Last night’s premiere began with a montage of all the drama that would come this season. Then, as if we were flashing back to a more innocent time–before the deadly virus wiped out much of the population, before the vampires attacked, before the ice caps melted, before nuclear holocaust–the words “present day” flashed on the screen against an aerial shot of Manhattan’s gleaming skyscrapers.
White is presented as a cooking Christ figure. We’re told about his Michelin stars, how he trained Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay, and how he hosts Hell’s Kitchen in the UK (with far more grace and class than Ramsay, it’s implied). Now he’s here to teach 16 sad saps (eight couples) how to do the impossible: open a restaurant in New York City and maybe, just maybe, save the world as we know it.
The winning couple will get a quarter of a million dollars (2.5 times what a Top Chef gets over at sister-network Bravo), some meals in White’s restaurants in Europe, and a “state of the art” kitchen.
Some may call Tom Colicchio “the Don” but he seems like Fredo the clown when compared to the show’s treatment of White. When he’s not shown walking across a bridge like Jesus, a ray of light behind while a voiceover pronounces “one man will guide them on their journey,” White is sitting in a dark room in a club chair like the Godfather. From such a testimonial perch, he makes dark pronouncements about the restaurant industry, but he might as well be talking about justice as a gift on his daughter’s wedding day.
With White so extalted and with such a grave tone, the cheftestants and their food feel a bit inconsequential. Last night’s episode was a bit of a blur. The cheftestants were divided into two teams, each given a littered wasteland of a restaurant space (again the apocalypse) to turn into a restaurant within an impossibly short span of time. They had 15 minutes to shop out of the back of an 18-wheeler, a conceit that made us hunger for the halcycon days of trips to the Whole Foods with Top Cheftestants.
There were crab cakes and filets. Fights between the front of the house and the back broke out. The Atlantic‘s Corby Kummer, he of the cupcake intellectualization, served as the guest critic for this week, visiting both team’s restaurants and pronouncing a winner. White was then left to choose who from the losing team would be sent home, but oh, there was a surprise that wasn’t all that interesting. What Top Chef gets right, and what it took from the success of Project Runway, is that the judging can and should be the most interesting part of the show. Here there’s no deliberation amongst a team of judge’s, just a single dull pronouncmenet.
Of the eight cheftestant pairs, Lisa stands out the most. She recently lost a few fingers to a food processor, her teammate on the show is her ex-husband, she seems to know what she’s doing. Michael makes a mean beurre blanc, and also seems like one to watch. Then there’s an Italian American dude and his wife, two pretty sisters from California who don’t seem long for the show, and some others. It doesn’t really matter. This is White’s show, not theirs, and while he certainly screams and belittles far less than Ramsay, there’s still plenty of his ego splashed across the screen.