‘Top Chef’ Season 13 Premiere: Are Two Parts Better Than One?

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To thoroughly enjoy the glory that is Top Chef California, please welcome Alison Leiby, who now recaps the two-part season premiere. Spoilers below.

Two is always better than one. That applies to heads solving a problem, glasses of wine in your hand, and, apparently, Top Chef premieres. That’s right, we got two episodes for the price of, well, two. Just one was a day early or something. Who could really say?

This season is showcasing the great state of California. We’re starting in Los Angeles and traveling all over America’s pilates-trained backside until we wind up where it all started a decade ago, San Francisco. Yes, Top Chef has been on the air for ten years, yet oddly we are in the thirteenth season. It’s perfect really, because is there anything more quintessentially California than the math for your age not quite adding up right?

The new class of chefs enter the kitchen to see none other than Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio waiting for them. Renee Kelly is first to introduce herself and is a self-proclaimed “sassy chef.” Sassy is one of the few adjectives that you actually get to call yourself and it’s accurate, unlike its homophonic cousin, classy.

Grayson Schmitz is back after competing in and being eliminated from season nine. She has the attitude of the kid who was held back in school. Kind of like, “Yeah, I totally know all about this because I’ve done it before,” and you want to be like, “If you’re so great then why are you doing it again?”

Padma wastes no time and introduces the first Quickfire Challenge of the season. It’s a Top Chef favorite, the mise-en-place challenge, where the chefs must each choose an ingredient that they have to prep in a large quantity and a short amount of time. First to call for a check is Renee. Tom looks over her station and approves it, so I guess they should change the saying to “fast and sassy wins the race.” Other chefs clock in behind her rounding out the top nine who will move on to compete for immunity from elimination.

For the next leg of the Quickfire, Padma splits them up into teams of three. Those teams must work together to each create one dish that highlights the Californian ingredients they just prepped. There’s a twist — because there always is — and the chefs will cook one at a time for their teams, and during that time the other chefs will be blindfolded.

Because the other chefs can’t see or hear what is going on, the one cooking needs to be very clear and explicit about what they want to happen next. This becomes a huge problem for the red team. Jason Stratton tosses some chicken wings on the grill as back-up just in case down the line the other elements of the dish fall apart. When Jeremy Ford tags in, he doesn’t pay attention to the wings and pops the chicken breasts in the oven. While the oven is a great place for chicken normally, it’s not when the person who has to pick up where you left off is blind and deaf to what you just did and doesn’t even know to check there. When Wesley True (whose name sounds like he’s a southern lawyer from a John Grisham novel) comes in to finish things up for the red team, he completely misses the chicken in the oven and goes straight to the half burned half raw wings that have been sitting on the grill since Jason was cooking.

The winner of the challenge and immunity from elimination is the blue team of Renee, Frances Tariga-Weshnak, and Amar Santana, for their sweet and sour chicken with citrus marinade slaw.

Padma explains that for this first part of the elimination challenge, the chefs must cook for 200 VIPs at a Dine Hollywood showcase. The only condition for the challenge is that they cook something that makes them stand out and that represents their cooking style. Food critics and reviewers from across the city will be in attendance and rating the chefs. Their scores will determine the top and bottom of the bunch, and from there, the judges will decide who wins and who has to pack their knives and go. Joining Tom and Padma are future-Alison-Leiby-best-friends-even-though-they-don’t-know-it-yet Gail Simmons and Emeril Lagasse.

With $500 each, the chefs hit Whole Foods. I know I make this joke every season, if not every episode, but what on earth can you possibly get at Whole Foods for that amount of money? Three apples and a box of cereal? One and a half kombuchas? A Burt’s Bees lip balm and a used napkin?

“I love food bloggers and critics,” Phillip Frankland Lee lies. He’s from Los Angeles, which I probably didn’t have to tell you, the man bun really took care of that for me. He doesn’t have a dish in mind yet, his strategy is just “to make really yummy food.” What a bold move! Going on a cooking competition show and making food that tastes good? What’s next, you’re going to tell me that Usain Bolt is going to try “running fast” at the next olympics?

Photo: Bravo/Top Chef
Photo: Bravo/Top Chef

Amar is making spicy pork meatballs with everything spice and cream cheese, a dish he describes as being “like a pork bagel.” If I were a Jew who kept Kosher, I would feel conflicted about this. But since I’m the kind of Jew that like, takes off for the high holidays but just to sleep in and watch a Fargo marathon while eating shrimp cocktail, I’m VERY on board.

Garret Fleming starts to describe his dish but uses the phrases “gustatory aesthetics” and “manifestation of cuisine,” so I missed what he is actually making because I had to go lie in my bathtub for an hour to decompress.

At the venue, Phillip plans to smoke his goat milk cheese over dried grass he found. In his restaurant, he apparently does this tableside over hay. Is hay the same as dried grass? Is that what Rapunzel spun into gold? Or was that straw? Is straw hay? Are they all dried grass? Seriously, someone help me here, I’m spiraling.

Gail and Emeril love Isaac Toups’s shrimp court-bouillon, which is good for him since he worked under Emeril for a decade. Other highlights for the two are Kwame Onwuachi’s spicy romaine mah haw with shrimp, pork, charred pineapple, and peanuts and Karen Akunowicz’s salmon and apple tartare with pomegranate.

Padma and Tom seem to encounter a few more missteps than my best friends in training. Angelina Bastidas’s goat cheese croquettes with smoked romesco and caramelized parsnip puree fail in both texture and execution as the croquette is soggy and overwhelmed by the sauces. To be fair, she’s 24 years old. At 24, I was living off of chips and Diet Coke and still on my parents’ cell phone plan. At 31 I do still eat a lot of “chip dinners” and am on the family plan, but now I’m also more cynical. Progress!

Padma and Tom also had trouble with Garret’s Vietnamese chicken brodo and its severely burnt garlic. Gail and Emeril each had excellent samples earlier in the day though, so there is an issue with consistency.

Photo: Bravo/Top Chef

Carl Dooley’s spicy carrot soup and Jeremy’s snapper crudo both rated high with all of the judges as well as the other event attendees.

Finally, Padma and Tom get to super-senior Grayson’s station and taste her veal and pork meatball in spicy tomato sauce. It’s…a meatball in tomato sauce. It tastes just fine, but fine like you could get it at any New Jersey red sauce joint or on an average meatball sub in the city. There’s nothing stand-out about it. What is stand-out is her reaction. She yells, “I made 400 balls!” Padma looks back at her, nods and says, “Okay,” and walks away.

At Judges’ Table, Padma calls their top three who are Amar, Jeremy, and Carl. They all loved all of these dishes, but ultimately the freshness and flavor of Jeremy’s crudo make him the winner. The bottom three are Angelina, Grayson, and Garret. Grayson maintains her super defensive attitude about her snoozefest of a meatball dish, but unfortunately Garret is the one sent home for his technical inconsistency.

The next morning back at the apartment everyone is making breakfast and milling around when Renee finds an envelope in the entryway. It’s a note from Padma telling the chefs to meet her up on the roof. Um, is this America’s Next Top Model and was that TYRA MAIL? Is Top Chef going to start doing PADMA MAIL, because I don’t hate that at all.

Padma introduces guest judge Ludo Lefebvre, chef and pop-up restaurateur extraordinaire. Is his specialty desserts? Because he is some serious eye candy (wow, acting like a guy feels amazing). The chefs are split up into four teams that will each start a pop-up restaurant in a different area of Los Angeles focusing on a different type of the city’s varied cuisines. Then the chefs participate in some kind of culinary key party to get access to their respective spaces.

The grey team is Isaac, Marjorie Meek-Bradley, Angelina, and Amar and their cuisine is Persian. Lucky for them, Marjorie has a background in several similar Middle Eastern and Mediterranean styles, so her knowledge combined with their host chef’s direction leaves them all feeling confident once they get their menu together, even Isaac, who was hesitant at first.

Phillip is psyched that his team (orange), which includes Grayson, Renee, and Frances, drew Venice. That’s his ‘hood, so whatever food they’re responsible for should be in his wheelhouse. In this case, that wheelhouse just happens to be vegan food, much to the chagrin of Grayson and the meatball-sized chip on her shoulder coming off of the last challenge. She likes meat, and animal products, and is completely uninspired by all of the lush vegetation around her.

The purple team of Karen, Carl, Jason, and Giselle Wellman finds themselves in Koreatown cooking, well, Korean food. Everyone seems a bit wary of Giselle’s stream of consciousness planning and decision to make spicy chicken wings, a dish she’s eaten many times but never made.

The blue team arrives at their outdoor pop-up and finds they’re cooking Mexican food, a cuisine that usually comes to mind when people talk about eating in southern California. Chad White has an extensive background in Mexican cooking, as does Jeremy, so rather than ask their host chef questions about flavors or ingredients, they’re just like, “Nah, we’re good, bro,” and start planning and shopping.

Padma and the other judges hit the road for their cross-town restaurant crawl. She immediately starts taking selfies from the back seat. Like, cool it, Paddycakes, you’re already being filmed right now, do you need to double down on the images of your annoyingly beautiful face?

Their first stop is Taste of Tehran for the grey team’s Persian pop-up (so much fun alliteration!). They like Amar’s spiced carrot with cauliflower hummus and also are impressed by Isaac’s spicy lamb kabob and meatball. Angelina’s fennel and coriander crusted chicken could have used a little salt but was otherwise flavorful and juicy and an excellent dish. The real stand-out of the meal is Marjorie’s secret weapon, a rosewater orange yogurt mousse with sponge cake. Normally, dessert can be the kiss of death in a challenge like this, but the judges all absolutely love the dish, as well as their overall experience.

Next stop is the Mexican stylings of the blue team. From Chad’s carrots with banana yogurt and carne seca to Jeremy’s grilled steak with poblano and almond puree to Wesley’s chorizo tomato stew, everything is a little off. The execution isn’t quite right in several instances and the flavors aren’t at all true to Mexican cuisine. Kwame’s shrimp a la plancha with masa puree is the saving grace of their makeshift restaurant.

Photo: Bravo/Top Chef
Photo: Bravo/Top Chef

Padma social media sherpas the judges and more diners to the next stop, which is the orange team’s vegan restaurant in Venice. The rich produce of California should have given this team plenty to work with, but unfortunately most of the dishes fell flat. Frances made a tasty chana masala, but she did it with canned chickpeas, which would be like going into Tiffany’s amidst the most luxurious jewelry in the world and being like, “Hey, how much for the blue cardboard box you put the rings in?” Renee’s stuffed beet with dandelion green sauce disappoints the judges in both flavor and texture, and Grayson’s green bean salad is unsurprisingly underwhelming. Phillips cauliflower dish is complicated, but flavorful if not a little fussy given that they are eating at picnic tables outside from disposable dinnerware.

The last stop on the pop-up restaurant express is the purple team’s spot in Koreatown. The judges love Karen’s grilled short rib and its flavorful rub thanks to her last minute red pepper paste addition. They also enjoy the flavors of Carl’s cuttlefish and shrimp salad as well as Jason’s cold noodles in radish broth. And, despite having never made them before, Giselle’s spicy wings and cucumber salad were delicious, if maybe not 100% authentic.

At Judges’ Table, Padma announces that the grey team and their Persian restaurant won the challenge, with the overall winning dish being Marjorie’s dessert. The owner of Taste of Tehran loved it so much that it’s going on the menu of the restaurant.

The worst performing team of the day was the orange team and their attempt at vegan food. It was uninspired, disjointed, and disappointing. Grayson reverted back to her insolent teen angst attitude and blamed the judges for not liking the green bean salad she made that frankly, even I could have made, and I own one knife that I use for everything.

Even though she’s a nightmare, the judges sent home Renee for her dry and muddy beet dish.

But don’t worry, Tom explains both she and Garret have the opportunity to return because Last Chance Kitchen is back. Because what’s a cooking competition television show without a companion cooking competition web show? Man, this will be some season.
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