The show opens with beautiful shots of the city, and we get sneak peeks at future challenges, which involve the CIA, NASA, Mount Vernon, baseball, and Nancy Pelosi. We also learn the grand prize’s ($125,000) new sponsor: Dial NutriSkin. Guess that means a ton of hand-washing close-ups this season. Oh joy.
We first meet the cheftestants on the roof of the Newseum. As a bit of each chef’s background is revealed, my two favorites emerge: Angelo and Tiffany. Angelo has worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alain Ducasse and has a Michelin star and an adorable smile. Tiffany started her culinary career in tenth grade at IHOP. While their career paths are different, they both strike me as focused, driven competitors who are there to win. We’ll see if my gut instinct is right.
We also meet two contestants who instantly rub me the wrong way: Arnold, who tells us he prepared for Top Chef by hiring a wardrobe stylist and getting a facial (paging Simon VanKempen!); and John, the dreadlocked Michigan chef whose patchouli and hippy stank ooze through my TV screen and who seems too earnest to make it far in this competition.
The Quickfire is a mise en place relay, with 20,000 big ones going to the winner. Watching the chefs race to peel potatoes, brunoise onions, and break down chickens gets me hot and bothered in the culinary way, though nothing is more jaw-droppingly awesome than season 3’s Hung Huynh whacking those chickens (that’s what she said). As they move from ingredient to ingredient, chefs are eliminated for not completing the task in time and the four left standing—Kenny, Angelo, Timothy, and Kevin—have 30 minutes to create a dish based on those ingredients and whatever else they can find in the Top Chef pantry.
Timothy makes a potato galette with oyster mushrooms to accompany garlic-roasted chicken that Tom and Padma say is too heavy on the cream sauce. Kevin toils over a chicken wing with hot and sour broth that is deemed too salty. Kenny’s Moroccan-spiced chicken with onion confit and roasted potato gets a “nice job.” It’s Angelo’s roasted chicken with curried onion jam and potato noodles that wows the judges. Angelo is crowned the Quickfire winner, then says he wants to be the first contestant in the show’s history to win every challenge. Balls to the wall? Starts now.
For the Elimination Challenge, the four Quickfire finalists assemble their own teams of competitors. Each chef gets $300 to shop for a dish that reflects “where you come from” and will be judged against the others in their group. One chef from each of the four groups will be up for the win, while another will be up for elimination.
The chefs retire to the house for the night. The next morning, while some plan their menu, John writes in his diary about having had a tough time sleeping “in the big city” because of “pillows that were a bit soft.” Oh, John.
The next morning, the chefs shop at the Silver Spring Whole Foods, then make their way to the Top Chef kitchen. They have an hour to prepare their dishes for the 100 people attending a Cherry Blossom Festival cocktail party. Tom, Padma, and Gail are back in full force, and are joined by Eric Ripert. I’m thrilled he’s on the show not just for the eye candy, but because this man knows his stuff. He’s not some food critic searching for soundbites. He’s Eric Freakin’ Ripert.
I won’t go into all 17 dishes because it was pretty clear there were four that were outstanding and four that were, uh, not. The top four dishes were:
• Kevin’s lamb with Meyer-lemon-and-pistachio marmalade that Tom said was “simple, yet had a complexity to it.”
• Alex’s deconstructed short-rib borscht with crème fraîche that Tom said met Alex’s intent of honoring his mother’s original recipe.
• Kenny’s cinnamon- and coffee-rubbed trout with black-bean mole and goat-cheese polenta impressed all the judges.
• Angelo’s sashimi of Arctic char with pickled shallots, chile tapioca, and smoked-bacon froth. Gail called it a “smart bite of food,” while Ripert said the smoked-bacon foam was “a nice surprise.”
Chef Ripert declares the winner, and it’s Angelo.
The top four cheftestants go back to the Stew Room and send the following four chefs to the judges’ table:
• Stephen, whose overcooked potato-crusted ribeye “look like cheeken nuggetz” according to Ripert.
• John, whose maple mousse had no maple flavor and used frozen puff-pastry.
• Jacqueline, who confounded Gail with the very notion of a low-fat chicken-liver mousse.
• Timothy, whose rockfish skin never got crisp.
John Somerville is sent packing. He chokes up in his exit interview, spews some New Age jibber-jabber, and I’m left wondering what he wrote in his journal that night. “Dear Diary, I never got to play hacky sack in the Stew Room.”
In the preview of things to come, we see Sam Kass, Jonathan Waxman, Joe Scarborough, people sprinting through Whole Foods, cheftestants crying, and belligerence and finger-pointing in the Stew Room. Oh Top Chef, it’s good to have you back.
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