Top Chef: If You Can Make It Here…

Top Chef is back!  And so far, so good.  Already it feels like this bunch can actually cook, as opposed to last season, which was cast completely for personality and was still a dud.  I’m talking about you, Lisa.  Plus, everyone I dislike goes home in the first episode.  Can I ask for anything more?

Yes, I can! Top Chef comes to a place close to my heart.  I call it home, you call it New York City.  So naturally, this will be the best season ever.

But first!  The contestants.  It’s too early to say who’s genuinely likable and who is genuinely a jerk, but we’re all about snap judgments here.  There’s plenty of time to rethink first impressions later.  We shall start with a rundown.

Fabio, from Italy, a New York virgin, and who calls TC a “big friggin deal.”

Jamie, a lesbian from San Francisco.

Eugene, who worked up from dishwasher in Hawaii, with no formal training.

Jeff from Miami, with his surfboards and blond hair.  Paging Dr. Chase.

Radhika, who worries that people will think she’ll only cook Indian food.

Lauren, from Georgia, whose husband is deployed in Iraq and who won’t “sit at home and waste [her] life away while he’s gone.”  I suspect she breaks down at some point.  Like, real tears.

Ariane, from New Jersey, who has the support of her family.  Snore.

Daniel from Long Island (holla!), who is tired of being ignored.

Patrick, friend of Lauren and student at CIA, representing students everywhere.

Stefan from Finland.  He…is bald.

Richard, who has an inner queen that’s more concerned with Padma’s outfit than the start of competition.

Leah, whose mother warns her not to cry and look “like a little bitch.”  Wish you had Leah’s mom, don’t you?

Carla, a caterer with something to prove, but seems to have a whole lot of crazy circling her…

There’s also Alex, Jill, Hosea, and boring Melissa.

They arrive in New York and ferry over to Governor’s Island, past the Waterfall exhibit.  Upon arrival, Padma and Tom greet the new contestants, and introduce the first Quickfire Challenge.  Seventeen people have entered the island, but only sixteen will leave to continue on the show.  That’s right – this Quickfire is also an Elimination!

Quickfire.  Over the course of three rounds, the contestants will race through a series of skills in order to eliminate the last person standing.  Skill challenges are always the most fun to watch.  First up, apple peeling with a paring knife, saving the first nine contestants to finish; second, brunoise two cups of apples, saving four contestants; and third, cook an apple dish, saving three contestants.

Stefan wins the first round and immunity (but he’s sure he won’t need it); bottom four are Patrick, Lauren, Radhika (who opts for an Indian dish, so don’t blame us for stereotypes), and Leah.

After twenty minutes of cooking, Radhika and Leah both receive high marks from Tom, and friends Patrick and Lauren are up for elimination.  Leaving: Lauren. Not sorry to see her go, as she breaks down already in her farewell.  Save it, sister.

Elimination Challenge.  The knife block returns.  Everyone pulls a knife, finding New York neighborhoods written on each.  The contestants pair up per neighborhood, and learn that they must create a dish inspired by the cuisine of their location, and will compete against their partner.  The losers will be up for elimination.

Off to the house, which is gorgeous and makes me look around my tiny Manhattan apartment and cry.  Team Rainbow (Richard, Patrick and Jamie) meet on the balcony to celebrate the gays in the house.  Sadly, you can already go to Bravotv.com to buy a Team Rainbow t-shirt.  Fabio and Stefan spread their European-ness (they’re everywhere!) and offend a few of the Americans, because no one likes being told they’re inferior, especially Americans.  The two of them think they’re very cute together, however.

Next day.  Two thirds of Team Rainbow head to Astoria to study Greek food as they compete against each other.  Hosea doesn’t know the first thing about Russian food, while Carla wants to be led by her spirit guides, so yeah.  Crazy.

Ariane and Stefan have Long Island City and Middle Eastern cuisine.  Jeff and Fabio have Ozone Park and Latin Cuisine.  Jeff believes he has an advantage, living in Miami.  Radhika and Jill hit up Queens and Jamaican food, while Leah and Melissa have Little Italy, the easiest of the bunch.  Except Melissa has no experience with Italian and is a country mouse.  Country mice don’t eat pasta?

Patrick and Daniel visit Chinatown, and Patrick takes a chance with unfamiliar black noodles.  Alex and Eugene have Little India.  Alex seems more excited by the challenge and the spices.  Eugene is clueless.  They’re both adorable.

The chefs enter the Top Chef kitchen and we get lots of GE Monogram pimp shots of the appliances.  The kitchen is three times the size of my apartment.

Carla has a problem deboning her fish, and Leah feels more confident because Melissa looks uncomfortable with Italian cuisine.  Patrick’s risk with the black noodles so far isn’t paying off, as they’re not the texture he wanted.  Oops.  Jeff notices that Fabio is plating, and is smart enough to realize he’s behind.  He then races around the kitchen like a mad man.  Fabio is not impressed.  Jeff runs out of time and doesn’t finish plating.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten enters with the judges, but Time Out: Gail is wearing some pink dress with orange, red, and pale stripes and it’s just awful.  Thank god this is Top Chef and not Project Runway (wink wink!).

Ariane & Stefan are up first.  Stefan’s dish is perfect, and Ariane’s risotto is undercooked.  Stefan wins.  Richard & Jamie.  Richard thinks Tom has gorgeous eyes, and would buy him a few drinks at the bar.  Well, me too, so no argument.  Shut up, Perlow.  Richard overcooks his lamb, so he loses.  Radhika & Jill.  Jill’s dish wins.  Fabio & Jeff.  Fabio has to read his menu, to Jeff’s obvious annoyance.  Tom prefers Fabio, but is outvoted and Jeff wins.  Hosea & Carla.  Hosea wins unanimously.  Leah & Melissa.  Melissa would have done better with a little salt and pepper, so Leah wins.  Daniel & Patrick.  Both dishes fail: Patrick’s because of his noodles, Daniel because it was uninspired and similar to Wolfgang Puck.  But Daniel pulls out the win, and that’s two losses for Patrick in a row.  Alex & Eugene.  At first glance, they both are really likable guys so I don’t want to see either of them go.  Eugene accidentally creates a perfect dish, and though Alex also made something delicious, you can’t beat perfection, so Eugene it is.

The judges take a moment to discuss privately how awesome all of the contestants are (at some point, someone will say, “the most talented we’ve ever had”).  They deliberate over the winners and losers, and it’s time to bring them out!

Top Three: Stefan, Eugene, and Leah.  Bottom Two: Patrick and Ariane.

Stefan stands before the judges with a satisfied smirk.  Padma points out that three of the four Top Chef winners have won the first elimination challenge.  And the winner is: Stefan!  Too early to tell if this is good or bad news.  He wants to be the first European Top Chef.  This is a season of change.  Stay tuned!

And now the losers: Tom explains that the judges did not see the inspiration of the neighborhood foods in the two dishes, and both chefs need to break out of their comfort zones.  Patrick presented a “sanitized” version of Chinese food.  Ariane’s was simply too undercooked.  Padma asks them both to explain why they should stay.  Patrick gives a more eloquent speech about passion.

But…Patrick loses.  He accepts defeat gracefully, and Team Rainbow breaks up within twenty four hours.  I’m not disappointed by this either.

This season: Martha Stewart, bad rice, Rocco DiSpirito, crying, weapons of mass destruction, Jamie vs. Stefan, and violent sweetness.  Watch What Happens!

Season 5, Episode 1: Melting Pot (originally aired November 12, 2008)

For another take on this episode, check out The One Without the Cast From Night Court by J.B. Perlow.

For more on Top Chef, click here.

Wednesdays at 10/9C, Bravo

Photographs courtesy of Bravo

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