As the first episode of the Miami-based season three opens, we learn an interesting fact: Top Chef has traded in their Krapmore Kitchen sponsorship for one from Evian, who is providing the winner with a "gourmet dream vacation," and one from GE Monogram, who is providing actual working appliances. We hope.
Mingling for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at the mansion where Gianni Versace was murdered, the new wave of cheftestants have barely started sizing one another up when Padma and Colicchio arrive on the scene to announce their first Quickfire. It's happening then and there, and involves the appetizers they've been picking over and slurping down. Using only the plastic utensils scattered around the tables, the cheftestants have ten minutes to create an amuse bouche that tells the judges who they are. Micah, who reminds me of Kara Janx from Project Runway and not just because they both have South African accents, wins the Quickfire and Immunity with her Italian ham wrapped around Gorgonzola, fig jam, and dried figs dribbled with balsamic vinegar.
At first, the Elimination Challenge sounds a bit easy -- whipping up surf 'n' turf entrees for these sorts of chefs shouldn't be that much of a challenge. However, their ingredients are coming from a large selection of exotic proteins, such as rattlesnake, black chicken, monkfish liver, and abalone, and many of the cheftestants admit they have never cooked with some of these things before. The choice of exotic ingredients makes sense given that the guest judge of the night is the redoubtable, the consciously quotable, the profane Bourdain.
At the end of the challenge, two cheftestants are selected as the judges' top finishers: Hung, with his geoduck and black chicken, and Tre, with his ostrich and abalone. Although the judges were very impressed with Hung's food, they were put off by the beige-osity of the dish and choose Tre as their winner. Since Tre was one of the bottom three in the Quickfire, he's quite thrilled to be the one taking home a tall pile of Anthony Bourdain's books and the promise that one day Bourdain will single-handedly destroy his liver after taking him out for New York Yakitori.
The four losers are Clay, Howie, Brian (MALARKEY!), and Dale. Howie is seriously in trouble because he only had time to plate his sea urchin risotto and couldn't get his frog legs on the plate. However, when he quotes chapter and verse (from the Bible of Bourdain) about Ecuadorian line cooks getting it right and late rather than wrong and on time, Bourdain calls him a "son of a bitch," which is clearly Bourdain code for "I love you, man." All four of these chefs had problems with seasoning and technique, but the judges felt that Howie showed potential, whereas Clay's overcooked boar chops proved that his fundamentals are out of whack. I think if Clay had stuck around, I could have started lovingly calling him Claytus.
To me, the most interesting cheftestants at this point are ten-foot-tall CJ, a cancer survivor and proud owner of a fake testicle who could club down Sam for the Ginormatron title; Hung, who informs us he's a CPA, a "certified professional asshole," looks like the Chinese acrobat from Ocean's Eleven, has an ego that might as well be another entire cheftestant, and is also a friend of Marcel's; Brian (MALARKEY!), whose name will provide me with endless giggles and also shows signs of being unable to control the VOLUME OF HIS VOICE or emotions when at the judges' table; and Tre because he just seems solid and good. On the other hand, someone needs to tell Joey "My Other Career Is A Soprano" Paulino, who can't open his mouth without New York falling out, that flipped-up collars went out with the McDLT.
Oh, and in case any of you, like me, believed those scurrilous reports out there this summer that Colicchio was going soft and fuzzy, one of the first things he announces to the cheftestants is, "I'm not your mentor, I'm the head judge of the show." So, that settles that. I'm also surprised and happy to note that Padma showed quite a bit of attitude in this episode, even going so far as to do an accusatory horizontal head swivel when she was attempting to take Brian (MALARKEY!) to task for his dish and then going on a tangent about frying her toes and eating them. I'm sure many out there would love to put Padma's toes in their mouths.
Apparently, the Keckler Kocktails I added to my Apprentice: Martha Stewart recaps were such a success that I've been getting emails from Top Cheffians demanding to know why I'm not adding them to my Top Chef recaps. Okay, well, I'm adding them starting now.
Blue Moon Over Miami
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 bunch rose geranium
2 oz blueberry juice
2 oz Tanqueray gin
1 lime quarter
To make the rose geranium syrup, put a small, non-reactive saucepan over medium heat. Add the water and sugar and whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved in the water. Bring to a simmer. Add the leaves and flowers of the rose geranium and simmer for 4-5 minutes. Take off the heat and let cool to room temperature.
Combine the blueberry juice, gin, 2 teaspoons of the cooled rose geranium syrup, and some ice in a shaker. Stir rapidly and strain into a cocktail glass. Serve with the lime quarter.
Store the rest of the syrup in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
Oh hey, Padma? How's tricks? What's that you say? Top Chef is back already? Damn. I feel like we barely stopped talking about Marcel's hair and now we gotta talk about Sandee and Dale's mirroring mohawks? Hung and Malarkey's names? CJ's sky-scraping body? I don't know if I'm ready for this. However, I am fairly certain that I'm totally not ready for those pointy dinners of yours probing the top of your orange satin wrap dress. But it's not about me, it's about the newest crop of cheftestants picked ripe just before they fell off the trees, heavy with their culinary talent. This time around, the prizes are basically the same: feature in Food & Wine magazine, showcase at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, a spoiler on Food & Wine's website, a "gourmet dream vacation" in the French Alps where you will be forced to drink lots of Evian water, $100,000 in prize money furnished by Glad, and -- best of all, of course -- the title of Top Chef. Another new feature this year will be Ted Allen's role as a semi-recurring judge, which is pretty awesome.
Normally the credits are just what they are, credits. But when ten-foot tall CJ crouches in his black frame to smile sheepishly at the camera, I had to giggle. Very cute.
Miami has butts, boobs, and Sex and the City-ish tango music. It also has beaches, plastic surgery, and a flock of arriving cheftestants. And this is really the part I hate -- having to mentally establish all these cheftestants who won't really be established in our minds until they do something outrageous, bitchy, or wonderful. Sara Mair is a thirty-three-year-old chef from Jamaica, who is also a cheese maker. Gotta root for a fellow stinker! Of course, I only write about cheese for Cowgirl Creamery now and don't make it, but that's my next apprenticeship. She calls herself a "fromagiere," which I'm not sure is an actual word in French, but I'm glad this means we'll have at least one person, aside from Colicchio, who can properly pronounce mascarpone and Fourme d'Ambert. Clay Bowen, twenty-seven, is from Mississippi but is currently a sous chef at the Santa Barbara University Club. He thinks he's a "dark horse" because he didn't go to cooking school and is from the South. It seems to me there are more chefs out there who didn't train their way into debt by going to cooking school, so I'm not sure how dark of a horse that makes him. Maybe he's more like a dim horse.