M: Well, we’re back with a new season of Top Chef, or as my channel guide lists is, the inaugural season of Top Chef Texas. Not really sure why they want to mess up people’s DVR’s, but there you go.
E: It messed up mine – if it hadn’t reaired at 11, I’d have missed it!
M: Since the last round was All-Stars, and we have had a couple seasons of Masters mixed in, this is the first season with new up-and-coming competitors since Kevin Sbraga pulled off the upset victory in Singapore at the end of the 2010 summer season. There are quite a few changes this season, not the least of which was the format for how they are determining the 16 contestants for the show.
E: And you know, change often annoys me, but not so much this time.
M: In most seasons, the start of the first episode introduces us to the contestants as they meet each other. While we did get a little of that, what we really got was a huge mass of contestants (29, to be precise) walking up to the Alamo (to quote the surprisingly good Miss Congeniality, I forgot the Alamo!) only to find out that they are all going to have to cook their way into the top 16.
E: Kind of like this season’s contestants on Project Runway – except this seemed much less arbitrary and cruel.
M: Wait, the contestants on Project Runway had to cook their way onto the show?
E: Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.
M: They broke the contestants up into three groups of about 10, and so far the first two groups have faced typical Top Chef challenges, with one group having to split between them an entire pig, with each contestant getting one cut of meat, and the other having to pick the one main ingredient from a selection of the judges favorites and then all use that same ingredient. The third group will be cooking next week, so we don’t know their challenge yet.
E: Honestly, I thought both of those challenges were terrific. The All Star season gives the show a lot to live up to, and I’m so happy to see they’re really on their game so far.
M: As each group goes, the contestants are judged and either given a spot in the top 16, sent packing, or put on the bubble where they will be given a chance to cook one more time to try to make it in.
E: When they brought in more contestants than actually made the real competition on Project Runway, I just got annoyed – although maybe that’s because they aufed the friend of a friend, whose clothes looked pretty great to me. But Top Chef did what Project Runway failed to do; they gave the contestants a challenge, and used that to see how effective they would be on the show. I very much approve of that.
M: Now, I have some reservations about this, as my general opinion with reality competitions is that they should have at least two or three shows before anyone gets kicked off so they get a better chance to really tell who the bottom contenders are and who deserves to go home at that point.
E: Well, but isn’t that what this is?
M: I remember watching Rock Star: INXS, and JD, the eventual winner, was *this close* to being sent home the first day, because really based on one performance it’s hard to tell who’s really good and who’s really not up to par. That all said, this became highly entertaining very quickly, and at least after one episode I think it’s working very well.
E: In it’s last two seasons So You Think You Can Dance has taken to having a non-elimination episode between the voting episodes and the audition ones, and I’m totally in favor of that, too. In some ways I feel like it’s extra important here, because you have get to know the contestants without the benefit of audition episodes. Obviously this format of reality competition presents a specific challenge for the editing staff. In some seasons of Top Chef, you don’t even get to see everyone’s Quickfire dish until a good third of the way though the season, which makes it even harder to form impressions of their competence and style. And that makes me really appreciate this.
M: In addition to the change in the format of the casting and first episodes, we have changes to our judges. Back are regulars Tom, Padma and Gail, which is good.
E: Yes. Not to begrudge Gail her honeymoon, but I missed her a ton that season!
M: Agreed, she has grown on me more and more each season, and her absence was noticeable. Speaking of absences, gone is Anthony Bourdain, which is not so bad, as he brought a lot more negativity, and love for pot, than I was hoping for.
E: Yeah. He can turn an elegantly nasty phrase without seeming like he’s trying to hard, but he’s not always the most professional.
M: In his place will apparently be a platoon between Emeril, and one of the highlights of the most recent Top Chef Masters, Hugh Acheson.
E: A platoon? Really? I do not think that means what you think it means.
M: I don’t know what you think it means, but in sports, baseball specifically, it is a term for when multiple players (usually two) split time playing the same position. Moving past your cultural ignorance…
E: …right, because the basketball usage is definitely the most obvious “cultural” usage. I won’t mention the Oscar winning movie or the fact that our father commanded a platoon in the military…
M: I will readily admit, other than knowing that he likes to say “BAM!” and “Let’s kick it up a notch!”, I’m not overly familiar with Emeril, but I like what I do know.
E: Eh, he’s fine. He’s not quite as overexposed as he used to be, so I’m okay with that.
M: Hugh I found to be hilarious and highly entertaining. Both of them seem like good choices to me, though it will be interesting to see how Hugh does with one of the contestants, Whitney Otawka, who is apparently a protege of his.
E: I knew you’d be thrilled about Hugh, the French Stewart of the culinary world.
M: And you were correct. After announcing the judges, they started introducing us to the cast as their group came up, and while this season is set in Texas, it seems that just about all the contestants are from Chicago.
E: Weird, right? At least the first four contestants “through to the house” haled from the Windy City. At at that point I stopped keeping track, but I know there was at least one more. Seriously, we need to go there, just for the food.
M: As the first group started to get going, we were introduced to 22 year old personal chef Tyler Stone, who makes quite the first impression.
E: You could say that.
M: And no, not in a good way.
E: No, definitely not in a good way.
M: For the record, anyone that attempts to tell you that their confidence is mistaken for arrogance is both over confident and arrogant.
M: Tone it down there, big guy, and earn something on the show before you tell us how great you are.
E: You’d like to think he’ll learn from the experience, but sadly, so many of them don’t.
M: Instead of earning it, he offers to butcher part of the pig that includes another contestant’s tenderloin. Well, his butchering skills may actually be worse than my own, as I know better than to try to find the tenderloin of a pig with a hack saw. Yes, literally a hack saw. When Tom and Emeril see what he’s doing to the pig they send him home on the spot. That was a bit of a shock, but a good shock. They definitely mean business this season, and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.
E: That was quite emotionally satisfying. And impressive that he could get us to dislike him so much in what, 15 minutes of air time? I felt so sorry for that poor woman – Grayson Schmidtz? the really fun, super talky one – whose tenderloin he hacked up.
M: On a more positive note, there were some very likable contestants in group one, including the five that got immediate passes to the round of 16: co-workers from Moto in Chicago, Chris Jones (who made a super-inventive caramel apple stuffed with pork) and his sous chef Richie Farina, Heather Terhune (former mentor of group two survivor Ty-Lor Boring, who looks to be anything but boring), Nyesha Arrington (who smartly played to the locale making a Tex-Mex ravioli that looked awesome) who studied under French master Joel Robuchon, and Sarah Gruenenberg, a protege of Top Chef Masters contestant Tony Mantuano, all of whom showed signs of being good chefs and people we could root for, if for various reasons. Two contestants, Grayson and cruise ship chef Molly got bubbled and will have to wait for next episode for a shot, if there are even spots left.
E: I don’t know about you, but I wonder if they thought this bubble thing through. Can there be room for even one bubble contestant with only 5 slots left?
M: The person I really felt bad for in the first group was Colin, the owner of a vegan restaurant in Seattle. First, he owns a vegan restaurant.
E: Gee, you can’t tell he likes meat, can you?
M: Second, he owns a vegan restaurant, and had to cook pork for the “cook your way in” challenge. I suppose veal would have been worse, but still, vegan and pork seem to be more at odds than most meats to me, am I wrong?
E: Vegan. Butchering. I don’t think we even need to go into the meat itself.
M: Third, he was running out of time, and the tip fell off of his foamer, causing him to spill his soup onto the plates without enough time to clean it. The judges, again showing they aren’t messing around, sent him packing without even tasting his food. He, however, handled himself SOOO much better than Mr Humility Tyler Stone, leaving gracefully and thanking them for the opportunity. Colin’s the kind of contestant that I think the whole first week elimination thing is bad for, he looked like he had potential and I would have liked to see him get another shot.
E: Well, right, because they’re being far more ruthless than they would have been in a normal challenge. They’ve seen sloppier plates (though probably not by much). It was an easy way to cull someone who didn’t have the best time management, but it was definitely horrifying that they refused to even taste his food to make sure they were doing the right thing.
M: The second group chose rabbit as their ingredient because it was the most versatile. It’s funny; going into the group I got a bad gut feeling for Chris Crary (or Hollywood Chris, as they called him), but he did well and made it through.
E: After Tyler Stone, and being that he’s a super pretty boy whose first comment was that he had to make the show because Padma was so hot, well, I didn’t expect much. But it turns out he does have the chops. Definitely a surprise.
M: I got a really good feeling for Chuy Valencia, a protoge of Top Chef Master (and uber-favorite of mine) Rick Bayless, then when he made it through he yelled “booyah biyatch” into the camera, and I watched his audition video, and don’t like him nearly as much any more. We’ll see…
E: The “biyatch” comment sort of shocked me, because he seemed so mild and unassuming up until then. I figured he had to have the goods if he cooked for Rick Bayless, though, and maybe I figured he’d act like Rick, too.
M: Yeah, not so much.
E: Oh. Wow. I just watched the casting video. Fancies himself quite the rockstar, doesn’t he? You know, I really wish they would address the language thing. My kids love Top Chef, and I don’t want them running around saying “biyatch.” It’s just unprofessional, in my opinion. I’d suppose he’s say that makes me one of his “haters,” though that’s not what I mean at all.
M: Keith Rhodes, on the other hand, grew on me the more of his story he told, having overcome drug addiction partly through discovering his love of cooking. Oh, and he’s engaging and also gianormous, and has a massive beard, which is entertaining in and of itself.
E: Oh, I liked him right away, too. And the more he talked about himself, the more I liked him.
M: I was glad to see Janine Falvo get to the bubble, as she didn’t get her sauces onto her dish, but they ate it and let her have another change anyway. The second group was overall very successful. Six of them made it directly onto the show, and two more (the above mentioned Janine and Edward Lee, a Korean who wants to show his parents that cooking is a worthwhile profession) are on the bubble.
E: Lee really hit me emotionally when he choked up about his parents. I think Janine lucked out, considering how brutal they’d been, cutting Nina Vicente when she failed to plate her protein; I don’t know why I don’t feel sorrier for her, considering her tale of personal woe and desire to better herself. Maybe because she already seems so defeated?
M: I’m wondering, with 11 spots already occupied and 4 more on the bubble, if they are going to stick strictly to the 16 contestant limit. We’ll see next week, before they start hoping all around Texas for the “regular” part of the season!
E: Yep, I’m wondering that exact thing. It’s tough on group 3 to start off with their odds so much worse. I can’t wait to see what they do about it!