Welcome to the new season of Top Chef. This iteration of Bravo's only remaining show that isn't based on Botox and Chardonnay takes place in historic Boston, a fact that we will be reminded of every six minutes for the rest of the season. So go pahk the cah already and let's get started.
The wide-eyed chefs enter their new home for the next however long it actually takes to shoot this thing (seems like anywhere from four hours to six months, it's hard to tell). They're greeted by host and judge Padma Lakshmi and former contestant-turned-judge apparently Richard Blais, who should have tucked in his shirt. Richard tells us that Top Chef was the hardest thing he ever did in his life, and he did it twice. He was on a regular season and All-Stars, which he won. He was also on Top Chef Masters, which, just like an academic master's, is more prestigious but far fewer people actually care about it.
The chefs begin introducing themselves like an AA meeting. Among the first we meet is Mei Lin, who currently works under former Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio. We also meet Ron Eyester of Rosebud in Atlanta, whose hate for the new wave of skinny jeaned, tattooed chefs is all we really need to know about him. Cut to native New Yorker Adam Harvey, a young chef with an impressive resume and a v-neck t-shirt just deep enough to show off his chest tattoo.
This season's token pretty blonde on whose shoulders rest the responsibility of proving women can have it all, even in the culinary world, is Keriann Von Raesfeld. She claims to be the first female as well as the first American to win "World's Greatest Young Chef," which sounds about as legitimate as owning a "World's Greatest Dad" mug.
Once we've met enough of the chefs for the producers to create tension, Padma introduces the Sudden Death Quickfire. Losing here means facing immediate elimination. The challenge is a traditional one for Top Chef: the mise en place relay race. Chefs are split into four teams of four to tackle preparation of "local New England ingredients." They could just say seafood, but then how would we know they're in Boston?
Each team must prepare 3 lobsters, 20 oysters, 8 Boston mackerel, and 21 little neck clams. These should each take the same amount of time to finish, so the contestant with the slowest time on the last place team is up for immediate elimination.
As expected/hoped, chefs choosing their ingredients starts fights right off the bat. On the green team, Adam and Keriann butt heads over who will get lobster, Adam eventually winning the choice I assume because he has both an illustrious culinary pedigree and also a dick.
Padma starts the clock and Mei is just crushing the lobsters. She finishes first putting the blue team in the lead while the others try and catch up. One of those others is Adam, who despite being adamant that he get the lobsters for the green team, struggles through shelling them. Doug Adams cruises through filleting the mackerel, though so does Ron as he makes up time for the yellow team. It's easy to keep track of all of this because Richard is commentating on the action like a former NFL quarterback who now spends his Sundays wearing shiny suits on ESPN.
The blue team's lead comes to a screeching halt when their last member, Katsuji Tanabe, must shuck 21 little neck clams and realizes he has absolutely no idea how to do that. He spends his entire challenge banging the clams and the mallets and the knives against the metal table.
While Katsuji is busy re-creating the sound effects from Transformers, Keriann takes to the clams like she's been doing it since birth. Her team finishes just a hair ahead of the yellow team. The blue team eventually comes in third. In last place is the struggling red team with George Pagonis working on the clams. He also had the slowest time on his team, so he's up for elimination.
Since George performed the worst, he must choose another chef to compete with head-to-head. If he wins, they both stay. If he loses, he goes home immediately. Obviously, he will want to pick one of the weaker contestants. It's like that advice magazines give women saying that when they go out they should go with their ugliest friends so they have the best shot with any guys they meet, #feminism. George picks Gregory Gourdet, since he and Gregory fought over who would get mackerel and who would get clams on their team, and George lost that battle.
They have 20 minutes to make a dish using the ingredients from the quickfire. George makes a pan-seared mackerel with fennel and orange salad and warm clams. Gregory does a trio of chilled seafood, a move which Adam Harvey claims is his way of saying, "Hi, my name is Greg, and this is how big my dick is." Though Padma and Richard enjoy both dishes, Gregory wins and George is sent home.
With one chef already packing his knives, Padma explains the first Elimination Challenge. The chefs will cook for the first ever Top Chef Food Festival. They each get their own booths among the city's established chefs and restaurants to serve food to 250 patrons, serving dishes that are updated versions of the very first thing they ever made. This would be a tough challenge for me, because how do you update a scene?
LA based chef Aaron Grissom plans an updated version of steak and eggs, but with pork belly. "I know I'm taking a risk by putting this out there, but fucking Top Chef, man," he says before sinking the last cup in beer pong, turning his snapback hat around and high-fiving a guy named Declan.
During prep Katie Weinner says, "I'm used to serving like, 12-14 people, so 250, is that a lot more?" as she prepares a broccoli salad that her Canadian professional baseball playing adoptive grandmother used to make with her.
Other chefs are taking on more complicated dishes, like Michael Patlazhan and his chilled corn soup with caviar pearls. We see from footage of his submission video that he's all about the molecular gastronomy, which I think anyone could have guessed based on his haircut.
Judges Tom Colicchio and Richard visit Katsuji's station and they are shocked at the number of ingredients in his "shrimp quesadilla." He rattles off more items in his description than I have cumulatively had in my kitchen over the last decade.
Next they stop at Aaron's station where he explains his tamari glazed pork belly concept. With only three hours to cook, Tom asks if he thinks pork belly is a little risky. Aaron answers perfectly saying, "Yeah, but this is Top Chef, I didn't come here to toss salad, I came here to win." It kind of feels like a reality TV machine created him and when the season is over Andy Cohen will reprogram him as a real estate expert and send him off on another adventure.
The historic, first ever Top Chef Food Festival in Boston kicks off and a sea of oxford button downs, cardigan sweaters, and girls named Meghan flood the tent.
Doug tells judge Gail Simmons that she can call him Dougie, which I now also want to do. He prepared fried chicken with pickled jalapenos and watermelon. It's a huge hit with Tom and Gail and I think the dish that I most want to eat. Pretty hard to make a call on that though because I'm a white lady, so all I've had to eat today is a yogurt, a kale juice, seven almonds, and a jacuzzi's worth of Diet Coke. I'm so hungry.
The judges love Mei's congee with caramelized pork, fish sauce caramel, and black garlic puree. A surprise success is Gregory's Haitian stewed chicken with fried bananas, and scotch bonnet chili relish. Though the chilis pack a substantial amount of heat, they are balanced by the sweet banana in the dish. Padma claims that it's so close to being something she hated, but she actually loved it.
The judges aren't such fans of Katie's broccoli salad, noting it's more of a side than a main, kind of a like a hot, dumb guy you meet after an all-day drunk brunch. They also don't care for Michael's chilled corn soup, which is at one point described as tasting like cereal with fish in it and now I can't stop throwing up from just the thought.
Padma and Richard finally make it to Aaron's booth for his tamari pork belly and miso poached egg yolk. Running low on supplies, Aaron serves Padma an extremely fatty piece, even for pork belly. The bite is barely in her mouth for two seconds before she reaches for a napkin and spits it out. After a pretty brutal review of his food, Padma points out that he should also clean up the mess at his booth. What does she expect, it's not like there's a house mom from his fraternity there to wipe up all of the tamari he spills.
Everyone sits in the stew room clearly on edge before the first Judges' Table. Padma enters and calls back...all of them. [record scratch] Whhhaaaaaat? Yes, all fifteen chefs will stand in front of the judges at one time. When they enter and get situated Richard is like, "It's hard, right? Like it was hard to do? I did it twice." We get it, you went through two seasons of a reality show. Sorry there aren't medals for that.
Padma asks Mei, Gregory, and Doug to stay where they are and for the rest of the chefs to move to the side of the room. Lucky for these three, they made the best dishes of the day. The winner is Mei for her congee, which she knows will make her boss Michael Voltaggio back at home very proud.
Padma then asks Katie, Michael, and Katsuji to come forward. They created the worst dishes of the day. Tom explains that there were elements of Michael's dish that worked, but the salmon roe was entirely too fishy and overwhelmed the dish. Michael agrees that he thought it was too fishy, but then also said that he liked it, forcing Tom to point out that he was backtracking and they disagreed. And while Katie's midwestern side dish was too simple and Katsuji's "petroleum" shrimp was too complicated, ultimately the fishiness of Michael's soup was too much and he is sent to pack his knives and go.
While it's tough to see two contestants go home in the first 75 minutes of the season, I have to say I'm relieved at Aaron's stay of execution. There's a bro-shaped hole in my life that can only really be filled by his dumb hats and "fuck everyone" attitude. And if he keeps spitting out the one-liners and sound bites like he did in this episode, then my job is all that much easier.