Oh boy, does it feel like we’re desperate for content yet? In the spirit of the competition that sport provides, we’re turning to other outlets to, as my fellow TBB staff writer Pauly Kwestel puts it, “feel anything.”
Like a shining light in a dense fog, Bravo’s Top Chef has returned to our television screens with an all-star cast, promising to deliver the highest level of competition this award-winning food show has ever produced. As an enthusiast of the show — now turned hardcore fan because of extenuating virus-related circumstances — I jumped at the opportunity to treat the show like a Manchester United match day and recap the hell out of it.
If there is one thing Los Angeles knows, it’s stars. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Top Chef’s 17th season, featuring an all-star cast of show veterans, would flock to the City of Angels.
Knowing the caliber of chefs standing in front of her as the show opened in front of the LA Observatory, show host, Padma Lakshmi wasted no time throwing the chefs into the Quickfire.
Like your dad that makes you shoot off the backboard in a game of H-O-R-S-E, the season-opening Quickfire Challenge tested the chefs on their fundamentals. The veteran chefs competed in a Mise-en-place race that involved three stages of turn three artichokes, supreme five oranges, and crack 20 almonds. The first five chefs to finish the artichokes were a team, then the first five chefs to finish the oranges were a team, and so on. Once the the teams were established, they had to prepare two dishes using those ingredients to gain an advantage for the main challenge.
The Quickfire swiftly revealed how much these executive chefs rely on their sous chefs and station chefs — or as competitor Chef Kevin Gillespie put it, “P.F.T.S.” aka “People for that S—.” Speed was key as the first and second place teams earned a time advantage finishing ahead of the third place team — who would have only 15 minutes to prepare two dishes.
First Place Team Members: Red Team
Dishes: (1) Chargrilled Artichoke with Sumac, Yogurt and Tahini (2) Tortellono with Artichoke Barigoule in Pancetta Brodo
Left to right: Melissa King, Joe Sasto, Jamie Lynch, Kevin Gillespie, Bryan Voltaggio
Second Place Team Members: Blue Team
Dishes: (1) Artichoke Tempura and Aioli (2) Crispy Artichoke with Mint Vinaigrette
Left to right: Brian Malarkey, Nini Nguyen, Lisa Fernandes (likely no relation to Bruno), Stephanie Cmar, and Karen Akunowicz
Third Place Team Members: Green Team
Dishes: (1) Artichoke Crudo with Carrots and Fennel Gremolata (2) Almond-crusted Fried Artichoke with Orange Aioli
Left to right: Angelo Sosa, Gregory Gourdet, Lee Ann Wong, Eric Adjepong, and Jennifer Carroll.
It was clear as judges Lakshmi, Tom Collichio, and Gail Simmons tasted all the food that the time crunch affected the teams. With the limited amount of time afforded to the Green Team for finishing the Mise-en-place last, their fried artichoke dish suffered as the tempura batter on the artichoke did not have enough time in the fryer. Surprisingly, the Red Team, who had the most time, ran into a self-imposed time-based error after pasta-master Chef Joe Sasto stuck to his signature but failed to deliver an appetizing pasta in the limited amount of time.
Where the Red Team succeeded was in their chargrilled artichoke dish. The team hit all the right savory notes as the yogurt and tahini paired well with the grilled flavors of the artichoke.
Another standout, the Blue Team, benefitted from the time advantage they had over the Green Team. As the other team that chose to use the fryers, their chance to get their artichoke tempura in the fryer first afforded enough time to cook properly and receive rave reviews.
Ultimately, the judges chose the Red Team as the winners of the first Quickfire after they clearly benefited from having the most time. Despite the failures of Sasto’s pasta, the judges inferred that the strength of the chargrilled artichoke carried the team into first position.
With the winners set, Lakshmi laid out the parameters of the first elimination challenge — featuring a few twists. The first elimination revolved around the chefs’ natural ability to cook without all the comforts of a modern kitchen. Instead, they would have to cook on open fires, armed with fresh ingredients and basic utensils, to make a seafood feast served family style.
The Red Team in the Quickfire was split up into five team captains who had to choose a team of two other chefs to cook with.
Voltaggio’s Team (Aqua Team): Adjepong and Fernandes
Gillespie’s Team (Blue Team): Carroll and Nguyen
Lynch’s Team (Yellow Team): Gourdet and Cmar
Sasto’s Team (Red Team): Wong and Malarkey
King’s Team (Green Team): Sosa and Akunawicz
The teams arranged themselves quickly in front of the judges so that the stakes of the overall competition could finally be revealed to them. Because the title of Top Chef just doesn’t cut it these days, the chefs learned that they were competing for a grand prize of $250,000. Then, Collichio, who saw his opening and almost couldn’t control himself as Lakshmi revealed the dollar amount, came in with the 360-degree-between-the-legs-tomahawk-slam-dunk dad joke, “that’s a lot of clams!” Jeez, when they allow us to congregate in groups of more than 10 people again, I better see this guy’s next set at The Comedy Store on Netflix.
The teams quickly broke off to separate areas of the Top Chef kitchen to begin planning out their menus for the elimination challenge. Immediately, some tension rose to the surface on Chef Sasto’s team as Chef Malarkey started to dominate the conversation and menu planning. Chef Sasto aired frustrations in his one-on-one cutaway interview because he felt he should take the lead on menu planning since he was technically the team captain. Frankly, he should have stood his ground if he felt so strongly because he found himself at the mercy of another competitor — a mistake that would cost him later.
Eventually, the menu planning and ingredient picking would end, and the chefs were shuttled off to the place in the Hollywood Hills that they’ll stay at during the competition.
The next five minute sequence of the show was really just a big flex by Bravo and the unnamed homeowner. But, since Top Chef is more focused on cooking and less on being The Real World, viewers were quickly transitioned with the chefs to the sandy beaches where the elimination challenge was beginning.
Cooking on grated fire pits proved to be a difficult venture for the chefs as they were in a constant battle with the sea breeze to keep the fires burning at optimum temperatures to cook food evenly. The Red Team found themselves in trouble when grilling their fish. Chef Wong laid her slices directly on the unseasoned grating that caused the fish to stick; this, in turn led to another mental error as Wong poured oil directly over the grating, causing a flare up that scorched the sides of the fish.
Blue team also found themselves at odds with the open flame at times. Chef Nguyen found herself fanning the flames with a baking sheet to keep the wood burning and flames stoked for cooking.
The initial cooking montages quickly ended and Green Team were the first to present their meal to the elite panel of judges that Chef Lynch declared was, “...a finale panel.” Some of the world’s leading culinary personalities were there to judge including — because we want to tie this back to football somehow — Arsenal fan and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson.
Chef King’s dish: Grilled swordfish with hot and sour sauce, ember-grilled radicchio, fresno chiles
Chef Akunowicz’s dish: Grilled scallops, gingered plums, nuoc cham and Napa cabbage slaw
Chef Sosa’s dish: West Coast oyster with smoked bacon rice porridge
Chef Akunowicz earned the early praise from the table as her scallops were grilled to perfection and her slaw was well-regarded for incorporating flavors that matched the setting. Chef Sosa did not fare as well, as guest judge Chef Jeremiah Tower compared the texture of the oyster to baby food (YIKES). Chef King garnered the highest praise of her teammates as her grilled radicchio was lauded as good enough to be its own dish, let alone be a side for the grilled swordfish.
Chef Malarkey’s dish: Sea urchin, spot prawns with hibiscus ponzu and burnt avocado
Chef Sasto’s dish: Sesame and semolina flatbread with clams, fried garlic, sea urchin, pickled peppers and miso parmesan aioli
Chef Wong’s dish: Shoyu Tare glazed halibut with charred sweet corn and cabbage, sea urchin, uni miso beurre blanc
The Red Team’s dishes found themselves under fire from the panel because they did not marry well in a family style setting. Chef Sasto’s dish quickly became soggy because sauces from the other dishes were seeping into the flatbread. Furthermore, the flatbread was hit with the dreaded “it’s fine” from Collichio who echoed the sentiments of the other judges when he stated that there was just too much going on with the flatbread and it didn’t make sense together. Chef Wong’s mistakes on the grill were considered a “rookie mistake” as the flare ups and oil ruined the flavor of the fish. Finally, Chef Malarkey’s dish received criticism for lacking grilled elements. His ceviche earned compliments but the dish having only one grilled element — the burnt avocado — stuck in the craw of the judges.
Chef Gourdet’s dish: Charred salmon with grilled peaches and roasted chili dressing
Chef Lynch’s dish: Steamed mussels with ember scalded cream, toasted bread
Chef Cmar’s dish: Brined prawn with charred tomato sauce and roasted corn dressing
The judges did not even wait for the Yellow Team to walk away before complimenting the food. Chef Gourdet’s sauce, in particular, was praised for its balance and spice while his salmon was cooked “flawlessly.” Chef Lynch took a risk scalding his cream sauce, despite a lack of familiarity with the technique, but it paid dividends as the sauce was well-received. Chef Cmar rounded out the critiques with the highest praise as all the charred elements were cooked perfectly and worked in concert with her teammates’ dishes.
Chef Carroll’s dish: Spiced tuna loin over grilled kale with red pepper tahini sauce
Chef Nguyen’s dish: Grilled scallop, carrots, tomatoes, with charred Brussels sprout and fennel salad.
Chef Gillespie’s dish: Eye of swordfish braised in chorizo with coal roasted onion, olives, peas
Chef Carroll’s tuna loin won against her teammates’ dishes as the judges enjoyed the cooking technique and sauce. Chef Nguyen’s grilled scallop earned praise, but the rest of her dish seemed to be lackluster based on the judges’ reactions. Chef Gillespie won the rare looks-good-tastes-bad award. His presentation earned top marks from the judges before they shredded the dish for being too busy and lacking proper technique.
Chef Fernandes’ dish: Charred shrimp and scallop ceviche with candied squash, mushrooms, avocado
Chef Voltaggio’s dish: Sablefish with corn porridge and charred leeks
Chef Adjepong’s dish: Chesapeake boil with grilled prawn
The first phrase said about Aqua Team after they left the judging area was “technically prepared flawlessly.” Chef Fernandes’ ceviche earned the award of best ceviche of the day thanks to her confidence in her ingredients and keeping it simple. Chef Adjepong’s Chesapeake boil (my pick for dish I wanted to eat the most) earned an effusive yet simple compliment from Lakshmi when she said it had the best flavor. Chef Voltaggio received mixed reviews as half of the judges table referred to his sablefish as mushy while the other half of the judges thought it was complex and tasty.
Winning Team: Yellow Team
You knew when the judges had to compliment the chefs while they were still serving their dishes, that this team had a strong shot of winning. Ultimately, the team’s ability to put together a cohesive menu featuring dishes that all complimented each other was what earned them the top marks.
Winning Dish: Chef Gourdet’s charred salmon with grilled peaches and roasted chili dressing
Bottom Team: Red Team
The moment this team started planning its menu, problems surfaced, and the chickens came home to roost, so to say. All three dishes had significant fundamental flaws outlined by the judges, and the dishes failed to complement each other — with Chef Sasto’s flatbread being the major victim as his flatbread soaked up the liquids of the other two dishes when served together. Furthermore, Chef Sasto’s dish was considered too busy and required major editing for it to be worthy of making a menu.
Bottom Dish: Chef Sasto’s sesame and semolina flatbread with clams, fried garlic, sea urchin, pickled peppers and miso parmesan aioli
Pour one out for this week’s eliminated chef: Chef Joe Sasto
We mustache you to please pack up your knives and go...
Judges’ Table concluded with the hopeful reminder that Chef Sasto still has a chance to rejoin later in the season by competing in Top Chef’s own Europa League better known as Last Chance Kitchen.
Finally, with a sigh of relief that they were not the one going home, the remaining chefs relaxed their guard long enough for Lakshmi to drop the final twist that the next elimination challenge was starting now. Cue looks of disbelief, roll teaser for the rest of the season, roll credits. See you next Thursday.
Power Rankings after Episode 1
1. Chef Gourdet
2. Chef Adjepong
3. Chef Cmar
4. Chef Lynch
5. Chef King
6. Chef Carroll
7. Chef Fernandes
8. Chef Akunowicz
9. Chef Nguyen
10. Chef Voltaggio
11. Chef Malarkey
12. Chef Gillespie
13. Chef Sosa
14. Chef Wong