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Chi-town Showdown: Advance Look at Bravo's "Top Chef: Chicago"

I've made no bones about it. While I love watching Project Runway, the reality series I get most fired up about is none other than Bravo's Top Chef, an irresistable blend of cuisine, catastrophe, and, well, catfights, if the scenes for what's coming up this season (the series' fourth) hold any weight.

The good folks at Bravo were kind enough to send me a rough cut of the season opener of Top Chef: Chicago on one major condition: I can't reveal the winner or loser of the first episode's elimination challenge (sorry, guys!). But that doesn't mean that I can't offer an advance look at what that first episode holds for the sixteen new contestants. So sharpen your knives and beware: minor spoilers abound!

I have to say that any fears I had about Top Chef losing its spark after three seasons of culinary competitions were completely misfounded: the series is just as gripping, stressful, and intense as it always has been. The season opener finds sixteen new cheftestants as they move into their new digs in Chicago but before they have any chance to get to know each other (after a quick meal at Chi-town's ubiquitous Pizzeria Uno) they're already off to a quickfire challenge. But before we get to that, a few things upfront.

The Contestants. Once again Top Chef managed to cast a motley bunch of chefs, each one supremely self-assured about their skills. Or are they? For the first time in the history of Top Chef, nerves are really getting to several contestants right off the bat. (Though, fortunately, last season's fruit gazpacho incident doesn't reoccur.) One manages to slice her finger cutting onions thirty seconds into the competition; later, her hands are shaking so badly that she can nearly not sauce her dishes. Another looks like they are about to faint when called in to the judges' table post-elimination.

But, guess what? It works. I liked seeing that the stakes were high for this group of young chefs, that they were nervous to be under the scrutiny of judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Ted Allen, and guest judges Rocco DiSpirito and Tony Bourdain. It smacked of humility, a rarity these days in the reality world.

Humility is one thing that contestant Andrew, a 30-year-old sous chef from Fort Lauderdale, could use. Right off the bat, he's presented as this season's villain, a fiery, hot-tempered ego maniac who seems the most likely candidate to uphold the long tradition of Stephen, Marcel, and Hung and rub his fellow contestants the wrong way. In the first episode alone, his hyped-up attitude and sour expressions are enough to earn him a place on my least liked list, along with Nimma, who shuns her fellow contestants on their first night and goes to bed rather than join in with the group bonding.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of chefs who I am keeping my eye on. Nerves are clearly getting the best of some but there are a few to keep an eye on, including: 29-year-old Kiwi Mark, the sous chef at Public Restaurant in Manhattan (anyone who dares to use Marmite on Top Chef--and makes it work--earns some serious points in my book); 35-year-old chef/culinary designer Richard (winner of this season's most ambitious hair award) who once again brings molecular gastronomy to Top Chef; and 31-year-old Stephanie, who despite her nerves, brings much passion to her dishes.

The Controversy. In another Top Chef first, two of the contestants not only know each other from before the competition but are in fact a romantic couple: Jennifer and Zoi, a fact which they immediately disclose to their fellow contestants. I'll admit that it's a bit random that two members of a couple both make it through to the final contestant pool but they are both clearly there to win and I did appreciate that the women disclosed their relationship at the start. It's only fair that their competitors know about their relationship, especially with some team challenges likely in the works.

The Rules. Another change this year? The producers allowed the contestants to bring $200 worth of supplies and equipment with them to use in the competition. (It also explains the aforementioned Marmite, which is definitely NOT in the Top Chef kitchens.) It will be very interesting to see how this twist plays out through the season as it gives each of the chefs a slight edge as they are allowed to use familiar ingredients and techniques in their dishes, personalizing the experience slightly and allowing them to use techniques like smoking (which Richard does in the premiere), etc. to create some impressive effects.

Quickfire Challenge. This being Chicago, the chefs are tasked with creating a deep-dish pizza that embodies their personality and style of cooking. While the dough may be prepared for them in advance, they still need to design the toppings and figure out how to bake a deep-dish pizza, which proves a distinct disaster for some. The results? Some astoundingly good pizzas, like Richard's (sausage, taleggio, and peaches with sweet tea reduction) and Mark's (a Marmite-enriched chicken and tomato pizza) and a whole lot of unremarkable ones, including a hunter's feast of mushrooms with rosemary and thyme that, in a sinful error, is completely underseasoned and unsalted. (Shock, horror!) and a bunch that, well, look pretty awful to me.
Elimination Challenge. Strangely, there's no winner named in the Quickfire Challenge, but instead the contestants are separated into two groups: the best pizzas and the worst pizzas. For their elimination challenge, the chefs will face off in head-to-head competitions to present classic dishes like Chicken Piccata, Shrimp Scampi, Souffle, Crab Cakes, Lasagna, Duck a L'Orange, steak au poivre, and eggs Benedict. As for the results, you'll have to wait until next week to learn just how these chefs managed to reinterpret these dishes. Some opted to deconstruct, others to remain unyieldingly true to the classic nature of these dishes.

All in all, an immensely satisfying season opener to the tastiest reality series on television today. Who will be the first to get cut from the competition and who will inch one step closer to earning the title of Top Chef? Find out next week.

Top Chef kicks off its fourth season on Wednesday, March 12th at 10 pm ET/PT. (Set your TiVos for some extra padding: it's scheduled to run 15 minutes overtime.)

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Biggest Loser (NBC; 8-10 pm); America's Next Top Model (CW); Just for Laughs/Just for Laughs (ABC); American Idol (FOX)

9 pm: Big Brother 9 (CBS); One Tree Hill (CW); According to Jim/Carpoolers (ABC); New Amsterdam (FOX)

10 pm: Jericho (CBS); Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC); Primetime: What Would You Do? (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

9 pm: Last Restaurant Standing on BBC America.

On the fifth episode of this addictive British import, the seven remaining couples fight it out to lure in more customers to their restaurants, attempting every marketing ploy from balloon releases to free gifts. They are also tasked with creating a special children's menu with entertainment (too bad Jacqui's not there anymore), which quickly transforms their smart eateries into absolute chaos.

Comments

Unknown said…
I should NOT have read this so early in the morning. I'm really hungry now. Thanks for the amuse bouche on the new season! Consider my appetite sufficiently whetted.
Looks like we're in for another tasty season of Top Chef. I can't wait!!
Anonymous said…
Jace,

I also got a sneak peek at the first episode and could not agree with you more about the contestants...except that Andrew, while having the ego of Hung, Stephen, or Marcel, has yet to prove that he has their skills.

And I'm eager to see more of what Richard can do. Usually, I'm not a big fan of molecular gastronomy but he seems to have a more grounded approach to his work unlike some previous chefs who seem to go for style over substance (cough, Marcel, cough).

No clear front runner yet but definitely an eclectic and talented bunch. Should be a great season!

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