Thursday, December 3, 2015

Top Chef: California - Episode 1 - Premiere (Part 1 of 2)

And Top Chef is back! This season takes place in California, and if Tom Colicchio is to be believed, this is one of the strongest groups they've brought in. One of the first things Padma did was ask those contestants who are executive chefs to raise their hands, and that was most of them. There's one returning competitor: Grayson, who was eliminated from the season that took place in Texas about four years ago. Personally, I tend to enjoy seeing younger, less experienced chefs, but on the other hand, watching a chef who has mastered what it is they do is enjoyable in itself.

Quickfire Challenge

After introducing just a handful of the chefs -- I do like the way they intersperse the little get-to-know-you clips throughout the episode instead of lumping them all up front -- the episode dove right in to the Quickfire, the now-traditional mise en place relay. This time, the seventeen chefs were permitted to choose the ingredient they thought they could do most quickly, from among eggs, artichokes, asparagus, oranges, and chicken. That is, they were allowed to choose to a point, because as Tom put it, the ingredients were "first come, first served." Sigh.... Will they never get tired of making people fall all over each other to get to the ingredients?

Anyway, the first nine chefs to finish their prep work to Tom's satisfaction moved on to the second round, during which they were divided into three teams and told to prepare a dish featuring at least one of their relay ingredients. The twist was that they had to cook in another relay, except that the second and third legs of each team would be blindfolded so they would be starting their "shifts" without knowing what they were being handed. We've seen this before and I think it's an interesting test of a chef's ability to jump right in and cook on the spot.

Renee from Kansas went first for the blue team, pulling from the pantry such ingredients as mint, cabbage, and ponzu (a Japanese sauce made from soy sauce, lime juice, vinegar, and fish flakes). She was followed by Frances, and while I'm not quite sure what Frances did because she didn't get much camera time, she was chopping cabbage as though her life depended on it. Amar went third, and decided to go sweet and sour with the chicken and Asian slaw that he found. Padma loved the mint and said the dish had really nice flavors.

Isaac went first for the green team and decided to go Cajun. I wondered about this because it's a specific cuisine that his teammates might not have known anything about, but on the other hand, a team playing it safe isn't likely to win. Grayson followed him and decided to go Italian, which suggested to me that Isaac hadn't set things up in an obvious way. Carl, going third, seemed to have a good handle on things and finished a dish he called breaded chicken breast with brown butter, asparagus, and mushroom sauce -- although I don't think that's particularly Cajun or Italian. But Tom did call it nice and moist.

Jason, who cooked first for the red team, admitted that he had no plan; he boiled eggs, and put on a blanching pot and some chicken on the grill. Jeremy, who came next, had no idea what to do with what little Jason had left for him; he started cooking carrots in cream and put more chicken in the oven. Poor Wes, who went last, didn't know about the chicken in the oven, so he went to the grill, where the chicken was both blackened and still raw. He salvaged a bit of it, and the resulting dish was grilled chicken with carrot-orange puree, capers, and anchovies. Padma called it an appetizer-sized portion, and Tom commented that the dish contained a lot of anchovy.

In the end, Tom's least favorite dish was the red team's; he said it tasted like it was cooked by three different people, and that the anchovies overpowered everything else. Between the green and blue teams, Tom thought that the green team's chicken was beautifully cooked and perfectly seasoned. For the blue team, he thought some of the knife work was clunky but the flavors were good. Ultimately, the blue team won with the flavor, giving immunity to Renee, Frances, and Amar. Considering that Renee was also the fastest out of seventeen chefs in the mise en place Quickfire, she's probably going to be one to watch.

Elimination Challenge

Immediately after the Quickfire, Padma announced that the chefs would face two elimination challenges over the next three days. The first challenge was to make any dish that would stand out and represent that chef's personal style, to be served to 200 guests, as well as returning judge Gail Simmons and frequent guest judge Emeril Lagasse. The chefs got $500 to spend at Whole Foods, three hours to prep, and an hour and a half the next day to set up service. (As an aside, wouldn't I love to have $500 to shop at Whole Foods? I know some people aren't crazy about the chain, but I have to say that their produce puts the regular grocery stores around here to shame.)

As the chefs went shopping, I started thinking about how much fun the first episode of the season is. I have to imagine that the editing that goes into this show is pretty skilled, because it's also fairly transparent much of the time. Yet over the course of the episode, we gradually get to see the personalities and styles of the chefs that we'll come to know over the next several weeks.

Speaking of editing, some of the footage showed that Wesley apparently comes by his nickname "Cochino", or "Pig", quite honestly. I was pretty horrified to see him chopping and pureeing a tomato with the produce label still attached, and his workstation was a disaster area. To be fair, several chefs, including Wesley, commented that cooking in a strange kitchen is really hard, and I certainly can sympathize with that.

The service the next day took place outside on a cloudy day with the famous Hollywood sign in the background (trust me, the judges were artfully arrayed underneath it). I loved that each chef's booth had a wooden sign with their name and a silhouette of their home state on it; it would be nice if they get to keep those as a souvenir. During set-up, I was surprised to hear a contestant named Garret Fleming say that former Top Chef All-Stars alum Mike Isabella serves "one of the worst bastardizations of kind of Italian food in the history of the world." Really? This from the chef who claims to be mixing Southeast Asian and Italian influences? I have to say that although I can see why some people might prefer Mike Isabella in small doses, I felt he was pretty authentic when it came to his food. But honestly, at this point in the show, a lot of the chefs are looking for any excuse for bravado, to be able to say something that might stand out on camera.

On the other hand, I will say about Garret that I'm impressed with anyone who can make fresh pasta for 200 people in a few hours.

With seventeen chefs, it would be a bit much for me to list all of their dishes, so I'm just going to mention a bunch of random impressions:

1) Gail Simmons is extremely articulate in expressing exactly what she does and doesn't like about food. I really like that about her.

2) There are some dishes that just look so good but that I sadly would not eat, such as Grayson's pork and veal meatballs. I'd like to be a vegetarian but don't quite have the discipline. When I do eat red meat, though, it's definitely not going to be pork or veal. Anyway, speaking of Grayson, I'm not sure she's emotionally any more ready for this season than she was for the last time she competed.

3) Oh dear, Wesley. Did you seriously just put that spoon in your mouth and back into the food?

4) The dishes are so varied that I'm blown away.

5) All I want, as I'm watching, is to see people succeed. I love when Tom or Padma or Gail or Emeril tosses one of the chefs a compliment, and the chef just glows with it.

Back to the competition, I found it interesting that the "critics" were weighted heavily enough that they chose for the judges the top and bottom five chefs, and the judges subsequently couldn't consider anyone in between. But I do think it's probably wise to strike a balance between the judges' expert (and possibly jaded) opinions and those of the non-experts, if food bloggers and critics can be called non-experts.

Amar (meatballs), Jeremy (fish crudo), and Carl (carrot soup) had the judges' favorite dishes from the critics' top choices. The winner in the end was Jeremy, and hoo boy, it's gotta be a great feeling to win the first challenge.

On the bottom end, we had Angelina (goat cheese croquette), Garret (chicken brodo (whatever that is)), and Grayson (also meatballs). I'd thought it was obvious from the commentary that Garret probably wouldn't be going home, because Emeril thought his dish was just fine. Grayson embarrassed herself by reacting defensively to everything the judges said, and (in my opinion) should have been chosen to go home before Garret. I have to wonder if she wasn't kept for the drama potential. But in the end, it was Garret who left, and as always, I'm a bit sad for the chef who didn't get to show us a little more of what they can do.

Tomorrow night ... Part 2!

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