Thursday, March 13, 2008

Top Chef: Season 4, Episode 1

Don’t Add Salt to Her Wounds

Ok, so here we go. A new season of Top Chef and there’s hostess Padma looking as tasty as ever. Also looking tasty is all the sights of Chicago. I love that city, and my nephew’s studying there now. I really have to visit again, but now I don’t have to thanks to Bravo and this 2-minute clip review of the city’s sights. BTW, looks like the grand prize hasn’t really changed from last year. Still some fancy European trip, appearance at some food festival, $100,000 prize money, and yes, the title of Top Chef. Fire it up baby!

We get the same theme song and the typical shots of each cheftestant trying to dance while putting on his or her white chef’s jacket. Hey, that Jennifer girl is wearing black. WTF is that all about??

More scenes of Wrigley Field (haven’t been there yet) and first in is our homeboy Ryan from San Francisco. He says he started cooking in his parents’ restaurant when he was 11 years old. He seems pretty proud of the fact that he out-cooked some of his parents’ workers, but I’m thinking child-labor law violation myself.

Then we meet Nimma from Atlanta who doesn’t sound like she had her family support initially but now she does. It’s hard to say because the sound on her application video is crap.

We get a parade of other cheftestants and snippets of their background/video. But I’m not going to bore you with the details. When do we eat from the quickfire?

Oooh, a shot of Pizzeria Uno. Now, I know it’s a Chicago institution and all but do people really still go there for pizza? Oh, I guess we’ll find out because the cheftestants are gathering inside a Pizzeria Uno for some classic deep dish pizza. (Did you know some stupid marketing person convinced Pizzeria Uno to change its name to Uno, Chicago Grill? Stupid.) There’s Richard, who is holding up Marcel’s reputation for molecular gastronomy, so you can bet he’s going to go on and on about gels and smoke and weird shit like that.

BTW, I contemplated titling this recap “Who’s Got a Dirty Mouth?” because seems like this year there are a lot of bleeping going on around here. This group of cheftestants is made up of a lot of potty mouths. (Yeah, talking about you Erik and Andrew.)

So as the cheftestants are sizing each other up at Pizzeria Uno, Jennifer and Zoi, who are both from San Francisco and sitting next to each other, announces casually to the group that they’re, um, like a couple. What the [bleeeeep]?! Geez, it’s catchy. OK, don’t get me wrong, I think they’re cute together and such, but what? Are they competing together? Are we to believe they’re going to duke it out with much heart against each other if they both end up in the final two? Shouldn’t there be some kind of clause against two-fers? I mean, enough with the Bill and Hillary Clinton show.

The other cheftestants are just as baffled as I am, but Andrew has the funniest line when he says “Well, then they can go home together.” (BTW, after Jennifer and Zoi’s “announcement,” I have to say I probably heard the word “out” repeated like four or five times within a single minute. I get it Bravo editors, they’re a gay couple. Like we’ve never seen that before on Bravo, the gayest channel in the world?)

In walks Padma and head judge Chef Tom Collichio, looking as serious as he’s been the last three seasons. You’d think with all the money he’s making he’d crack a smile. Padma says they have to go to the Top Chef Kitchen for their quickfire challenge with a “Chicago twist.”

In the kitchen (which might as well be in a Los Angeles sound studio with its generic stainless steel appliances), we find out that each cheftestant got to bring $200 worth of their favorite ingredients and the camera points out the lockers where they can keep it. This is like the first day of school when you got your locker assignments and you were always worried about sharing space with the class clown who would then proceed to make you the butt of his jokes for the rest of the school year. Oh, wow, bad grade school flashback just now.

Padma tells them they have 90 minutes to make their own signature deep dish pizza for the guest judge, whom she never really introduced.

There’s a mad scramble, of course, as everyone’s grabbing ingredients. We learn more about some of the other cheftestants when they describe their strategy for the quickfire. (Dale, chef at New York’s trendy Buddakan is doing an Asian-inspired pizza with a squirt of hot sauce; Manuel of Dos Caminos is French and Italian trained and is doing a classic Italian pizza; Nikki from Manhattan doesn’t get the whole deep dish pizza coming from thin crust New York so she’s making a white pizza with no tomato sauce; and the Australian dude Mark is using his secret weapon, which is some jar called Marmite, which he says “can move mountains” when used properly. So I guess the assumption is that Marmite can sink ships if used incorrectly Mark?)

Early in this season it looks like the editors are pitting Andrew (who I termed “jittery” in my primer and I was pretty spot on) against Mr. Molecular, Richard. Already in the quickfire challenge Richard has taken Andrew’s deep dish pan so he could test out two pizzas (that’s not very fair I think) so Andrew has to use a skillet. But doesn’t matter, because it looks like he’s not the only one having issues with the deep dish. Some cheftestants are piling on the dough and what comes out are these huge mass of carbs that really look more like they just made a big chunk of bread.

Time’s up, and they pack up their “pizzas” into those delivery bags and head off somewhere.

It looks like it’s dinner time when they arrive at night at some Chicago home. They’re guessing it belongs to some well-to-do Chicago chef because the digs are nice. But who opens the door? None other that media whore Rocco Dispirito. What? They couldn’t find any local chef with the same caliber to be the first judge in Chicago? They had to import a New Yorker to judge deep dish pizza? This is so wrong in so many levels and not just the fact that Rocco still looks like he had his eyes done.

So Padma is there as well and she and Rocco sit at the sofa while each cheftestant brings out their pizzas for them to try. They are going to be stuffed like the sofa they’re sitting on! You know it’s the first episode of the season when the taste-testing zooms by with less than a few seconds for each person. I mean really, did we even get a sense of what they made? Some highlights that I could gather, but only thanks to the forced captioning the editors added for emphasis: Stephanie brings out a melon-tomato pizza with prosciutto and Rocco says he smells something “funky”; Padma seems to like Ryan’s grilled escarole pizza with ricotta, Nimma did a mostly mushroom pizza but Padma asked if she added salt.

The cheftestants are all in the kitchen when Rocco and Padma come in to give the verdict. Rocco calls out a bunch of names and those people stand to the right. He says these are the losers. The other group is the winner. I’m confused? So who really won? They’re really mixing things up this season on Top Chef.

Padma says these two groups will come into play during the elimination challenge tomorrow. For now, they can relax because the house they’re in is actually their home base for this season. Everyone’s all excited because they are pretty sweet digs. And Andrew is providing us with a lot of colorful descriptions, if they’re not being bleeped out. Fatness, for one, whatever that means.

They bust out the bubbly and start to settle in. All except for Nimma, who says she’s not here for socializing, nor is Dale, who’s playing pool by himself. Losers.

The next morning they’re back in the Top Chef kitchen and Padma is standing there looking like a school marm in front of a chalkboard. She tells the cheftestants from the winning group to draw knives, each with a number. That’s the order that they get to pick their partner because they’re going to go head-to-head with the other person to make the same dish from a list of classic dishes that Padma (doing her Vanna White) unveils on the back of the chalkboard.

There’s some strategy coming into play by the cheftestants as they choose which classic dish to make. But, again, at this point there are so many of them it doesn’t really mean anything until they start dropping like flies.

Commercials. That Glad commercial is so weird and 70s that it’s kind of interesting. Very retro. Rutherford Hill, why do all wine commercials have to sound so boring?

Now that they’ve been paired off in head-to-head battles, they’re at the market buying their ingredients. More scrambling, as usual. Ryan can’t find his notepad, and he’s having a hard time remembering the key characteristics of his classic dish, chicken piccata. I don’t think I’ve had this much growing up either, so I can’t help you there bud.

Back in the kitchen, they’re all busy cooking and everyone is stressing, especially Nimma. She’s really turning out to be the drama queen for this season. She’s making shrimp scampi and she’s going to make a custard or flan to go with it. I never knew that was the traditional way of serving scampi? Who knew?

Back to Andrew vs. Richard, Andrew is looking for mayonnaise but Richard tells him that there’s none in the kitchen. Andrew thought that would be an obvious staple in the pantry, but Richard says, well, I guess you’re going to have to make your own with eggs and oil. Andrew’s all, aha, thanks for giving me the recipe for mayonnaise, you loser. Then, of course, Richard brings out a jar of mayonnaise from his shopping bag because he was smart enough to buy a jar. Eventually he offers it up to Andrew, but he’s all like, forget it dude, I’m good. Awwwk-ward.

Nimma’s flan isn’t setting and with just two minutes left, she decides to make it a cauliflower scramble. This is usually my strategy. When things don’t turn out, make an omelette.

Stephanie’s hands are just shaking as she sauces her duck ala orange. Someone get this girl a valium. She’s going to have a nervous breakdown any minute, I can tell.

Commercials. Fish Eye, you can call it wine in a cask but it’s still wine in a box. And animating it still won’t make it look classy.

Judging time and in walks Padma and Tom along with Rocco and, huh, Anthony Bourdain? Where’s Ted Allen, or even Gail Simmons? I feel sorry for all the cheftestants already.

Each pair will go up one at a time and a winner and loser will be declared for each dish. The loser will be eligible for elimination. Since there are so many pairs, here are just some quick highlights:

Duck ala Orange, Australian Mark vs. Shaky Hands Stephanie. Bourdain and Rocco are turned off by Mark’s deconstructed duck and everyone loves the tastes and look (although I thought it plated sloppily) of Stephanie’s dish. She’s the winner.

Crab Cakes, Andrew vs. Richard. Andrew looks like he’s rapping when describing his dish with cilantro basil pudding, and Richard wows the judges with his cakes unveiled with smoke scented with a spice. When the smoke clears, Richard is named the winner.

Lasagna, San Francisco Jennifer vs. New Yorker Nikki. Jennifer uses autumn vegetables for her lasagna while Nikki does a classic lasagna using hand-made pasta sheets. The judges seem to like both these dishes, but eventually Nikki is declared the winner.

Shrimp Scampi, Italian Mama Antonia vs. Socially Awkward Nimma. There’s a lot of yummy sounds coming out of the judges as they taste Antonia’s shrimp scampi with pappardelle. Padma calls out Nimma about her dish being too salty and Rocco says he would send it back if he were at a restaurant. So you know Nimma loses.

Egg’s Benedict, Hardly Seen Spike vs. Generic Lisa. This is another close one with good comments for the two, but eventually they go with Lisa, who said earlier in the competition that she’s been making breakfast for years so you know she had to win this.

Steak Au Poivre, Dale I’m The Next Hung vs. Manuel I’m Not the Next Carlos. Dale has steak all over the plate, trying for something new and Rocco says it was a risk well taken. He wins over Manuel’s steak with a Mexican twist.

Chicken Piccata, Ryan vs. Valerie. The judges don’t like either dish, which they think neither remotely resembled a classic chicken piccata. Ryan is named the loser of this losing pair, and he says in his taped interview that it’ll be embarrassing to go out on the first round since he’s been cooking since age 11. Ryan, unless you were making Beef Wellington from 11, I don’t think it’s that impressive that you were being used as cheap labor by your parents, so stop bringing it up.

Final dish: Souffle, Erik vs. Zoi (the San Francisco showdown). Both soufflés sound like they were rising nicely during the cooking but something must have happened in plating because Erik’s look like a taco mess with his chips on top and Zoi covered her up with candied figs and fennel. But Zoi is named the winner and Erik, class act that he is, says “I just got my ass handed to me.”

Commercials. David Beckham is now endorsing Sharpie. We can all rest easy America.

Judgment time. Padma calls in Antonia, Nikki, Richard and Stephanie. It’s obvious they’re the winning group, and you can tell Dale is not very happy that he was looked over. He should have the word “Entitlement” branded onto his chef’s jacket.

Everyone compliments the four cheftestants, but eventually Rocco names Shaky Hands Stephanie as the winner with her duck ala ronge. I’m kind of shocked because like I said, it looked really sloppy with too much sauce. But hey, the judges said it had a lot of flavor and until someone invents taste TV that I can lick, I have to go with their word for it.

In comes Ryan, Erik, Nimma and Mark. The judges query the losing group but it’s mostly a time for them to vent. Rocco doesn’t understand why Erik’s soufflé had a mashed potato base instead of egg whites, and Tom calls out Nimma about her failed flan idea for her scampi. Australian Mark gets to hear Bourdain call him “pretentious” while everyone is all over Ryan for not really knowing what chicken piccata should be. (Hey, I don’t know either.)

The four are sent away as the judges vent some more but you can tell it’s not looking good for Nimma, whose food was described by Tom as baby food.

Commercials. Toyota Corolla. Wow, those water polo players are beefy. I’m just sayin’.

Decision time, and it’s kind of worrisome that two of the four Bay Area cheftestants are in the bottom on the first episode. Not representing guys! In the end, even though none of them really had a clear understanding of the classics, it’s Nimma who’s sent packing. She interviews that she’s going to keep on cooking (but hopefully with less salt).

This season on Top Chef: people are sweating in the kitchen (of course), there’s a lot of running, we see zoo animals and a football stadium and some bromance is stewing among a few of the guys. Oh yeah.

Top Chef aires Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central) on Bravo TV. Check out videos and multiple blogs at the Top Chef Web site. Photos courtesy Bravo TV.


Anonymous said...

I was a bit disappointed that two of the bottom four were San Francisco chefs -- one Erik Hopfinger who is a pretty good chef (Butterfly, Circa). But I knew the oversalted shrimp would sink Nimma -- screwing up the basics is usually fatal on this show. -- David K.

Harland Crom said...

This may be a long shot but I'm predicting Spike as the winner. BTW, is anyone playing the Last 2 game for Top Chef?

Passionate Eater said...

I thought I was the only one who thought Rocco had his eyes done! He used to be so handsome, and now he just looks like another semi-melted plastic surgery victim.

Anonymous said...

Glad you're still commenting on the commericals :)
And add me to the "he's had his eyes done" contingent.

Anonymous said...

Andrew's description: "Phatness" It means "cool", or it did back when I was in high school. I'm guessing Andrew is around the same age as me (26). :D
Nice recap.