At the Eater Top Chef panel last month, the show’s culinary consultant, Lee Anne Wong, promised the audience that this season would “blow smoke out of your ears.” While our ears remain uncharred, last night’s episode certainly provided kindling for what could (hopefully) turn out to be a three-alarm blaze. Because while this season bears the predictable hallmarks of Top Chef seasons past — the fauxhawks, the tatts, Padma’s cleavage, at least one contestant who’s primed to wear the Designated Asshole tiara — it’s already upped the ante, both in the Questionable Personal Grooming category and in the Things You Should Serve the Judges Only if You Absolutely Want to Go Home First category (wheat gluten, anyone?).
But more on that in a minute.
As Wong promised, this season’s 17 contestants are an accomplished bunch: there’s a Beard nominee, a Beard winner, a former Le Bernardin sous chef, and a Michelin star recipient. Almost everyone’s got attitude up the toque, whether it’s Bryan and Michael, the brothers
who aren’t shy about wanting to kick each other’s ass in competition; Jen C., the former Le Bernardin sous who brags that she’s made plenty of boys cry in the kitchen; or Mike, the aforementioned Designated Asshole contender who scoffs of one female contestant’s decision to abstain from the Quickfire Challenge, “that’s one less old lady that I have to worry about.”
And where past seasons have given us plenty of questionable tattoos, piercings, and sartorial choices, this one outdoes itself. On one end of the spectrum there’s Mattin, a French chef who looks like Tintin and wears a red kerchief tied, cape-like, around his skinny neck. On the other there’s Jen Z., who sports both chest tattoos and earlobes stretched wide enough to double as golf ball cozies. You can imagine the decision-making process that resulted in Jen’s Top Chef promo photo, which shows her with her hair conspicuously down, all but plastered to the sides of her head. No earlobes here!
This season’s Vegas setting figured into both of last night’s challenges: The Quickfire Challenge was presented by a phalanx of nominally-clad showgirls, and the Elimination Challenge asked the chefs to build a dish based on their vices.
For the former, the chefs were split into four teams who competed against one another to see who could shuck 15 clams, peel 30 spot prawns, shell five lobsters, and butcher two prime rib chops the fastest. It made for a surprisingly tense spectacle: Jen Z. sliced open a finger, while one team had to stand impotently by as they realized too late that one of their teammates had never shucked a clam before. Each contestant then had to make a dish using whatever they had shucked, peeled, shelled, or butchered, with Jen C. emerging victorious with a clam ceviche. “I want to win everything, no matter what,” she crowed, sounding unnervingly like Veruca Salt.
And then it was on to the vice-inspired Elimination Challenge, guest-judged by an impish Wolfgang Puck. Predictably, there were a lot of dishes that used scotch, bourbon, beer, wine, and bacon, though Michael got in a nice visual pun with a Sin City-inspired rack of lamb. Rack. Geddit? Huh huh. Somewhat disappointingly, there was no bad kitchen behavior, though there were some incredulous reactions to some of the chefs’ decisions: When Hector, who proclaimed he “cooks with cojones,” deep-fried a rib-eye steak, Mike responded, with perfect WTF enunciation, “Hector deep fried a steak. In a steakhouse. For Wolfgang Puck. This is a little bit easier than I thought it was going to be.” [
However, deep-frying a steak paled in comparison to Jen Z.’s decision to stuff seitan, or wheat gluten, into a habanero chili. The chili, she explained, illustrated her hot temper. And the seitan? “I work with this stuff all the time, so I feel confident using it,” she said as she blithely crammed the pallid gray chunks into the enormous pepper. Her fellow contestants weren’t so sure. “Why cook with seitan? Nobody [bleeping] likes that stuff,” exclaimed Kevin, who was slow-cooking some artic char to represent the vice of procrastination. “It’s yuck.”
Ah, prophecy. There may be few certainties in life, but one is this: Serving seitan to a panel of carnivorous cooking show judges will all but guarantee that Bravo buys you a plane ticket home.
Still, despite this more or less forgone conclusion, there was plenty of entertainment to be found at the judges’ table, where, as always, the misses provided more viewing enjoyment than the hits. Puck, who was joined by Padma, Tom, and Gail, went into reveries over Jen C.’s poached halibut with whiskey-bourbon-scotch sauce, Kevin’s arctic char, Mike’s olive oil-poached halibut, and Ron’s jerk bass with collard greens and Haitian hash. Kevin was the big winner; with his jolly grin and big bushy beard, he looked a little like a punch-drunk garden gnome.
Less successful were wishy-washy Eve’s overcooked shrimp and scallops in a bland curry sauce, Jesse’s dried out chicken, Hector’s deep-fried steak, and, yes, Jen Z.’s chili relleno. When the lumpy, oversized stuffed pepper was placed in front of her, Padma looked like she’d just been served a steaming turd. The judges’ reactions were no less subdued: “If you cooked this at home, these people would never visit you again,” said Puck. “That thing wasn’t seasoned and wasn’t cooked right,” Tom said, seeming almost personally affronted. “It would have been terrible no matter what she used.” “It’s like a vegan bar’s midnight special,” Padma sniffed.
Jen Z., however, was not receptive to the judges’ criticism. “I definitely disagree with you,” she said in response to Gail’s complaint that the dish was “clunky” and lacked heat. Using seitan, she explained, was her way to make a “grand entrance” – which, Tom retorted, “didn’t impress anyone up here.” While the other chefs seemed to understand their errors, Jen Z. remained unrepentant, making the judges’ decision that much easier. Maybe it’s our imagination, but Padma seemed to take particular delight in sending Jen off to pack her knives. Lord knows, no one serves Padma vegan bar slop and gets away with it.
But maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh on poor Jen, who afterward sobbed, “I tried to do something new.” After all, Seitan made her do it.