Top Chef Texas: Episode 1, “It’s Bigger in Texas”

This is only half an episode, the first half of “whittle down from 29 to 16.” I feel cheated. They should’ve warned us. But I’m not sure I would’ve wanted the episode expanded, either: meeting 19 is bad enough. If you’re not sure what’s going on, check the Preview. ‘Cause I’m not gonna say it again. This is what slogging through that nightmare of Project Runway has done to me: I’m not putting up with any more crap.

They meet at the Alamo. Padma, who’s dieted-and-exercised away the baby-lusciousness she had in DC and All-Stars, greets them. They were chosen from over a thousand chefs, and, surprise, they’ll compete in three groups to earn one of sixteen spots. Three judges for each group, and majority rules. They’ll either be in, be out, or be on the bubble and have to cook again if fewer than 16 chefs are in. In his blog, Tom talks about how different this is from their usual procedure (and how hot it was; he also fluffs up Emeril’s Food Network reputation).

We have grousing; Keith can’t believe he’s not part of the top 16 yet. Molly is more emphatic: “This is f#^#ed up, I don’t want to have to be cooking for that spot.” Molly, honey, you’ll be cooking for that spot every week, that’s what this is, a competition. Whiney sucky babies™ (I told ya, not takin’ no crap).

Chris Crary thinks Padma looks hot. He probably thinks that’s a clever way to introduce himself. He is wrong. Chris Jones and Richie are colleagues at the same restaurant; that could be interesting. Tyler Stone is 22 and knows how arrogant he comes across (his video is a takeoff on James Bond, for heaven’s sake) but hey, he wrote a cookbook in three and a half weeks when he was 18, he’s as good as they are at half their age, what can he say, he’s good, even if he does say so himself. He’s on my shit list. No crap, boy, I warned ya.

Group 1, front and center. Padma introduces Tom and Emeril. They’ll have to cook different cuts of a pig. It’s already butchered into semi-primals; since some primals contain multiple cuts, they’ll have to butcher it down themselves. They have an hour to figure out who is doing what, butcher, and cook.

Grayson, who is “between jobs,” picks the tenderloin, and Stone, Tyler Stone is doing chops; she lets him do the butchering. He’s fine with that. I hope he cuts off his hand (not takin’ no crap). He cooks for rich celebs and politicians (he’s a personal chef; jeez, wasn’t CJ the last personal chef they let on the show?) so he usually has his own butcher to do this sort of thing for him, but it’s ok, how hard can it be? And you know what happens: he has no idea what he’s doing. The tenderloin gets shredded. Tom watches him make a mess of things. He has more excuses and slippery comments than one of his politician clients: he’s never butchered this big a piece before, he doesn’t work with pig a lot, blah blah, “I’m a chef, not a butcher,” but that doesn’t fly, and Tom and tells him to leave. Poor Tyler, Chef to the Stars, is stunned. Of course, Tom has made a mistake, because he didn’t get to taste his perfect pork chops: “I know where I’m going, and it’s straight to the top.” Yeah, yeah, kid, move along. ETA: poor kid’s getting hammered on his Facebook page. I almost feel sorry for him. Almost. Except – he’s the one that brought in the crap. And he’s still trying to spin it into gold.

After what went down on what’s left of Project Runway, I’m very happy to see someone tossed for lacking basic skills. I feel better. Maybe Tom isn’t taking no crap, either, and I can relax. Unfortunately, that still leaves Grayson with a tiny little piece of tenderloin.

In other news, Colin is a vegan chef and doesn’t work with pig, so he lets someone else butcher, too. It works out better for him, though, in that he ends up with a serviceable cut. However, he screws up pouring his soup. How do you screw up pouring soup? It ends up all over the plate. He says he lost the tip on the foamer, but he was pouring from a big pot, not a carafe. The judges take one look at it and don’t even bother to taste; Emeril and Tom just tell him to go. At least he got to the serving table. Love it, Tom, keep it up.

Chris J. had pork belly, and made a twist on a caramel apple with candied peanuts. He’s in.
Sarah made pig skin ravioli with roasted corn, tomato and pepito salsa. Now there’s something beyond pork chops. She worked for TCM Tony Mantuano and he sent her to Italy for training; she was inspired by sausage. She’s in.
Molly is the Soup Nazi on a cruise ship, but don’t think she does mass production; she’s fine dining all the way. She does a smoked sweet potato soup with pork cheeks and cilantro lime cream. She’s never done pork cheeks before, only beef. They wanted more cheeks, so she’s on the bubble. She’s miffed, she thought it was a solid dish. That’s a danger sign. Posturing is one thing, but not knowing your dish is weak is another. She seems a little over-confident for a cruise ship chef, even if she does think she’s in fine dining.
Grayson has her duxelle-stuffed tenderloin with haricot vert and hazelnuts; she knows the tenderloin is mostly stuffing. She’s on the bubble. But at least she knew her dish wasn’t right, and it traced back to the bad butchering.
Nyesha makes Tex Mex braised pork shoulder ravioli; she’s in. And I love the way she throws salt sideways. And the judges love her dish.
Heather’s baby back ribs with maple citrus glaze, grits and Maytag blue cheese is satisfying, she’s in. She’s happy, since she just turned 40 and wants to show she can compete with people half her age. I never knew what that meant until I was in my 50s.
Richie made braised and crispy pig ears and onion soup. He’s worried about his “salty palate;” he relies on Chris J to keep him from going over the edge. That doesn’t sound good. But he’s in, though Tom thinks he’s right on the verge of salty.
Simon, self-taught via cookbooks and YouTube, presents a stuffed ham roulade; too much is going on, he’s out. I’m sad, I wanted to see him surprise people.

The Volts do a truly bizarre commercial for a refrigerator with a built-in computer. It’s a good thing they can cook, because they sure can’t act. Where’s my George Saunders collection? I feel the need for some anti-consumerism.

Group 2, your turn. Gail will judge this group with Tom and Padma while Emeril takes a breather. Janine thinks she’s at a wax museum since that seems more normal than to be in the presence of greatness like Gail, Tom and Padma. Does anyone actually go to a wax museum? Ever?

They’re given a selection of favorite ingredients, including sweetbreads, sea urchin, and rabbit. They have to pick one ingredient, and all cook the same ingredient. They have an hour to choose and cook. They end up picking rabbit, as it’s the most versatile. Everyone makes it through Tom’s walkthrough, so things are looking up.

Nina leaves the rabbit off her plate, so she’s [CHOPPED] out before the judges taste anything. Anyway, she’s from Seattle. It’s been a bad night for Seattle, folks.
Whitney makes rabbit sugo (a fancy word for tomato sauce) with tomato, shallot, asparagus, and a bacon garnish. She’s in. Hugh Acheson was her mentor; I wonder how they’re going to handle that, what with him being a judge this season.
Keith learned to cook in prison while he did time for selling drugs; he also was a 2011 James Beard nominee, so he learned well. Now there’s some rehabilitation for ya. His specialty is Southern seafood. But he makes seared rabbit tenderloin and chicken fried rabbit with yukon gold hash. Tom asks what he’s thinking; “I’m too big to pass out.” He’s in.
Edward tries to sous vide, but can’t get the vacuseal machine to work; it’s not the model he’s used to. My theory is, if you aren’t familiar enough to use it, you’re better off doing something else. He makes butter poached duo of rabbit, butternut squash puree, cauliflower, broccoli rabe; he knows he undercooked the rabbit, but they think he’s got potential, so he’s bubbled.
Dakota makes a roasted rabbit saddle crepinette with mushrooms, leeks, and bulgur wheat. She’s in.
Ty-Lör has confit of rabbit leg marinated in fish sauce with pickled cucumber, garlic and mint. He’s in. He worked for Heather for a couple of years as her executive sous chef, so there’s another pair of coworkers.
Chris Crary does a duo of rabbit leg confit with tenderloin over carrot polenta; he’s in.
Chuy makes a rabbit loin with cashew pipian and grilled zucchini; Tom likes the heat building, he’s in. Which is good, since he’s Rick Bayless’ protégé.
Janine makes rabbit nuggets and saltimboca with mushroom hash; she runs out of time before she can put the sauce on the plate. They put her in the bubble group.

Fabio is giving first-date advice on an ad for some dating service. Don’t use parsley, it gets on your teeth. Don’t have more than one glass of wine. Yeah, sure, when you are at the restaurant, be sure to tell the waiter, “No parsley,” that’ll impress your date. And no one can get through a first date on one glass of wine. And Fabio, since when did you become an expert on dating, before or after your divorce? (No Crap) There’s also something about Casey inventing basil for frozen diet meals.

The four bubble chefs discover they have something in common: no visible tattoos (though some have tats covered by clothing). One starts drawing on his arm. The “in” chefs start a Chicago gang, since so many are from there.

Next week, I’m guessing we get Group 3 and the Bubble Chefs.

First impressions: I don’t really see any jerks standing out so far (except for the guy who got butchered), which is a good thing. Molly might be a jerk, but I don’t think the bubble people have much of a shot so I’m not gonna worry about them. I like Nyesha based purely on her salt-throwing style. Good enough reason, isn’t it? I like the Richie-ChrisJ vibe. Any protégé of Rick Bayless, a la Chuy, is probably cool. I love that Keith really wanted the group to choose seafood but he took rabbit without bitching and moaning and turned it into something good, and that he first learned to cook in prison. See, I do have a heart, when turning your life around is accompanied by chops. Oh, and I don’t like the whole “handing out chef’s jackets” thing, it smacks of those awful Fox shows.

So far, we have:

OUT: Looks like Seattle is not the place to go for dinner.
· Tyler Stone, 22 – Sacramento, Calif., Personal Chef
· Colin Patterson, 37 – Seattle, Wash., Sutra
· Simon Pantet, 30 – Seattle, Wash., Twenty-Two Doors
· Nina Vicente, 29 – Seattle, Wash., Spur Gastropub

IN: Good night for Chicago.
· Nyesha Arrington, 28 – Los Angeles, Calif., Wilshire Restaurant.
· Ty-Lör Boring, 34 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Spasso.
· Chris Crary, 29 – Los Angeles, Calif., Whist Restaurant in the Viceroy Hotel
· Richie Farina, 28 – Chicago, Ill., MOTO
· Sarah Grueneberg, 29 – Chicago, Ill., Spiaggia
· Chris Jones, 30 – Chicago, Ill., MOTO
Heather Terhune, 40 – Chicago, Ill, Sable.
· Whitney Otawka, 30 – Cumberland Island, Ga., Greyfield Inn
· Keith Rhodes, 39 – Wilmington, N.C., Catch Restaurants
· Chuy Valencia, 25 – Chicago, Ill., Chilam Bilam
· Dakota Weiss, 35 – Los Angeles, Calif., 9:30 Restaurant and The Backyard

BUBBLE PEOPLE: Only 5 spots left, and with 10 contestants in Group 3 who haven’t cooked yet; do the bubble people have a chance?
· Molly Brandt, 30 – Hollywood, Fla., Allure of the Seas for Royal Caribbean
· Janine Falvo, 37 – Atlanta, Ga., Briza Restaurant
· Edward Lee, 38 – Louisville, Ky., 610 Magnolia
· Grayson Schmitz, 27 – New York, N.Y., Exec. Chef

And their fate to be decided next week:
· Lindsay Autry, 29 – West Palm Beach, Fla., Omphoy Ocean Resort &Michelle Bernstein
· Jonathan Baltazar, 36 – Long Beach, Calif., Heights Cuisine.
· Chaz Brown, 29 – New York, N.Y., Fatty Crab
· Kimberly Calichio, 27 – New York, N.Y., Fishtail by David Burke
· Beverly Kim, 31 – Chicago, Ill., Aria Restaurant
· Andrew Curren, 32 – Austin, Texas , 24 Diner
· Berenice deAraujo, 33 – Miami, Fla., Sra. Martinez
· Laurent Quenioux, 51 – Los Angeles, Calif., Vertical Wine Bistro
· Paul Qui, 30 – Austin, Texas, Uchiko Restaurant
· Ashley Villaluz, 25 – Seattle, Wash., Sous Chef

I can’t wait to see more inflated egos cut down to size. No crap. Not this time.

ETA: How cool is this – Food Network just aired a “sneak peek” of their new show “Chef Hunters” featuring three chefs applying for the Exec position at The Wilshire, one of whom of course was Nyesha. Since Nyesha has already been credited as the exec at The Wilshire, it wasn’t all that suspenseful, but it was nice to see her cooking. Her main weakness was her initial shyness (she took the note from the headhunter who arranged the gig and perked right up, which is a skill in itself) and a lack of business experience, which is irrelevant on Top Chef. Funny how cooking is suddenly becoming such a glamour job. Seems like every chef in the country is on tv.

One response to “Top Chef Texas: Episode 1, “It’s Bigger in Texas”

  1. Pingback: Top Chef Texas: Episode 17 – Finale « A Just Recompense

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