Watching the premiere of Top Chef last night brought us back to the first day of seventh grade—we were full of anxiety, failing to remember anybody’s name, and sizing everyone up. But this isn’t just any school, as host/judge Padma Lakshmi reminds the fresh-faced cast of 17 cheftestants; it’s New York City: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
The show kicks off with a flurry of introductions, complete with trying-to-be-intimidating sound bites (“I love that no one tells me what to do,” says shiny-lipped San Francisco-based chef Jamie), honest admissions (“My inner queen just wants to know where Padma is and what she’s wearing,” says the tall, bearded Richard), and downright incomprehensible mumblings (the Finnish Stefan and Italian Fabio have an excuse, but Danny, you bulldog, move those jowls—we can’t understand you!).
The group gathers for Padma and fellow judge Tom Colicchio’s first Quickfire Challenge: Peel 15 apples as quickly as possible. The catch? No vegetable peelers allowed. In possibly the lamest start to Top Chef ever, the slowest eight peelers must prove their worth by cutting the apples into a brunoise, a minuscule dice. The last four snails finally have to cook something with the apples to convince the judges they should stay.
The petite Rhadika gripes that the 20-minute limit gives her just enough time to unpack her knives, but it’s Army wife Lauren—whose sideways hat doesn’t hold a candle to Spike’s fedoras—and baby-faced Culinary Institute of America student Patrick who can’t even get it together to use fire—both whip up lame salads. And just like that, Lauren is eliminated. But so soon? She doesn’t even have a Top Chef jacket to take home! Does this mean we’ll have to say goodbye to two people in one episode?
A knife block appears, so that means the next challenge is going to be based on what’s written on the knives, right? Each knife reveals an ethnic neighborhood in New York such as Long Island City, Brighton Beach, Little Italy, and Chinatown. Two chefs, assigned to an area for inspiration and ingredients, will pit their ethnic dishes against each other.
Before the chefs run off, they settle in their new home long enough for a clique to form: Jamie, Richard, and Patrick deem themselves “Team Rainbow”—and Fabio and Stefan, the two Europeans, are attached at the hip (“We both like soccer,” claims Fabio).
The cooks come back from their grocery shopping to find celeb chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten as the guest judge, whose Asian culinary background makes him an especially harsh critic for Chinatown travelers Patrick and Daniel. While he politely finds Patrick’s salmon in need of some spice, it’s Tom who finally shows his ruthless side and reminds us why we’re still watching: The salmon was a “sanitized version of Chinese food” and Daniel’s dish was something that “Wolfgang Puck made popular 20 years ago.”
It’s no surprise that Hawaii native Gene, ponytail-swinging Leah, and Stefan are the winners. Padma can’t stop praising Gene for his authentic Indian dish, which she says is a staple in all South Indian homes and “Oh, my gosh, he’s never eaten Indian food before!” It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out the chopping-block losers either, but it’s way more fun to hear fake-tanner Ariane tell Tom she doesn’t need to travel outside of New Jersey because she has cookbooks at home to teach about ethnic cuisine. Despite her grossly undercooked farro, it’s red-faced Patrick who has to pack his knives and go back to the Culinary Institute of America.
But, to get all seventh-grade about it, we really just wanted to tell judge Gail Simmons to march on over to the set of Project Runway to get Tim Gunn to help her with that tragic Marcia Brady dress.
What did you think of the show? Let us know in the comments below!
Want more Top Chef? Check out our chat with last season's contestant Spike, here.