Top Chef Seattle: Episode 1, The Ultimate Chef Test

There’s no Seattle in Top Chef: Seattle Episode 1.

We’ve got Tom. Of course. Without Tom, there is no Top Chef. We’ve only got Padma in voice-over; maybe she’s still trying to find just the right outfit. And we don’t have Gail at all. We’ve got Emeril, who has in past seasons of Top Chef risen above the idiot level the Food Network made him famous for. We’ve got Wolfgang Puck, who had so much fun throwing a donut in S6, he signed on for a whole season. And we’ve got Hugh Acheson, the Man With The Brow and the Dry Wit to Use It.

But we start the season with an Audition Round, a variation on what they did last season: teams of 5 or 6 chefs meet one of 4 judges at their respective restaurants to perform a task under scrutiny. Some will get a jacket and move on to Seattle; some will go home and forever more (or at least for the next couple of months) be known as the chef who almost was on Top Chef. But don’t get your hopes up: I’ll tell you right now, there’s no Stone… Chef Tyler Stone… (who, for all his self-promotion, lasted all of two minutes) in this episode. But there is a Belgian knight. And the Most Hated Chef in Dallas.

Let’s meet everyone:

Emeril Lagasse challenges his five hopefuls with his ultimate test of culinary skill: soup. Structure, seasoning, depth, ingredients, passion. Soup is not simple. They have one hour to impress him with soup, as well as organization and stamina.

Josh Valentine was chef-owner of Oklahoma City’s Divine Swine, specializing in all things pig (and he even looks like Kevin Gillespie, with an impressively waxed handlebar moustache to rival Kevin’s beard) when his wife got him to first audition for TCS. Now he’s there, and she’s pregnant, due in three weeks. Missing the birth of his first child is one of those sacrifices one makes for fame. Was it worth it? No one knows how much he gets out of it, but he’s since moved on to become pastry chef at a Dallas restaurant, and promises to bring his signature Candied Bacon Sticky Buns with him. I want one, right now. His Roasted Corn & Coconut Soup with Mussels is a little sweet, though the mussels are perfectly cooked; Emeril’s waiting for the chile, waiting, waiting… and there it is. The Moustache is in.

Jeffrey Jew is a Citizen of the World: he’s part Chinese, part Norwegian-German; he’s CIA trained (that’s chef CIA, not spy), has travelled all over, worked in Italy, London, and Washington, uses Asian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, and European influences, and now works… as a personal chef in St. Pete, FL? Ok. He seems focused and just a touch nervous. Because the weather is hot, he’s making Chilled Watermelon & Tomato Gazpacho, Peppers, & Ceviche. Emeril doesn’t believe he can get the soup, bubbling on the stove, cooked in an hour: “You got a chiller in your pocket?” No, he’s just glad to see you. That intimidates Jeffrey, but he spreads it in a hotel pan and puts it in the freezer. Emeril vows to send him home if he serves hot gazpacho. And guess what: it’s cold, it’s lovely, and he’s in.

Kristen Kish was Model Boston of 2007, and she looks it – gorgeous in a seriously classy way. She also went to culinary school and has worked at some pretty high-powered Boston restaurants, so she’s not just a pretty face. She and contestant Stephanie are co-workers (more on that coming up). Emeril asks why she’s poaching her lemon peels three times; she explains it draws out the bitterness (I’ve made candied lemon peel, and that’s exactly what they tell you to do and why; I suppose Emeril is finding out if she knows why or is just following directions she picked up somewhere). She adds the lemon peel, some apple, and a sautéed scallop to her English Pea Broth and calls it a day. The scallops are nicely cooked; Emeril praises the soup as one of the best he’s tasted in a long time, so she’s in.

Stephanie Cmar, also from Boston (she and Kristen worked together at the time of filming), lives in the same apartment building as Kristen, and they have matching tattoos. “A lot of lesbian rumors because of this, which we’re not, just to clarify,” she says. Ok. Emeril isn’t all that impressed with her Cauliflower Soup with Corn, Lobster, & Pea Tendril; he wishes the cauliflower came through more. But he’s only sending people who can win, and while “one of you hit it out of the park, one missed the mark.” Sorry, Stephanie, no jacket for you. Maybe Kristen will let you borrow hers when she gets back from Seattle.

Tina Bourbeau isn’t a restaurant chef; as close as I can figure it, she invents recipes for a New York grocery delivery service, which presumably delivers prepared meals as well. She sees people grabbing blenders so she wants to avoid purees. She goes with Shellfish & Chorizo Soup with Croutons & Garlic Mayonnaise. Emeril finds it garlicy, but the shellfish isn’t overpowered. But still, it just doesn’t cut it, and she’s out.

Wolfgang Puck wants an omelet. It was the culinary test he was given for his first job, and he failed, so as punishment he had to make omelets for the staff dinner, all 80 staff. It’s one way to learn how to cook an omelet. He demos for his brood when they finish cleaning their stations. Back during Food Network Star 2011, demo’d risotto for the clueless (and humiliated) Jyll; maybe it’s in his contract, he’ll guest judge only if he gets to teach something. Just about every omelet had a serious flaw just by looking at it, so it becomes evident Wolfie (I used to have a VW bug I named Wolfie, during my Amadeus period, I loved that car) was told to cut one and only one chef.

Carla Pellegrino seems to want everyone to be impressed that she was once married to Frank Pellegrino, Jr. and that she was the chef at Rao’s (remember the wiseguys dinner on TCAS?) – I guess if hubby can host a TC episode, ex-wife can compete on one. If this is supposed to be one-upmanship, it’s pretty weak. She knows she’s loud, and some people are annoyed by her, so fine, they’re annoyed. She’s annoyed herself that she doesn’t have white pepper. Wolfie complains that her Mediterranean Omelet with Arugula Salad is like a woman with too much makeup, it’s all covered with mushrooms and other crap. Yes, it’s a mess, but an angry Brazillian with Italian connections is no match for an aging Austrian (and the producers are salivating over the Drama she’s going to bring), so he passes her through on the strength of the “juicy vegetables.” Foul, foul, foul.

Eliza Gavin is playing with mushrooms when Wolfie comes by and advises her to add steak to it. So she ends up with Steak & Eggs, NY Strip and a Morel omelet with a fennel-tomato reduction. He calls it complicated and tasty. She’s in.

Chrissy Camba does omelets at her restaurant but is still nervous. She’s Filipino so she goes with that, a “Torta” Omelet with Lobster, Bacon, Caramelized Onion & Fennel. Wolfie likes that she brought her heritage, and it looks pretty good, though it needs a little salt. She gets a jacket anyway.

Kuniko Yagi got bored with Tokyo banking so came to the US and landed a job in a noodle house. The rest, as they say… She has something to prove to her family. Her Chamomile Milk, Morel Mushroom & Ham Omelet is one of the messier ones (“your technique is almost there”), but she’s in.

Tyler Wiard has already bad-mouthed Tom in the past (I’m guessing it’s why he’s on the show) but he’s “an omelet away from Seattle” so he’s going for it. He makes an unholy mess, throwing fingerling and fennel salad on top of his bacon, shallots, asparagus and roasted red pepper (what, were there no other ingredients left?) omelet to cover up the browning. But he’s in anyway.

Daniel O’Brien is “quietly confident” – I can’t figure out his resume (something about a Wu-Tang-Clan-inspired menu) but after he refers to Kuniko as “Origami” I’m not interested in anything he has to say. Fortunately, he quickly makes a mess of things. His omelet is overdone, though it might be ok to eat in the dark. All these disasters are running together, but Daniel is the one on whom the axe falls. He is not pleased. I am.

Hugh Acheson assigns salad. It’s a test he gives his own chefs; there’s space in the world of salad to show skills and explore flavors.

Bart Vandaela is a beer knight. Belgium takes beer seriously: “The knights, also known as le Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs, are descendant from the 400 year old noble order honored for protecting the public and providing quality beer. ” You don’t have to go on a crusade, or rescue a damsel in distress, or even ride a horse. Just serve beer. Now there’s a country for ya. While he’s cooking, Hugh asks if he wears a suit of armor in the kitchen, to which Sir Bart (no, don’t call him that, he says, keep it simple, just Bart the Chef) replies: “No, we don’t.” Ok, it was a stupid, graceless question, but that’s no reason not to have a little fun with it. Then again, he is cooking, so maybe he’ll have a better rejoinder later. It’s a big salad, says Hugh (what’s wrong with Hugh tonight?) of the Spiny Lobster Salad with Beets, Asparagus & Potatoes. “It’s a big boy who made it,” says Bart, which is not much of a comeback improvement. “It’s a lot going on, ” says Hugh. “That’s what we go for,” says Bart, then wonders, “Did I not understand?” But he’s in. They couldn’t send the knight home.

Sheldon Simeon worked his way from dishwasher to Exec in ten years; he hadn’t been off Hawaii until he worked at Disney World, where he snagged a wife and brought her back to the Island. He starts off frying Brussels sprouts, which is fine except, as Hugh points out, the season ended three months ago. Hey, they don’t do seasons in Hawaii. And by the way, they need vinegar. But his Fried Brussels Sprout Salad with Orange Thai Vinaigrette works well enough to earn a chef’s jacket.

Danyele McPherson got a degree in anthropology; when she realized how useless that was, she started cooking. She’s firing tomatoes on the grill, drizzling oil on them while the flames shoot up to the dismay and scorn of everyone in the kitchen; apparently you’re not supposed to do it that way. But Hugh likes her Grilled Watermelon & Tomato Salad with Charred Tomato Vinaigrette (it’s “very Texas”) so he passes her through with a plea not to burn the kitchen down next time she grills veggies.

Brooke Williamson impresses Hugh with her Kale Salad with Brussels Sprout Leaves & Lemon Vinaigrette without getting scolded for out-of-season Brussels Sprouts. And it’s a pretty simple salad, though there’s a beet vinaigrette underneath the lemon-tossed greens. It sounds pretty good, and as she’s sent to pick out a jacket, she realizes, “Wow, I really have a chance of winning this whole thing.”

Gina Keatley is a Movement. And a ferocious tiger who’ll tell anyone to get out of her way. Unfortunately, when the veggies of her sautéed & Grilled Zucchini with Carrots, Pea Sprouts & Balsamic Reduction are overdone, Hugh tells her to Movement herself out of his way.

Tom Colicchio has the most complicated setup: he wants his potentials to work a service in his restaurant, alongside his regular chefs. He wants to see how they move in a kitchen, the skills they have, how they mesh with other chefs, and not only can they cook but can they figure out what it takes to win these competitions.

John Tesar is The Most Hated Chef In Dallas, and don’t you forget it. He’s also, he says, Jimmy Sears of Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, a talented but wild-card chef derailed by drug use. Tom knows him, knows he’s a good chef, but he’s a hothead. Top Chef is one way he’s fighting his way back. He handles the fish so well, Tom sends him through right off the bat. As Hugh tweeted, “We’ve got our villain.”

Lizzie Binder is from South Africa but has also cooked her way around a few continents. She’s smitten by Tom’s blue eyes, as he tells her to stuff and shape some tortellini. “You’ve made tortellini before, I can tell,” he observes. Yeah. She’s in.

Micah Fields treasures attitude. He went from line cook to exec, skipping the sous chef step, so he doesn’t impress Tom with his fish filleting skills. But he handles duck breast much better, and he moves with purpose, so he gets the blue coat. “I have the drive, the hunger, the thirst for blood. ” That’s nice, dear, move along before Tom hears you and changes his mind.

Anthony Gray is Art Smith’s protégé. Talks like him, too. He’s given ducks to butcher, which is just fine with him, but Tom wonders why he’s using a paring knife. That’s just the way it is; for the record, Hugh admits in his blog that he butchers with a paring knife, too. But Anthony’s tentative, hanging back. He gets more confident with the Hamachi, but then slacks up. “You missed the mark. Pack your knives and go.” I guess Padma released her copyright on that line, because everyone’s using it tonight.

Jorel Pierce (Wait – Jorel? Wasn’t there a Jorel on last time? Oh, no, I remember, that’s what MinxEats – hi, Minx! – called Ty-lor. I can’t wait to see what she calls Jorel) has the second waxed handlebar moustache of the night. I don’t think I’ve seen one in a decade or so, and now we have two? Is this a new thing? He’s eager to break down the chickens, seeing as he can butcher a pig with his eyes closed, but unfortunately, he doesn’t ask how Tom wants it done, so he produces boneless breasts when they should’ve been on the bone. He’s sent to make beurre fondue, and it’s salty. Guess what… no go. There will be no dueling handlebars this season.

We’re left with Fifteen Chefs for TC: Seattle. I like this way of introducing the contenders; it’s a head start on figuring out who’s who.

Next Week:

Actually, it’s a This Season on Top Chef montage. They promised us, back to basics. I see things that don’t look that basic. Boy, am I gonna be surly if basic means roller skates, mud, and a snowy plain. What is Curtis Stone doing there, isn’t he foisted on us enough? On the bright side, there’s The Chef in the Hat, Thierry Rautureau.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.