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“Top Chef” recap: on vice cuisine, fried steak and showgirls

Credit: Bravo TV

Credit: Bravo TV

Note: This will be the first of weekly recaps of “Top Chef: Las Vegas.” They will CONTAIN SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen this week’s episode yet and don’t want to know the results, don’t read this. Thanks!

And so it begins. Seventeen eager chefs sporting at least 400 tattoos have arrived in a magical place where there are slot machines in the airport: Las Vegas.
Padma Lakshmi explains that the contestants are vying for many prizes, which include a roll of Glad Wrap and a subscription to Food & Wine. Or something like that. Maybe some cash.

Who do we have? Shall we meet them? Maybe not all of them – 17 is a lot of chef to absorb. But let’s start with a few.

We have, all together now, three Atlantans: Hector Santiago from Pura Vida, who likes to smoke and run his hand through his ponytail when he’s nervous. Go Hector! We have Kevin Gillespie from Woodfire Grill, who says he turned down a full scholarship to M.I.T. to go to cooking school. (Have his parents re-owned him?) Go Kevin! And we have Eli Kirshtein from Eno, our Atlanta-born-and-bred self-described “fat kid” who likes to cook “fat kid food.” Do I smell bacon? Go Eli!

But wait. There is a fourth chef with an Atlanta connection, and that would be one Michael Isabella, who is currently the executive chef at (the very good) Zaytinya in Washington, D.C., but who used to be the sous chef at Kyma. More on Michael later. He’s a handful.

Other interesting characters include the lone Frenchman, young Mattin Noblia, who now cooks in San Francisco. How French is he? Well, he likes to admire his reflection in a chef’s knife and wear a jauntily knotted red kerchief around his neck, which makes him look like a boy Madeline. Or maybe Tintin. He says (in his bio, online) that he’d like to share a candlelit dinner with Jessica Alba. I’m sure Jessica is into guys with kerchiefs.

Jennifer Carroll from Philadelphia seems to be Betty Draper character here – blonde and icy. She says she’s a “freaking bitch in the kitchen” and has “made enough boys cry.” Please, Jennifer, do it again.

The other Jennifer from Philadelphia, Jennifer Zavala, is the resident tat victim, with a chained heart inked across her neck and the word “scarred” spread across her clavicle below. Wow. I’d hate to see what she wears on her sleeve.

So, our contestants meet at their suburban McMansion, have a little “hi, roomie” talk around the pool, and then it’s time to get on the chef’s whites and caravan over to the Top Chef kitchen in some resort.

Padma and Tom Colicchio are there to greet them, and Hector’s eyes pop, just a little. “Padma is even more beautiful in person than she is on TV,” he enthuses in his mofongo-thick Puerto Rican accent.

As soon as Padma promises “twists and turns like no other season,” a line of Stardust showgirls high kicks through the kitchen. Their red headdresses rise higher than Paul Bocuse’s toque, and the chefs all goggle their eyes. Which leads into the first…

QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Mise en Place Relay Race (or: There Will Be Blood)

The 17 chefs draw chips from a hat and break into four teams of four, and one “nanny-nanny-boo-boo, I’ve got immunity” granted to a woman who drew the gold chip. In other words, she gets to live to see another week even if she serves a plate of fricasseed croupier visors.

So the four teams race each other to open clams, peel prawns, shell lobster and cut ribeye steaks in that order. Jennifer Z. struggles so mightily with her clams that she ends up slicing her fingers and bleeding all over her dishtowels. And remember Mike, the old Kyma sous chef? He espies Jennifer C. matching him clam for clam and sniffs, “a girl shouldn’t be at the same level I am.” Dude, seriously? I am so waiting for your bitter boy tears.

Jennifer C.’s team wins, which means those four chef each get to cook their food item for a sweet $15,000 chip. Jennifer C. is the victor! Her clam ceviche bests Mattin’s five-spice lobster and two other dishes. She sprints to collect her chip, busses Tom’s cheek, does a victory lap around the kitchen. Mike the sexist watches and plots for his revenge with the…

ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Create a Dish Based on a Vice (or: Do All Chefs have Drinking Problems?)

Yes, each chef has to admit to a vice — say, drinking to excess, using the Lord’s name in vain, or beating their dogs — then create a dish based around it. Of course. So soon they are racing through Whole Foods with $150 burning a hole in their pockets and snatching scallops before others can get to them.

The charming Mike refers to Indian-American contestant Preeti Mistry as “Purty or Pretty or whatever she is” and Eli (our Eli!) as a “little monkey.” He is a serious bouchedag.

After the chefs pack up reusable shopping bags, they rush over to the kitchen at Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse, Cut. Puck joins the judges’ table along with regular judge Gail Simmons.

Alas, Mike the bouchedag is clever. His vice is having a hot temper, and so the olive oil poached halibut over eggplant puree is designed to look like the bar of soap his mother used to wash out his mouth with. The judges deem it good but not the sheer perfection of the halibut prepared by Jennifer C. She serves it in a sauce made with two kinds of whiskey and brandy. Can you guess what her vice is?

Hector says his vice is smoking, and after he determines he can’t buy cigars at Whole Foods, decides to marinate a ribeye steak in a “smoke brine” and then deep-fry it, like chicharrones. Okaaaaayyy….

Wolfie the Puck is not impressed. If one of his cooks deep-fried a steak, “I would throw him with the steak into the fryer,” he says.

Jennifer Z., fresh off her clam fiasco, decides to make a chile relleno stuffed with walnut-sized chunks of seitan. You know the stuff? It’s an elastic mass of insoluble wheat gluten. Vegetarians and sad people in Indonesia eat it. Jennifer thought the spicy chile filled with the bouncy protein bullets would communicate her own hot temper.

Eli, another chef who likes the drink not wisely but too well, makes a complicated looking dish called “buttered Scotch” that involves scallops and beer powder. I wonder if we’re going to be seeing a lot of quotation mark dishes from Eli. You know: this is a “BLT” but really consists of three piles of wobbly, gelled goo. (He did work with Richard Blais.) The judges like his dish, but deem it a tad too busy.

Kevin, meanwhile, claims procrastination as his vice and prepares a slow-cooked arctic char with turnip salsa verde to illustrate this. (I may try that next time.) The judges like it very well — so well, in fact, that they call Kevin along with Jennifer C., Mike and Ron, a Haiti-born chef, for the guess-who-wins lineup.

Kevin wins! His dish is original and delicious.

And now the bad news. Hector gets called to the one-of-you-must-die lineup along with Jennifer Z. Joining them are a girl with a dry chicken breast and so many lip piercings she looks like a seamstress with a mouthful of pins, and a sad-faced Michiganer who poorly seared her scallops and overcreamed her sauce.

Jennifer Z. loses. She gets belligerent and pulls the old “you don’t like my alternative protein” card. Gail Simmons slaps her into place: “I don’t think using seitan was what we didn’t like. It was that you didn’t use it in a way that tasted good.”

And Padma: “Please pack your knives and go.”

Back in the museum of Glad products, Hector nurses a beer and waxes poetic. “I cook how I cook,” he muses, “with heart and balls.”

Gulp. That sounds like an appetizer special at Abattoir. See you next week.

27 comments Add your comment

Marion Sullivan

August 19th, 2009
11:00 pm

Enter your comments here

joe for 3

August 20th, 2009
12:16 am

I know everyone is wondering about the fried ribeye, how did it taste?


August 20th, 2009
1:10 am

Jen Z, the first chef eliminated in the season premiere of Top Chef: Las Vegas will be chatting live Thursday 8/20 at 11:15 am (ET)/8:15 am (PT) on Fancast. (Sorry for the early time west coasters, but it’s the chef’s schedule.)

Bravo is providing Fancast with the eliminated chef each week for live chats the day after the show airs, so please stop by and chat with Jen this week and let her know your questions and comments.

Jim (for Fancast)

Anna Burke

August 20th, 2009
3:16 am

I’m thrilled that you’re writing about Top Chefs! If this is an indication of your long-term approach, I predict that you will be a winner and your readers will be in stitches every week.


August 20th, 2009
5:47 am

I disagree with Anna, whom I think is stupid. If you continue to write about this crap, you will be fired. Because I will fire you.

Love The TopChef

August 20th, 2009
7:25 am

To: John, wonderful write-up please continue to keep us in the Top Chef Loop!


August 20th, 2009
7:47 am

There was one girl who made donuts (actually, looked like donut holes) along with a couple of sauces. Question: how did she spend $150 on that? It shouldn’t have cost more than $10 – maybe she pocketed the rest of the money?

I don’t think Hector understood what a “vice” is. Nice story, but I think the language barrier caused him to not understand.

Noblia looks like a putz, and Mike (thankfully the show doesn’t mention his Atlanta connection) looks like he’ll be around for awhile and being an a** the whole time.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the brothers play off each other. I think there’s going to be quite a bit of rivalry there.

I couldn’t believe the “gold chip” woman didn’t turn in the immunity chip for a 20% chance at winning $15,000 by joining the winning team for the cookoff. She had noooooo confidence. The odds of needing the immunity were negligible, since there were 17 folks and only 1 going home. However – her dish at the end was incomplete and she might have been taking a hike. I guess she knew she was bad and needed the immunity. She may be gone next week – the judges know how that dish tasted and that she has no confidence.

See ya!


August 20th, 2009
8:05 am

Enter your comments here

[...] the rest here: Three Atlanta Chefs Battle On TV This entry was posted in Atlanta News. Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you [...]


August 20th, 2009
9:17 am

John, I love your commentary… It’s better than the show. Keep it coming!

Rodney Ho

August 20th, 2009
9:44 am

Brilliant, John. I wish I could write like you!


August 20th, 2009
11:13 am

Bouchedag! Yes! Thanks John. That was the word I was looking for last night.

Can I just say: I’m creeped out by Pin-Cushion Jen. I’m sure she is a fine cook but she looks as if she has handcuffs through her lips. Or maybe she needed an extra utensil hook.

And while whoo-hoo, for Kevin are we not mentioning the first-elimination challenge winner usually winner streak?

My favorite comment of the night was when Wolfie said all chefs these days cook something really nice and then spread baby food all around it. Hah!

So John, were you inspired to cook a vice?


August 20th, 2009
12:01 pm

Hector got a raw deal. They berrated him for deep frying a steak, but never said anything about how it, or the other components tasted. It looked delishious to me.

Kevin dish and explanation was right on. Good for him.

Not sure about Eli yet. Seems like a bouchedag, but I can’t tell for certain. He didn’t get a lot of airtime. Mike on the other hand is definitly a bouchedag, a sockcucker and a jagoff. Hope he goes quickly.

Rod, do you know what a vice is? I’m pretty sure smoking is a vice. You may be mistaken with the guy from Haiti. He surely didn’t know what a vice was.


August 20th, 2009
12:26 pm

jsf3000, yeah, I got Hector and the Haiti guy switched. But, yes, I know what a vice is. It’s a cop that always busts me when I go shopping down Peachtree Street.


August 20th, 2009
12:32 pm

Should make for an interesting season…lots of different personalilies

NeNe's Greg's boss

August 20th, 2009
12:54 pm



August 20th, 2009
1:07 pm

Wolfie the Puck? Come on.

John Kessler

August 20th, 2009
1:31 pm

Joe for 3: Me, too! I bet the fried steak would’ve worked well as a small plate because you would have been encouraged to try some of that caramelized fat ribbon.
Jim: Please don’t fire me before I get to see the new Dunwoody office!
Michigander: I keep expecting Pin-Cushion Jen to say, “Now, mum, if you keep moving about I’ll never get this hem stitched.”
Jsf3000: ha!
Various folks: Thanks for reading! (Rodney: Appreciate the props from the TV king.)


August 20th, 2009
2:09 pm

Gail Simmons is bountiful. She has much bounty. That is all.


August 20th, 2009
2:49 pm

Jim is a tool.


August 20th, 2009
7:18 pm

Love it! Thanks for the write up.
Kevin Gillespie is no joke. Atlanta chefs represent!

Finally «

August 21st, 2009
8:43 am

[...] and it’s looking like it’s going to be a great season. Don’t forget there are three chefs from the ATL –Hector Santiago for Pura Vida (one of my faves), Kevin Gillespie from Woodfire Grill [...]

Paul The Vol

August 21st, 2009
12:01 pm

Ye Olde Steak House in Knoxville deep fries their steaks and they have had a booming business for over 30 years. I can tell you they taste pretty darn good.

The best line of the night was when Padma described the nasty looking chile relleno as a “vegan bar midnight special”.

[...] you know that chef Santiago’s deep-fried steak didn’t go over so well with the judges (if you need to catch up, check out John Kessler’s hilarious recap), even if he does claim to cook with “heart and balls.” Ouch. I don’t even want [...]


August 26th, 2009
4:24 pm

My wife went to Pura Vida this weekend and the deep fried steak was being offered as a special. She said it was really good.