Well, 2016 has been a challenging year. We've endured a nasty election cycle, a deep political divide, and countless painful celebrity deaths — plus Jared Leto's method acting. The one shining light in the dark hallway to hell that has been this year is that we wrap up our 365-day nightmare with a new season of Top Chef. See, it's not all trash.
This year's competition takes place in Charleston, South Carolina. It's a city in the midst of a dining renaissance and rich in history, palm trees, and guys who wear pastel shorts. And what makes this season different from all other seasons (Passover seder voice here, obviously), is that rather than a new crop of 16 contestants, the show features half Top Chef virgins, and half alums who didn't win their seasons and are back for redemption.
The one shining light in the dark hallway to hell that has been this year: a new season of ‘Top Chef.’
The eight newbies enter their kitchen-away-from-kitchen-for-the-next-one-to-16-weeks and are greeted by none other than Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi, who is wearing her standard Bravo-mandated fabulous jumpsuit. While these are all first-time competitors, there is plenty familiar about them. There's the bearded, tattooed guy, B.J. Smith, the insanely impressive background guy, Jamie Lynch (who trained under Andrew Carmellini), the tough girl, Charleston native Emily Hahn.
The real wild card of the group is Jim Smith, a small, smiley blonde-haired man. He hasn't trained in a Michelin-rated restaurant or opened his own place. He's the executive chef of the state of Alabama. Yup, states have executive chefs. I'm a longtime New Yorker, so I assume our state chef is just a pigeon working a hot dog cart. Now I live in Los Angeles, and I'm pretty sure the executive chef of California is just a sentient green juice.
While Tom and Padma greet the first half of the season's cheftestants, the veteran competitors arrive one by one to the stew room. There are a lot of my old favorites, like Shirley Chung from New Orleans, Casey Thompson of Top Chef Miami, and Katsuji Tanabe from the Boston season. The group is heavy on Seattle alums, including Brooke Williamson, John Tesar, and Sheldon Simeon.
Also back in the habit (which yes, is the subtitle to the far superior Sister Act movie), is season two smokeshow Sam Talbot. Sam is a tall drink of water. He's so handsome he's more like a tall Nalgene of water. Or a towering two-liter bottle of water. He's really more of a giant bucket of water you bring home for the holidays and get too drunk at a dinner party before you scream, "See, I'm not going to die alone. And look how hot he is. Suck it, Sharon." Wait, where was I? Oh yeah, vets in the stew room.
While the seasoned competitors watched on from the wings, Tom explained that the Quickfire Challenge for the rookies is simple: make as many dishes as you would like using chicken. They all have one hour to wow the judges with one to three plates of the poultry persuasion. As they finish dishes, Tom and Padma will taste them. The winner of the Quickfire gets immunity from elimination. The loser goes into a sudden-death challenge that will send someone home on the spot. But like, no pressure.
Such as always the case early on in Top Chef, many of the contestants planned on doing multiple, complicated dishes and had to scrap a lot due to poor time management. Who would have imagined 15 years ago that talking about time management would become such a crucial element of super-dramatic television? For a long time, time management was just something you put on your resume when you only had two other skills. Now it's a cornerstone of pretty much every reality competition.
For a long time, time management was just something you put on your resume when you only had two other skills.
The only person to serve up a dish before the hour is up is Italian-by-way-of-New-York chef Silvia Barban. She took a risk and made fresh tagliatelle with chicken ragu, mascarpone, orange, and crispy chicken skin. Tom and Padma love it, and then retreat to the front of the room to wait for anyone else to finish a dish. Yet no one does.
As the contestants scramble around the kitchen trying not to burn vegetables or serve a raw bird, the veteran contestants watch and comment like they aren't 30 minutes away from having to do this all again themselves.
The pasta ends up being one of the judges' favorites, along with Emily Hahn's Asian barbecue chicken wing with tamarind and chili glaze. The winner of the Quickfire, however, is none other than the Alabama state house's own chef Jim for his fried chicken innards with aioli, butter lettuce, and strawberry vinaigrette. Sure, he had an entire chicken and a full hour and only really fried up a few fatty organs, but he did it well, and that's what matters here.
Unfortunately, friendly-but-scattered-during-this-challenge Gerald Sombright is the loser for his smoked buttermilk poached chicken. He'll go head-to-head with the loser from the second group, who the other chefs finally get to meet.
Tom and Padma welcome group two and a few jaws drop on the rookie side when they see contestants who have been on one (or more, ahem, Casey) season of the show already. They know the tricks, the tools, the ins and outs of cooking for your life on television every week. It feels like an advantage, but honestly, who the hell knows anymore.
To set up this Quickfire Challenge, Padma introduces new judge Graham Elliot. I'm mostly familiar with Graham's reality TV cooking, thanks to his stint as a judge on MasterChef Junior, but I feel like this will be a bit different, mostly because the contestants here don't need step stools to reach the counter.
For this challenge, the chefs are charged with making their own signature version of the South Carolina staple, shrimp and grits. It's not complicated, there's room for creativity, it doesn't seem like a bad challenge — except they only get 30 minutes. Thirty minutes for grits is barely enough time, unless they are using instant grits. But no self-respecting southerner would use instant grits. So maybe they're using magic grits from the same guy that sold Jack his beanstalk beans. Okay, this is a paraphrased quote from one of the best scenes in cinematic history, grit-related or not. I cannot believe that no one in that kitchen thought to quote My Cousin Vinny during this challenge.
Most of the chefs are sticking to what they know — Shirley is going Asian, Katsuji is doing overly complicated Mexican. Brooke goes the furthest outside the box and grounds her shrimp to make a shrimp-and-grits scotch egg. Casey is working on coconut shrimp and grits with corn and smoked tomato sauce. The dish is unimpressive, but her confessional shots are giving me some serious long bob envy. As a woman whose hairstyle could best be described as "witch who keeps canceling salon appointments," I'm inspired to get a haircut.
Sam flashes that devastating smile of his and notes how funny it is that he was on the show a decade ago. He recalls how much has happened in that time, like opening a popular Hamptons restaurant or being one of People's Sexiest Men Alive. But look, I'm not going to play favorites with Sam just because he looks like he walked into the kitchen out of a cologne ad. When it comes to recapping, I have integrity.
(Hi, Sam, it's me Alison. I don't have integrity. I'll call this whole thing for you right now if you would come with me as a date to my friend's wedding next month and maybe don't wear your shirt or something I don't know, just spitballing here.)
Amanda Baumgarten confesses that she's been out of the cooking game for two years thanks to some back problems, so she's nervous she'll be rusty as she prepares her head-on shrimp and grits with tasso ham, pickled raisins, and roasted peaches. I feel for her. I've had three back surgeries (bragging!) and can't imagine running around a kitchen, let alone in a race for $125,000.
Her worries proved unnecessary, as she is one of the judges' favorites, along with Brooke's scotch egg and Shirley's adorably named "Bowl of Hug." But the win goes to Brooke for creativity and execution, and she's safe from elimination. Unfortunately, John's Korean shrimp and grits with faux kimchi lands him at the bottom, off to battle Gerald to stay on the show.
Before John and Gerald face off, the contestants all go back to the Top Chef townhouse to check out their new digs for the next few months. It's traditionally "Charleston," with soft colors, high ceilings, and plenty of balconies. It looks like a great place to throw wine at someone while yelling about "getting thrown under the bus."
It looks like a great place to throw wine at someone while yelling about "getting thrown under the bus."
For the sudden death part of this wholly Quickfire Challenge episode, John and Gerald are in their own car and pull up to Boone Hall Plantation. Yup, a plantation. Seems to me using a plantation as the backdrop for a reality competition show isn't a great idea.
At the end of a dock the two competitors, followed by the rest of the field, find Padma, Tom, Graham, and the charmingly effervescent Gail Simmons. There's some somber talk about slavery and race in America, which I think we all have come to expect on our basic-cable reality cooking competition shows.
The challenge is a simple oyster roast. The chefs have 20 minutes to take this traditional dish and put their own spin on it. It's deceivingly simple, but plenty can go wrong. Gerald decides to do a Thai-style oyster with mignonette, tomato compote, and micro cilantro. John goes the complete opposite direction with a rich French-inspired soup that involves pouring heavy cream, oyster liquor, and truffles over raw oysters to poach them. Where would he get truffles, you ask? Oh, he brought them. Don't worry about John, he's packing.
Gerald tosses a few oysters on the fire, but when he goes back to open them, finds they are full of tiny crabs and thus unusable. Also, that's something that can happen? Crabs live inside oysters? Does the ocean really need to be that gross and scary? Thankfully, he has time to throw more on and finds perfectly good ones in the bunch.
Even without the tiny crabs living in the oysters, Gerald's Thai mignonette just didn't have enough heat and flavor to win out over John's creamy truffle soup, and he is sent home. Before he goes, Tom very naturally reminds us that once again, there is always Last Chance Kitchen, so there's still hope.
I assume next week we'll get to the much-anticipated Elimination Challenge. The season preview implies that Top Chef Charleston really has everything you could ever want from the show: close-up shots of jalapeños being sliced, competition-threatening injuries, cutting remarks from Hugh Acheson, sexual innuendos from Padma. It's a viewer's dream! So come back every week and keep up with the season.
(And Sam, I'm serious about that wedding invitation. Call me.)
Alison Leiby is a comedian and writer in Los Angeles.
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