Greetings, “Top Chef” fans and foes! We’re back with another season of Bravo culinary shenanigans — this time, in the Lone Star State. Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons and Padma Lakshmi are back, and joined by Emeril Lagasse and Hugh Acheson as additional semi-permanent/rotating judges. I’m guessing that just like Anthony Bourdain and my boo Eric Ripert in previous seasons, Emeril will only appear in two or three episodes, which is why Acheson is also on the roster.
The show opens with the standard voice-over drivel, chock-full of what feels like 29 Texas cliches, before we see 29 cheftestants walking toward the Alamo (where there is no basement, FYI) to be welcomed by Padma and her tan lines. The chefs are put into three groups to compete for the 16 slots on the show this season. Emeril and Tom greet them in the Top Chef kitchen.
Group 1 has to cook pork — from a pig broken down into its primal cuts. Each cheftestant gets to choose from the loin, back, cheeks, ears, etc., and they’ve got an hour to cook. They’ll be judged on their butchering technique and cooking skills. We’re only a few minutes in, and it’s plain to see the producers have typecast rather well: Arrogance McGee; Squinty Debbie Gibson Lookalike; Insecure Flowing Hair Girl; Nerdy Solid Cook; Tattooed Dude; Vegan McHemp Socks; Mohawk McGillicuddy . . . you get the drill.
Tom and Emeril stroll through the kitchen to see what’s what, and end up booting Arrogance “I Wrote a Cookbook in 3.5 Weeks” McGee who destroyed the pig parts he was supposed to butcher for his team. Kinda ruthless, and also kinda sexy, Chef Colicchio. Could we see more of those kinds of eliminations during the actual competition? The remaining cheftestants cook their dishes, and the usual smack-talk and I-want-to-win-this segments are shown.
Padma, Tom and Emeril are seated at a table in the kitchen, where the chefs will serve them their food. The first group of contestants walks up with plates in hand, and the vegan dude gets sent home before anyone even takes a bite. Apparently, he had a soup-foaming canister mishap that resulted in a gloppy mess all over his plates. Please pack your hacky sack and go.
Before the judges taste the other chefs’ dishes, Padma explains the rules of the road for this preliminary round:
* After the tasting, if two of the three judges like the dish, the chef gets a spot on the show;
* if two of the three judges don’t like the dish, that chef will be sent home; and
* if the judges are undecided, the chef is put “on the bubble,” which means they have to do another challenge to earn a spot on the show.
It’s all very “So You Think You Can Dance” — and new for “Top Chef” — so we’ll see how it goes.
Chris Jones (Moto, Chicago) serves a pork and apple dish that earns him a spot, as does Sarah Grueneberg (Spiaggia, Chicago) with a pig skin ravioli. Up next before the judges are Grayson Schmitz (New York City) with a botched pork tenderloin and Molly Brandt (Royal Caribbean Cruises) with pork cheek, both of whom are put “on the bubble.”
The remaining chefs in Group 1 go before the judges: Heather Terhune (Sable, Chicago) with baby back ribs; Richie Farina (Moto again) with crispy pig ears; and Nyesha Arrington (Wilshire, Los Angeles) with Tex-Mex ravioli — all of whom are in. Simon Pantet (Twenty-Two Doors, Seattle) is out.
Group Two is up next. They swap out Emeril for Simmons, who I adore but who looks like she hemmed her skirt at the last minute with bubble gum or transglutaminase. This group isn’t given a pig. Instead, they have an hour to choose one protein they’ll all work with (from a table of shad, oysters, urchin, sweetbreads, rabbit and others), prep, cook and serve the judges. They seemingly quickly choose rabbit and get to cooking.
Nina Vicente (Spur Gastropub, Seattle) gets booted for not finishing her dish.
Up first for a taste are Whitney Otawka (Greyfield Inn, Cumberland Island, Ga.) with a rabbit-tomato dish, Keith Rhodes (Catch, Wilmington, N.C.) with a rabbit trio and Ed Lee (610 Magnolia, Louisville, Ky.) with butter-poached rabbit. Whitney and Keith get on the show, and Ed is put on the bubble.
The final subset of Group 2 goes before the judges: Janine Falva (Briza, Atlanta) whose rabbit nugget, rack and loin land her on the bubble; Chuy Valencia (Chilam Balam, Chicago) with an adobo-marinated rabbit loin that secures him a spot on the show; Chris Crary (Whist, Santa Monica, Calif.) whose duo of rabbit gets him on the show; Ty-Lor Boring (Spasso, Brooklyn), whose confit rabbit leg nabs him a spot; and Dakota Weiss (9:30 and The Backyard, Los Angeles) whose roasted rabbit saddle crepinettes secure her a spot.
And that’s that. It felt like a nine-hour episode, and none of the dishes made me salivate. It’s too soon to pick my favorites, but if I had to go on my gut reaction to the cheftestants’ confidence (not arrogance), skills, patronage and dishes served tonight? My money is on Nyesha and Sarah making the final four, with one of the Moto guys, and one other person to be determined. And, if Ed Lee makes it off the bubble, he’ll go pretty far and get the “you’ve grown so much” edit.
I’m grateful we made it through one “Top Chef: Texas” episode without a “yee-haw.” Thank you, Bravo.
Up next week: The third and final group of cheftestants moves through the preliminary round to see who will land on the show, followed by the cook-off among those “on the bubble” to see whether any of those folks move into the actual cast. (My bet’s on Ed Lee.) The previews show a lot of cooking, and what looks like a real, honest-to-goodness, gushing-blood injury. Wonder whether Jamie Lauren is watching this season?
Your “Top Chef: Texas” cast (so far):
Chris Jones (Moto, Chicago)
Sarah Grueneberg (Spiaggia, Chicago)
Heather Terhune (Sable, Chicago)
Richie Farina (Moto, Chicago)
Nyesha Arrington (Wilshire, Los Angeles)
Whitney Otawka (Greyfield Inn, Cumberland Island, Ga.)
Keith Rhodes (Catch, Wilmington, N.C.)
Chuy Valencia (Chilam Balam, Chicago)
Chris Crary (Whist, Santa Monica, Calif.)
Ty-Lor Boring (Spasso, Brooklyn)
Dakota Weiss (9:30 and The Backyard, Los Angeles)