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.