Chicago. Airport. Luggage. Toyotas. The new crop of cheftestants arrives in one of America's culinary capitals and is whisked off to Pizzeria Uno. There must have been a fire alarm or something, since the staff has vanished, leaving behind a perfectly arranged gallery of smoldering deep dish pizzas. As the cheftestants dig in and do the perfunctory introduction thing, it surfaces that Jennifer and Zoi (and that's pronounced Zo-E, as opposed to Zwah or Zo-I, just to clear things up) are a lesbian couple from San Francisco. Also, Jennifer and Richard have the same haircut, so maybe they're a lesbian couple from San Francisco as well.
Padma and Tom saunter in with news of the first Quickfire. Deep-dish pizza, of course. Each cheftestant must create their own signature pizza using ingredients from the Top Chef kitchen (damn, that is a nice kitchen, with Whole Foods all up in there) or from their own stash (up to $200 of items they "cannot live without"), and part of a big slab of dough that looks disconcertingly like post-lipo detritus. Ninety minutes later, the madness subsides, and the cheftestants load the results into pizza delivery bags. Which they deliver to the home of guest judge Rocco di Spirito, who looks nicely touched up. He and Padma chow down and give props to Richard (peach tallegio pizza with a sweet tea reduction) and Mark (chicken, zucchini, and Marmite molasses -- yuck, but Rocco dug it) in the group of the eight best, while Stephanie (melon-tomato sauce, olives, arugula, and too-gamey prosciutto) and Nikki (a dry brick of mushrooms and cheese) get singled out in the worst.
Sullen Nimma, who's not here to have fun, sits out a night where everyone else gets to know one another better (at Rocco's house, which actually turns out to be their house for the season). The cheftestants then return to the kitchen for Elimination, in which a cheftestant from the winning group chooses a cheftestant from the losers. The two will then face off in a head-to-head challenge in which they will put their spin on a dish selected by the cheftestant from the loser group from a list of traditional items -- like shrimp scampi, chicken piccata, or soufflé.
Richard, Nikki, Stephanie and Antonia are chosen as the four best, while Ryan, Mark, Nimma and Erik get called as the worst. Colicchio seems genuinely impressed by the quality of all four of the best dishes, and the judges (including guest judge Anthony Bourdain) ultimately choose Stephanie as the winner for a gorgeous-looking duck a l'orange that boasts a memorable array of tastes. But what of the losers? Ryan's piccata wasn't piccata (as he clearly has no idea what piccata is), Mark's deconstructed duck a l'orange was a mess, and Erik put tortilla chips on top of an already mediocre soufflé. Tortilla chips. On a soufflé. But it's Nimma that gets the boot, for her failed cauliflower flan and egregiously salted shrimp scampi.
As usual, I'm looking forward to fewer cheftestants; it's always hard to focus at the beginning with so many people and dishes milling about. I'm a bit surprised they cut Nimma, though. Her Debbie Downer monologues make her just the type of annoying bore who could drive anyone crazy and create drama down the road. Other than Nimma, only Andrew, who seems wound up and ready for a fight, stands out (due in large part to screen time), but with a real-life couple, a guy named Spike (nee Evangelos) Mendehlson, and Richard the requisite molecular gastronomist, I hope we're in for a feast.
Well, it's that time again, and there's change afoot at Top Chef -- new city, new cheftestants, new recapper. They've moved the whole shebang to Chicago, unearthed a new crop of hungry chefs, and hauled me out of the TWoP graveyard. So, hey there -- it's nice to be back. Thanks to Keckler for a great run; I've got some big shoes to fill, but I also have enormous feet. And while I enjoy my cocktails, I won't bore you by reprinting a dry martini recipe every week, since that's about the extent of my homemade repertoire.
As much as things change, they also stay the same -- Padma, ensconced in a cobalt Leger-y looking bandage-y thing, intones in her trademark, simultaneously wooden and come-hither way, that things are "now tastier than ever." A new crop of sixteen chefs will compete in 24 challenges to win the now-standard Food & Wine spread, the showcase at the Food & Wine Expo in Aspen, the Evian-fueled dream vacation in the French Alps, and $100,000 courtesy, again, of Glad (too bad it's not $100,000 worth of Glad products, which would both be funny and suck), and, of course, the bragging rights that come with the ultimate prize, the title of Top Chef.
Padma's back -- obviously -- along with kitchen daddy Tom Colicchio and regular judges Ted Allen and Gail Simmons (who are not regular enough to be there tonight). With that, the credits roll, and we're off. To the airport, as the cheftestants arrive in Chicago (complete with plenty of establishing photos, which make Chicago look lovely and, yes, kind of windy -- I've never been, which is a sad situation I hope to rectify in the near future).
Ryan Scott (San Francisco, 27, Executive Chef, Myth Café) has been in restaurant kitchen since the age of eleven -- his parents "signed the waiver" and he joined the line with his dad, who "fired two people after the first two or three weeks because I outcooked them at eleven." Oh, were you eleven, because I wasn't sure you mentioned that? Maybe your dad just knew where to get plenty of free labor. We'll see. ["Seriously, that story doesn't so much make Ryan look cool as it makes his dad look like a total a-hole." -- Joe R]
Nimma Osman (Atlanta, 26, Line Cook, Repast Restaurant) has a different sort of daddy issue -- she is an observant Muslim woman, and her parents feel she should live at home until she marries, but she wants to be free to do her thing. She worried her father would not support her decision to participate in the show, but she's arrived in Chicago with his blessing.