The premiere episode of Top Chef Season 16 has all of the things you might expect to find in a Kentucky-themed food TV extravaganza: horses, buglers, bourbon barrels, and plenty of tipsy people in pastel hats eating canapés. When the 15 cheftestepants arrive at Churchill Downs, they are greeted by Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi, who, after more than a decade of Quickfire challenges, still seem game to try all the food these chefs will cook for them under unusual circumstances. After a few nervous introductions, the competitors break up into groups of three and face their first challenge: to prepare their mise en place in two minutes flat, as a nod to the Kentucky Derby, which is sometimes called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”
After that 120 seconds of slicing and dicing, the chefs have to drop their knives, and finish their Derby-themed dishes without any blades. Some hijinks ensue, but the teams generally manage to impress Tom and Padma with their no-knives-allowed creations. The beet-pickled egg with beef fat carrots from the Green Team (Pablo, Justin, and Sara) wins the Quickfire, and those teammates win tickets to the Derby.
After a trip to Whole Foods, the gang heads back to the bourbon barrel-lined Top Chef compound where they begin preparing their individual dishes for a “Top Chef Kentucky Derby party” the next day. It’s here where we start to learn about all of their backgrounds, ambitions, and culinary points of view. Once the prep work is done, the cooks all head to their temporary home — a sprawling Fresh Prince of Bel-Air-esque mansion — and toast each other with juice bottles and cartons of VitaCoco before hitting the hay.
The next day, a few of the chef struggle to set up for the big event, but most of them manage to impress Tom, Padma, Graham Elliot, and special guest judge David Danielson, the culinary maestro at Churchill Downs. The judges love Natalie’s ceviche, Pablo’s tilapia crudo, and David’s unusual mushroom soup. At the other end of the spectrum, they dislike Kevin’s boring beets, Adrienne’s too-busy pasta, and Catilin’s soggy biscuit with mushy tomatoes. Ultimately, the texture of that last dish proves to be fatal, and cheery Cincinnati mom Caitlin is asked to pack her knives and go... to Last Chance Kitchen, where Tom reminds us, anything can happen.
Here are a few questions that you might have about this new season, plus all the relevant answers:
Who’s worth rooting for?
A lot of people, which is always a good sign at the star of a Top Chef season. Kentucky native Sara seems like a fun person who can hold it down in the kitchen. Nini makes two awesome-looking dishes in the premiere, and also rocks a superb pink jumpsuit at Whole Foods while cracking jokes about shopping like a grandma. Eric knows how to put flavors together and hustle through the competition. And Natalie is a clear-headed chef who looks thrilled to be cooking after taking some time away from the kitchen.
Who’s the villain?
Brandon, the Silicon Valley private chef who’s oddly reminiscent of Conner 4 Real from Pop Star. Although he clearly knows how to cook haute cuisine, Brandon gets several marks in the minus column for immediately starting to boss around his teammates during the Quickfire challenge.
Who’s the wildcard?
David, the fine dining chef from New Jersey. He’s got a nervous energy that suggests that he doesn’t always know what he’s doing. But in this episode, he actually does show his culinary prowess by making an improvised umami-bomb soup that completely blows Tom’s mind.
What’s the WTF moment of this episode?
Justin does some over-sharing: “I’m definitely not in shape enough for Top Chef. My body is probably about 60 percent bourbon, 20 percent pot, and 40 percent fried food, and a whole lot of sexy.”
So... is Top Chef still good?
Yes, actually it is. Although a zillion new culinary competition shows have premiered since the last season of Top Chef went off the air, it remains the gold standard in terms of creating satisfying human drama. Unlike a show like, say, The Final Table, the producers are total masters at the art of giving you just enough info to care about all of these people, without laying it on too thick or making the exposition boring.