Get out your forks and your sharp, sharp knives, because Top Chef: New York is here, baby! We’ve got a whole new crop of cheftestants who will bring their culinary instincts and skills — not to mention oversized egos, misplaced confidence, annoying habits, delusions of grandeur, nonsensical feuds, and diagnosable personality disorders — to the table. Dig in!
This spoiler hopes the cheftestants won’t have to do all their shopping at Whole Foods this season.
Let’s meet the chefs, and get my first impressions, which are completely unburdened by actual facts.
- Fabio is from Florence. Because I’m a dork, I’m waiting to see if he gets hit in the face with a duck.
- Jamie, from San Francisco, loves the freedom of the kitchen and hates being told what to do. THAT won’t be a problem at all, I’m sure.
- Eugene was born in Hawaii and now works in Las Vegas. He’s never been to culinary school, but instead started out as a dishwasher and worked his way up. I kind of love him.
- Jeff is the Designated Pretty Boy of the season. He’s from Miami, and he lets us know that his food needs to be as perfect as his shiny, shiny hair.
- Radhika is a Chicago girl, so I’m inclined to like her. She’s a first-generation Indian American, and specializes in global small plates. She doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as the Indian-cooking chick.
- Lauren is a Culinary Institute of America (CIA) grad, and her husband is a marine who is currently serving in Iraq.
- Patrick is impossibly young and a current CIA student. He seems like a sweetheart.
- Daniel is from Long Island and … well, he seems like he’s from Long Island. Make of that what you will.
- Ariane is a chef in New Jersey with next to no self-confidence. I can’t imagine she’ll be there long.
- Alex has a Latin background, is familiar with New York, and seems smart and funny. I’m basing that on a throwaway joke about being able to see the Taj Mahal from their swanky apartment.
- Richard wants us to know he’s gay, gay, gay! He wants to know what Padma was wearing, because he’s gay, and his friends are gay. Also, gay.
- Leah has been instructed by her mother not to cry on the show, because if she does, she looks like a little bitch. Someone needs to get a copy of "Free to Be You and Me."
- Carla wants to prove that caterers are just as skilled as chef types. She seems a bit… let’s say vocal. Also, possibly crazy. We’ll see.
- Stefan is a peripatetic Northern European who could be really good, really annoying, or both.
- Hosea, Jill and Melissa… I got nothing. They barely register. Let’s hope they can cook.
The Cheftestants are immediately confronted with a quickfire — one person will be eliminated immediately. It’s a three-stage thing: First, peel 15 apples with a paring knife. The first nine can sit out the rest of the challenge, and the first one to complete the task — Stefan — gets immunity. The remaining chefs have to cut the apples into a brunoise (a small, even, square dice) — two cups worth. All but four then retire from the competition. The final four have 20 minutes to cook something involving those apples that will convince the judges to keep them.
Radhika, who said she didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the Indian chef, does pork with apple chutney. Ohhhhkay. Jill makes scallops with about 18 layers of apple flavor, which seems excessive to me. Lauren and Patrick both do variations on salad, and are in the bottom two. Patrick worries – I’ve just reconnected with my former classmate, and I would hate for her to go home! Lauren immediately starts looking for a bus to shove Patrick underneath. No dice — Lauren gets booted.
The elimination challenge
The chefs are paired up, given different neighborhoods in the city, and instructed to create dishes inspired by the foods of those neighborhoods. Those dishes will go head-to-head before the judges.
Now, New York is lousy with intricately segmented ethnic food hotbeds — I half expected to see someone sent to the Slovakian Pastry neighborhood, or the block and a half that is known for the desert cuisines of Mongolia. The producers are kinder than I am — the neighborhoods all revolve around pretty major, well-known cuisines.
Jamie and Richard are sent to Astoria, which is knows for Greek food. Hosea and Carla end up in Brighton Beach, the Russian hotbed. Ariane and Stefan go to Long island City, for
Gossip Girl filming Middle Eastern food. Fabio and Jeff are assigned Ozone Park, for Latin food. Radhika and Jill go to Queens for Jamaican food. Then there are the neighborhoods that are obvious: Leah and Melissa end up in Little Italy, Patrick and Daniel get Chinatown, and Alex and Eugene have Little India.
Jeff gets moderately cocky — I’m from Miami! I know Latin food cold, while Fabio is a silly foreigner! That doesn’t stop Jeff from completely misjudging his time and ending up leaving a bunch of food off the plate, and dumping other food on by the ladleful. Ariane is immediately out of her element — wait, the Middle East has a cuisine? Who knew! – and has no clue what to do. Carla wants her spirit guide to tell her what to cook. I hope her spirit guide knows a bit about dried fish and caviar.
Melissa talks about the exotic nature of Italian food, which makes me worry — come on, it’s one of the most well known cuisines in the country! But the prize for cluelessness goes to Patrick, who announces that he’s taking a class in the cuisines of Asia, and therefore knows plenty about Chinese cooking. Dude — Asia. It’s a continent. It’s big, and there are lots of cuisines. Hell, China is big and has lots of cuisines. You know nothing.
The guest judge is Jean-George Vongerichten, and holy crap, if that’s the caliber of the folks they’ll have visiting, we’re in for one hell of a show. Here’s how it goes:
Battle Long Island City
Both Ariane and Stefan go with lamb, but Ariane’s is accompanied by seriously undercooked farro, while Stefan’s is perfectly cooked and seasoned with a hint of cinnamon. Stefan wins.
Richard presents lamb sliders with an orzo feta pasta salad. Alas, his lamb is overcooked. Jamie wins with her seared sea bass on eggplant pure accompanied by a deconstructed Greek salad.
It’s Jamaican food, so jerk seasoning abounds. Jill’s jerk scallops are slightly overcooked, but Radhika’s halibut, rice and salsa were mushy. Jill wins.
Battle Ozone Park
Fabio fears for his English, so he has to read off his menu, which makes Tom incredulous. His pork with mango and jalapeño demiglace is good, but needs salt. The knife skills he showed shaving down the avocado for the salad were unfortunately overshadowed by the mushroom glop on top of it. Jeff’s plating is awful, but his pork tenderloin with Cuban coffee is delicious, so he wins.
Battle Brighton Beach
Hosea’s trio of smoked fish with various cream-type accompaniments impresses — the words "culinary eloquence" are used — but Clara’s spirit guide failed her by not urging her to use more salt.
Battle Little Italy
No contest — Leah knows new Italian food well, and her seared snapper with farro risotto is lovely. Melissa’s seared rib eye needed — you guessed it — better seasoning.
Neither competitor comes out well. Daniel presents a poached chicken salad with ginger that looks like something Wolfgang Puck has been doing for the last 20 years, and his plate is watery. Plus, he used a foam, so, pretension alert! But Patrick’s black rice noodles are gummy, his salmon is nothing to write home about, and his flavors are one note. Daniel squeaks by.
Battle Little India
Alex thinks he’s got a lock on this one as Latin and Indian cuisines are so similar. Um, really? They both use spice, but other than that… Still, the judges like his grilled lamb with spicy ragout. Eugene fears the worst — will the judges like his masala-rubbed lamb with macadamia and basmati tzatziki? He knows nothing about Indian food! Padma tells him he didn’t make tzatziki, but he totally lucked into making a classic Indian dish of curds and rice. She’s impressed. Eugene wins.
The judging table
The judges pick Stefan, Eugene and Leah as the top three, and give Stefan the win. Stefan thinks this bodes well – after all, in all but one season, the winner of the first challenge ended up winning the whole shebang. He thinks it’s about time a European took the title.
Patrick and Ariane are on the chopping block. Arian doesn’t do herself any favors when she talks about how little she knows of the cuisine — she lives right across the river in New Jersey! She can come to New York and eat her way around the world any time! Ariane thinks she’s got cookbooks, so she doesn’t need to actually try things. Wrong answer! Plus, it’s unforgivable not to know how to cook farro.
Patrick is faulted for doing an almost cartoon version of Chinese food — "So, putting bok choy on a plate would be Chinese food?" Vongerichten asks. Ouch. There was no inspiration with his dish. Patrick gets the boot, while Ariane lives to stress out another day.
Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends
- Richard takes a slice out of his thumb during the apple-peeling challenge. His apples are speckled with blood. It’s pretty disgusting. Still, he gets through the challenge, and hopefully gets a tetanus sot.
- Cheftestant Central is pretty sweet. Do any of you New Yorkers know what part of town they’re staying in?
- Fabio and Stefan immediately start bonding as Europeans — and immediately start pissing the rest of the cheftestants off. Daniel, in particular, really seems to hate Stefan. I’m half expecting Daniel to start chanting U.S.A! U.S.A! out of spite.
- Patrick, Jamie and Richard make up Team Rainbow — they’re the only gay folks in the house. I’ve apparently spent too much time watching another Bravo reality juggernaut, because my first reaction was "That can’t be true — there’s NEVER more than one straight guy on the show! Oh, wait, that’s Project Runway…"
- Dear Stefan — I kind of think vinaigrette IS an emulsion, as it’s a mixture of two unblendable liquids. Chefs? Will you weigh in?
- Richard reacts to meeting Tom: "I think Tom’s really cute. He’s got great eyes….I’d buy him a drink if I saw him in a bar. Hell, I’d buy him three." I wonder what the folks from Amuse Biatch will make of that play for Papa Bear…