Welcome back to Top Chef. Some things appear to have stayed the same: Crocs! Rampaging egos! Bad culinary puns (“Eric Ripert joins our culinary Supreme Court,” har har)! Copious hostess cleavage! Others have changed: Where once there were Glad bags, now there is Dial NutriSkin. Where once there were blackjack tables and champagne rooms, now there are policy wonks and cherry blossoms.
After treating us to rapidly cross-cut shots of government buildings and people in suits, last night’s premiere got right down to business. There were rudimentary introductions to this season’s contestants that showcased their confidence levels, their ruthless ambition, and, in Arnold’s case, a choice to get a facial and hire a wardrobe stylist.
Our very own Angelo Sosa, meanwhile, is apparently here to do justice to his own monstrously engorged ego, first proclaiming his intentions to win every last stinking challenge and then informing a fellow contestant that he was just in Monte Carlo last week. Well, at least we know who isn’t minding the store at Xie Xie.
The chefs were assembled on a rooftop, where they were joined by Tom, Padma, and Eric, who looked mind-bendingly suave in his Beltway schmattes. Their first Quickfire Challenge was reminiscent of last season’s bloody oyster shucking competition: The chefs had to peel 10 potatoes, brunoise 10 cups of onions, hack four chickens into eight parts, and then use the ingredients to cook something. The first to do it all would get $20,000 (“furnished by Dial NutriSkin”) for his or her trouble. The humble tuber quickly foiled many a competitor: Amanda sliced open her hand, while Tracy wanted to fall off the building.
Kenny, Kevin, Tim, and Angelo all made it to the finals, with Kenny displaying Bionic Man-like speed. Despite Kevin’s dreams to use the money for a down payment on a house, it ultimately went to Angelo, who won over the judges with roasted chicken wings served with the Thai onion jam he makes at Xie Xie. Any admiration we might have had for his prowess was quickly smothered by a subsequent shot of him wearing a sideways baseball cap, looking like he was headed to a butthead summit on the other side of the Mall.
Angelo, Tim, Kenny, and Kevin got to pick their competitors for the Elimination Challenge, a task that brought everyone right back to elementary school kickball. One chef in each group would be up for a win, and one would be up for elimination. All of the chefs would be cooking a dish inspired by where they came from, and they’d be cooking it for a party that had something to do with the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Then it was off to Whole Foods, where everyone crowded around the meat counter, gesticulating wildly. Almost everybody, that is: John, who looked like he’d wandered in from Burning Man but had in fact come from the Detroit suburbs, picked up a few packages of Dufour puff pastry, reasoning that it was a sound choice because “The New York Times says it’s good.” At this point, little question remained over who would be going home at the end of the episode, but it was difficult not to hold out hope that somehow this creature would endure, if only so he could show us how he cultivates the acres of marijuana he is clearly growing in his dreadlocks.
Only 24 minutes into the show, the audience was asked if Angelo was too cocky for his own good. Clearly, he’s going to be around for a while.
Off to the GE Monogram Kitchen! Through a haze of sizzling animal parts, we learned that Jacqueline, who’s also representing New York, was going to put the “moron” in “oxymoron” by making low-fat chicken mousse. Friendly alien John was going to use his store-bought puff pastry to commit the mortal Top Chef sin of making dessert because “maple was running through the trees” of his home state. Tracy from Atlanta decided to make grits, and also to call Stephen from Ohio “a little hick from this little country town.”
Finally, it was time for the Cherry Blossom thing, which took place in a huge hall whose high ceilings could barely contain all of the chefs’ ruthless ambition. A bunch of Waspy types and a lost-looking reality TV show refugee showed up, as did Tom, Eric, Padma, and Gail.
The judges quickly dissed Amanda’s Wolfgang Puck tribute of red snapper carpaccio, with Tom making the withering observation that “I always thought Wolfgang seasoned his food a little better than this.” Amanda’s sins were no match for those of Jacqueline’s Weight Watchers chicken livers, John’s saccharine-sweet maple mousse, Stephen’s overcooked rib eye, and Tim’s rockfish, which he’d made the mistake of searing with its thick skin on.
At the sweeter end of the lollipop stick were Angelo, Alex, Kenny, and Kevin. At the judges’ table, Angelo was praised for his Connecticut-inspired artic char with pickled shallots, Colorado Kenny won raves for his cinnamon-coffee rubbed trout with black bean mole, Kevin got plaudits for his Pennsylvania lamb with Meyer lemon-pistachio marmalade, and Alex was lauded for his success in deconstructing his Russian mother’s borscht.
Although 74 percent of voters thought that Angelo was indeed far too cocky for his own good, the judges rewarded his arrogance by declaring him the episode’s victor. Angelo got the additional privilege of announcing who would go up before the firing squad, and so Jacqueline, John, Tim, and Stephen were dispatched to face their fate.
Although Jacqueline committed the unpardonable sin of feeding, as she said, “grainy textured pâté to one of the best French chefs in the world,” the judges ultimately gave her a pass, presumably in part because the show’s sponsors are more partial to tall, blond lady contestants than they are to bony, bespectacled dudes who may harbor thriving ecosystems in their hair.
And so John learned a lesson that any casual viewer of past seasons of Top Chef long ago took to heart: Never, ever make dessert. There may be maple flowing through the trees of Michigan, but the blood that flows through the veins of the judges is as icy as Lake Superior in January.
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