Welcome back Top Chef, the real version. You have been sorely missed. I still must watch the end of Masters, but 2+ hours of Top Chef falling on the same day as a late night at work was a killer. Regardless, welcome back to Tom, Gail and the goddess herself, Padma. No more Bert, Jay and the other Gael. No more NotPadma. This is the real deal, folks, savor it.
First episodes of Top Chef are hard to sum up because there are new people to meet and lots of dishes to describe. Let me just point out a couple of main points before diving straight into the nitty gritty:
1 – Top Chef has upped the ante. The prize money has gone up to $125,000 to the winner. Also, similar to the Mat Prizes on The Amazing Race, the Quickfires have a new twist. There is now a cook-off in the Quickfire for cash prizes – in this case, $15,000. Not sure if the other twist is going to happen each week as the random winner of immunity gets the option of giving it up for a shot at the prize. I like the first part of the twist, but I hope they don’t do random immunity each week.
2 – I’m not sure if there has been a real “hero” emerging just yet, but boy, I think we have a couple of villains already. Mike is not going to have many female fans this year if his performance in this episode is any indication. I haven’t seen that much disrespect of women since I watched a VH-1 dating show. Jennifer could be Mirror Mike if her “making boys cry” comment is any indication.
3 – For a while, I was confused, as I wasn’t sure if I was watching Top Chef or Las Vegas Ink. It seems that every contestant has a tattoo or 80 this year. Jen Z wins the Jeffrey Sebelius Award for throat tattoos.
4 – There seem to be several ringers this season. Kevin, Bryan, Misogynist Mike, and Hector all are award nominees. Jennifer is an Eric Ripert protege for goodness sake.
5 – Lastly, I think these chefs need to stop using the word “vice.” To quote Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think it means what you think it means.” I mean, Ron thinks escaping from Haiti is a vice? Michael considers plastic surgery by other people to be his worst vice?
Kevin Gillespie – From Atlanta’s Woodfire Grill. He ditched a full MIT scholarship for cooking school and he looks like Mark McGwire’s second cousin. I also love that the James Beard Award Nominee has a beard. Reminds me of how the ZZ Top member without a beard’s last name is Beard.
Preeti Mistry – Exec Chef at Bon Appetit Mangement Co. And not for the last time, I cannot clearly tell you the gender of this person.
Ron Duprat - Exec Chef at Latitudes Beach Cafe in Hollywood. He is a Haitian refugee who looks exactly like Michael Clarke Duncan, who played Kingpin in Daredevil.
Mattin Noblia – Owner of Iluna Basque in San Francisco. He is French and has a fauxhawk. So he is one part Fabio and one part Blais. He is Flais.
Eli Kirshtein – Exec Chef at Eno in Atlanta. He was also Blais’ former sous chef, so watch out for him.
Ash Fulk – Sous Chef at Trestle on Tenth in NYC, and owner of the coolest name in the competition.
Jesse Sandlin – Exec Chef at Abacrombie Fine Foods. She is not formally trained and adds piercings to this season’s tattoos.
Jennifer Zavala – Exec Chef at El Camino Real. She has the aforementioned throat tattoo and an incredibly adorable three-year-old boy. Speaking as one who has one of those as well – the boy, not the throat tat – I was rooting for her a bit. That turned out badly.
Jennifer Carroll – Chef de Cuisine, 10 Arts by Eric Ripert in Philly. She is a self-proclaimed “Friggin Bitch” who has made her share of boys cry. The early favorite to win it all.
Bryan Voltaggio – Owner of Volt in Frederick, Maryland and…his brother … Michael Voltaggio (whose job I never saw), who looks like Tony Hawk. I mean, really, really looks like Tony Hawk.
Mike Isabella – he’s a Rising Culinary Star nominee, and based out of LA. He is Misogynist Mike. We can call him MM.
Ashley Merriman – Exec Chef at Branzino. And another one for whom I cannot figure out the gender. I am certain both Ashley and Preeti are both women … but, man, it could really go the other way. I have to watch old “Pat” episodes to figure out how to best figure it out.
Laurine Wekett – Owner of Left Coast Catering, and first of three to get introduced after the first wave of introductions.
Hector Santiago – One of the James Beard nominees and is a dead ringer for my friend Evan, except he’s Cuban.
Robin Leventhal – Owner of Crave and a cancer survivor. No snark here.