Welcome to Season 9 of Top Chef, the dawning of the second chapter of Classic Top Chef following the All-Star season. And the show is coming out of the gate blazing. Taking a page out of Survivor’s playbook, Top Chef messes with its formula a bit to start Season 9. To be honest, I was very skeptical at first, and as it started to progress, I really didn’t care for it.
As the chefs gathered outside of the Alamo in San Antonio, to be surveyed by Padma (man, I never thought my mind could turn the word survey into dirty thoughts), one thing became apparent. Besides the red dress, of course. There were waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too many chefs there. There were 29 of them, and since there is another season of Masters likely waiting in the wings in less than 6 months, there is something amiss in Texas.
What the show has sprung upon these chefs is that they are not on the show – yet. Only 16 of them are – this first episode, and next week’s episode, are serving as play-in games. It also means that either this is a super sized season, or we will be having some double eliminations on the way, as two full episodes are being dedicated to the play ins.
As this episode slowly started to unfold, my skepticism rapidly went right out the window. The intensity and desperation was palpable and it just came at you in intense waves as the first two groups of chefs faced a play-in challenge. Some got in, some failed, while others were given another chance by being sent to “the bubble” where they would get a second play-in challenge to earn whatever slots remain after the first round.
The best part of this – Tom got to be a bad ass. With almost half of the chefs eliminated by next week, patience for errors is nil. The absolute best moment happened within the first 12 minutes of the season. Tom and Super Celebrity Judge Emeril Lagasse have introduced the first groups to their challenge – the ten of them each take a pig part. They must butcher it and make a dish using their part. Tom, Emeril and Padma will judge – you need two of them to like your dish and vote you into the show.
From the first few moments of the episode we meet Tyler, a 22-year-old chef for “celebrities and politicians” and other crap. The kid just oozes smarm and is a recent graduate of the Douchebag Institute of Cooking and Knives (D.I.C.K). He is not lacking in confidence. What he is lacking is butchering skills. He tears into that poor pig carcass like a kid ripping into his Christmas presents. For reality show fans, the amount of tools that he breaks out to cut up this meat reminded me of Amazing Race 2 and Wil using ever tool imaginable except for the correct ones to retrieve the clue from inside the ice cube.
What’s worse, Tyler is also butchering for other people. Simon the Homeless Guy is worried about his ham, but poor Grayson gets even more screwed. Her tenderloin is just obliterated – reduced to about three ounces of meat for her to turn into three plates of food. Tom approaches Tyler to ask him about the meat. Tyler claims to have not had experience cutting up pork and is extremely non-chalant about what just happened. Dude, that pig gave its life – respect it. Tom clearly has no patience for this and ELIMINATES HIM ON THE SPOT. BAM! Gone. Twelve minutes in and Tom has just dispatched the first chef – and it was one who looked to be the most annoying.
Also not presenting from the first group is Colin the Vegan. He hasn’t cooked pork in 10 years. Doomed. What really did him in though was plating. His attempt in the last seconds to pour the soup into the tiny cups was a disaster as two of the plates became soup pools. That’s it for Vegan Man who becomes the second chef to get booted. Two down, 11 more eliminations to go.
Now the others from Group One, and keep in mind, with 29 of them, I really didn’t want to get too invested so some of these names may be off.
Bangs and Glasses – I think his name is Chris, but not sure – Pork Belly – Caramel Apple Stuffed with Braised Pork Belly and Sweet Applesauce – Tom likes the reinvented classic combo and Emeril also signed off. So he is CHEF #1
Sarah – She works for Italian Master Tony from Masters, so she’s got a pedigree – Pig Skin – Pig Skin Ravioli – Mmmm, that sounds so good and so bad for you. Tom thinks she made tough ingredients great and Emeril agreed she pulled it off. So she is CHEF #2
Cruise Ship Molly – Your Yeoman Purser Chef works for a cruise ship , which in this case is not as much of an insult as Simon Cowell thinks it is for singers. She makes Pork Cheek – Smoked Sweet Potato Soup with Pork Cheek and Tequila Cilantro Lime Cream – Tom liked it but thought it needed more flavor, so Molly doesn’t make it, but it was just good enough to avoid being sent packing. Basically, she made a safe dish and it showed. She is the first Bubble Chef who will return next week to try and nab whatever spots remain.
Grayson – She got screwed over by Butcher Boy as her tenderloin was reduced to scraps. She did her best to make something, and I assume was locked into the tenderloin and unable switch. It would make sense that after Butcher Boy got booted that she would just shift over to his cut – pork chops. Unless it wasn’t permitted…or unless he destroyed those as well. Anyway, Grayson made – Tenderloin – Haricot Vert with Toasted Hazelnuts and Mushroom Stuffed Tenderloin – She cooked what was left of the meat well, but the flavors were out of balance. I think barring a disaster she was going to get another chance, and she does, Bubble Chef #2
Nyesha – I may have to call her Ringer. She is a protégé of Joel Robuchon, Superstar Chef. She is going to be a good one. Pork Shoulder – Tex-Mex Ravioli – Emeril thought it was spot on and balanced, and Padma piped in that it was beautiful and tasty. You know, I could say the same thing about…never mind. Anyway, she is CHEF #3
Heather – Interesting, she is a bit on the heavy side, and I was trying to think of many Top Chef successes who were as well. And there are not many. Most of them are rather thin. It means nothing, just a curiosity. She makes Baby Back Ribs – Maple and Citrus Glazed Baby Back Ribs with Bacon, Corn and Bleu Cheese Grits How can you go wrong with ribs, bacon and grits? She doesn’t. It is soulful, as per Tom, and she becomes CHEF #4
Richie – He actually works for Bangs and Glasses. Imagine that, you get your big break and the guy you answer to everyday at work is there too. On the flip side, imagine how embarrassed B&G will be if he lost to his subordinate. He makes Pig Ears – Onion Soup with Braised and Crispy Pig Ears, Pickled Shallots and Frozen Parsley Powder – He worries about it being too salty, as he has a salty palate (foreshadowing to a future failure?), but Tom said it was on the verge of saltiness, but was well seasoned, and Emeril found it to have “tremendous depth.” He is CHEF #5
Drifter Homeless Guy – I think his name is Simon, and he likes to do body drawings. He also looks like he lives in a van down by the river. Seriously, dude looks homeless. Anyway, he said earlier that his ham was being cut by Butcher Boy, so that may have played into this dish. He made Ham – Ham Roulade Stuffed with Fig Confit and Goat Cheese – Emeril thought it was overcooked and dry, and Tom saw too much going on. He is the third chef to be cut. 10 more to go.
The second group of 10 comes in, and Emeril is replaced by Gail for this round. I hope she had a nice palate cleanser after all of those desserts. Anyway, the challenge for this group is not the pig. They are presented with a series of proteins and must decide as a group which one will be used. After a bizarre consideration of sea urchin, they decide on rabbit. I hear it tastes like chicken. Before getting into the dishes, Nina from Seattle fails to actually plate her rabbit. She is cut on the spot and is the fourth to go – nine more still to get cut.
Whitney – I instantly thought of Lisbeth Salander. So her nickname may be forthcoming from the Dragon Tattoo series. She is a protégé of Hugh Acheson, formerly known as Unibrow in these pages, now known as Monobrow after he tweeted me the correction. Interestingly, he is a judge this season, so that could be awkward. Rabbit Sugo with Tomatoes, Shallots, Asparagus and Bacon – Tom likes how it is cooked, and Gail likes her offbeat approach. She is CHEF #6.
Keith – Dude, this man is a giant. Keith just doesn’t do him justice. With apologies to Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions football star), this man is a Megatron. Seared Tenderloin, Chicken Fried Rabbit, Yukon Potato Hash, and Braised Rabbit Confit – Is it me, or did the complexity of his dish appear to run laps around the others? He is nervous, and jokes that he is too big to pass out. Tom and Gail rave and he becomes CHEF #7
Edward – He comments that he wants this badly because as a Korean, he has a lot to prove. Being a chef ain’t all that cool in Korean culture. He struggles with the vac machine and has to improvise quickly. He makes Butter Poached Rabbit with Butternut Squash Puree – Padma found it a bit undercooked, but Tom thinks he has enough skill to move on. The disagreement makes him Bubble Chef #3
Dakota – She is pale, tattooed, and pierced. I thought she may have been a vampire. I am still not yet convinced she isn’t. Roast Rabbit Crepinettes with Bulger Wheat and Vanilla Jus. – Tom really enjoyed the rabbit and vanilla. She becomes CHEF #8 and I hope the challenges are all indoors or at night.
Ty-Lor – That’s right; his name is Ty-Lor. He’s a Green Lantern villain. Or a Mike Myers character of the Hill People. Or just the child of very, very stoned parents. He makes Confit Rabbit Leg with Pickled Cucumber and Tomatoes in Fish Sauce – Tom loved the flavor, and Gail concurred. Lothar is CHEF #9
Janine – Her last name is Falco. I wonder if she can rock us like Amadeus . She makes Rabbit Nugget, Rabbit Rack and Rabbit Loin Saltimbocca with Mushroom Hash – She fails to plate her sauce and it is noticed. Not good, but not bad either. She is Bubble Chef #4
Chris – Pretty Boy thinks he is similar to Blais and Hawk (M.Voltaggio) – arguably the two best Top Chef stars ever. He also wants to hit on Padma, so we are already fighting. Duo of Rabbit – Confit leg and Butter Seared Tenderloins with Carrot Polenta Really? Rabbit and carrots? Someone track down Bugs and check to make sure he’s ok. Regardless of the disturbing thought of a childhood icon seared in butter, he gets raves and is CHEF #10
Lastly, Chuy – I want to make Chelsea Handler joke here, but that may be too obscure. Instead, we’ll go with Chewie. Everyone loves Chewie. Rabbit Loin with Cashew Pipian and Grilled Zucchini They make him sweat a bit, but he gets in and is CHEF #11
So, 11 in and only five slots left for the third group and the bubbles. That doesn’t bode well for next week’s crew. We have a LOT of eliminations on the way.
• Was there a sale on headbands before this season? I haven’t seen this many headbands since the 80s came to a close.
• Anyone else laugh when 22-year-old Butcher Boy actually uttered these words – “Tom and Emeril made a mistake.” Tom, and Emeril. Man, thank goodness he’s off the show.
• Chewie is already an early favorite – mainly because he is a Bayless protégé. And any friend of Bayless is a friend of mine. That, and the fact that he and his family ate his sister’s pet rabbits. Gotta respect that.
• Megatron is an ex-con who has set his life straight. I think it may be pretty tough to root against this guy. That and his cool red shoes.
• Vampire Dakota questioned putting chocolate and rabbit together. Someone tell Cadbury about that because my son had about 25 chocolate rabbits last April.
• Lothar and Heather also worked together in the past. It’s like the show recruited 800 chefs from three restaurants in Chicago.
• Extra scene – the Bubble Chefs have no tats, the accepted ones do. Interesting.
• Oh, extra, extra. This week, I had lunch at our old friend Spike’s Capitol Hill home of amazing burgers – Good Stuff. The purpose – the holiday turkey burger with cranberry sauce, apples and sage. Holy Delicious, Batman! And Spike was there – thanks for the chat, Spike, and thanks for the great food. And yes, he was wearing a hat.
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