely by the fourth season of the Wire."
Padma has more news. "So, I-ma teeny bot drunk." No, her news is that CJ, Stefan, and Josie aren't going anywhere: they are joining the ranks of the fifteen other cooks to fight again for the title of Top Chef. What a twist! This is one of the top five twists of all time. The twist list now goes Oliver Twist, Do the Twist, the movie Twister, French twisted hair, then this twist. The fifteen aren't happy about it, and despite loving Stefan, neither am I. 18 chefs to get through? This season will be so long. Eliminate three per episode. Move it along. Stefan, despite returning for a second time to a reality show he's already lost at once, says, "I have nothing to prove. I drive a GT Porsche and have eight restaurants." In my experience men with Porsches definitely have zero to prove. Stefan, may I remind you that you've yet to win either a season of Top Chef or Top Understanding What Nothing To Prove Means?
The five teams of three, alongside the new team of veterans, will each compete for elimination at the Sky City Restaurant at the top of the Seattle Space Needle. It takes 47 minutes for the needle to rotate, and that's how long they'll each have to prep and to cook a dish highlighting regional ingredients for Tom, Padma, Gail, Emeril, and local legend Tom Douglas, who looks like a CGI puppet operated by Andy Serkis. Is this the year Andy Serkis finally wins his Best Motion Capture Oscar for playing Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas? Wise up, Academy.
The chefs check out their new digs high above Seattle in some apartment building. Carla judges it harshly, while Brooke worries about throwing up. She hates heights. I also always worry about throwing up. Jeffrey Jew talks about coming out to his parents when he was 25, and this segues into another opportunity for him to share that photo of him and his fiance wearing sunglasses and blazers on the beach. Is he getting royalties on that photo? "This photo is going to put my kids through blazer school."
The first two teams cook for 47 minutes. Kuniko is poaching the Blue team's cod in chili oil. That sounds delicious, but then she burns the chili oil and must start over with only a few minutes to go. That, on the other hand, is dangerous. She explains that she lacks focus because she thinks too much sometimes. I totally understand that. When I played t-ball one year as a child, my coach called me back to the dugout after I ran out to the outfield between innings. "Max, do you know what you forgot?" I thought intensely for a few seconds. "To hustle?" I was sure that was a great answer. This coach loved hustle. "To bring your glove." I got my glove and went back out to the outfield to pick at grass and think about snacks. Kuniko needs to remember her glove, but also to hustle. Meanwhile, Carla runs around yelling, "Holy shit!" She yells about lemons. Her teammates are not charmed.
The Blue teams serves their chili oil poached cod with Sheldon's dashi and John's spot prawns and vegetables. The orange team serves a wild salmon with seasonal vegetables and beurre blanc. As much as Carla's behavior in the kitchen seemed dramatic and unstable, it doesn't affect her team's performance; both dishes impress the judges. Gail says, "The first thing I put in my mouth in Seattle: not bad."
Speaking of innuendo, Stefan lays it on pretty thick. His team switches from fish to quail at the last minute, to set themselves apart, and he's frustrated by how small the quail are. "I'm used to bigger breasts normally." Stefan is such a bad ass. He drives a Porsche and he exclusively deals in big-breasted women! I bet he pays for scalped front row tickets to AC/DC and high-fives his buds during "Highway to Hell" even though he gets the words a little wrong. He probably winks at ladies when he buys them shots of Patron and then patiently explains how it's a tequila a lot like him, in that it has nothing to prove but also goes down easy, especially with men, just kidding, whoa hold it right there.
The Red team, all veterans, serves a quail breast with a confit of spot prawn. There are also some cherries and porcini on there, after CJ screwed up his cherry sauce. The grey team, which is Jeffrey, Brooke, and Bart, serve a pan-roasted halibut with mushrooms and English peas and other stuff. All the proteins are overcooked.
While the final two teams cook, Tom explains that he almost moved to Seattle when he was 22. It was after the end of a long relationship, and he seems very nervous about talking about it. He anxiously spins his white wine 9,000 times while telling this story of what might have been.
The yellow team and the green team serve pan-roasted cod and seared salmon, respectively. Alright, Seattle, we get it. You like fish. Me too. Let's hope this whole season is not simply prepared fish and local vegetables, because while I could spend a lifetime eating that, I can't spend a lifetime watching it. But everybody's colons probably need a break after a season in Texas.
Padma calls in Kuniko, John, and Sheldon. They are the winner's of this season's first elimination challenge. John must be going crazy on his phone updating his Top 5 Moments Of Life Google spreadsheet. Tom asks Kuniko if she frequently poaches cod in chili oil at her restaurant. "I work in a French brasserie, so we don't really do that." Tom smiles. "You should do it again." She's the winner, and she probably gets a dumb prize, but we are the real winners, because we get to watch such a graceful and happy winner. She thanks her teammates again and again and says, "People are going to be like, who is she? We didn't even notice she is there." Everyone notices now, Kuniko.
The Red Veterans and the Grey team step in front of the Judges. The judges ask the red team if they know why they're here. Josie says, "Uh, probably because it was missing some texture." Yeah, you should have sprinkled some tempura flakes over the whole thing and you'd be on top. Tom berates Stefan into admitting his quail was poorly cooked. Stefan immediately buckles at the feet of his Old Gods. "You are right. I have no excuse. I'm so sorry." It is sad to see such a great man so humbled. But it is Jeffrey who made a hockey puck of his team's fish, cooking it 14 minutes before the plates needed to be delivered. After he steps away, Emeril says that a piece of fish like that should be cooked for two or three minutes. Padma adds, "at the most," because Emeril Lagasse really needs and appreciates her fish cooking advice.
Jeffrey — handsome, engaged, sunglass-wearing, blazer-sporting Jeffrey — is being sent home. He made the biggest mistake, says Tom. Padma cries as she bids him goodbye. But don't cry for Jeffrey. He's got all that sweet beach photo royalty money coming. The wedding's already paid for!