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Representing Your Constituency: Sink or Swim on the Season Premiere of Top Chef

I already spoke in general terms about the season premiere of Top Chef over in my advance review of the episode, but now that the episode has aired, we can get down to the details of the food that the cheftestants prepared this week.

First episodes are always tricky as there are a lot of new contestants and it's often hard to keep track of all of them, particularly when there are seventeen of them being introduced all at once. But this is Top Chef, after all, so it's only typical that the strongest performers would stand out in the first week... along with some of those who might be destined to be packing their knives sooner rather than later.

This week's episode of Top Chef ("What's Your Constituency?") found the new crop of contenders heading to Washington D.C., where they were immediately put through their paces in a round-robin Quickfire Challenge--with only four chefs actually getting to create a dish--before heading into their first Elimination Challenge, where they would have to create a dish that reflected where each of them was from and serve it to about 150 guests at a cocktail party.

So how did they do and what did they make? Let's discuss.

I thought it was interesting--and telling--that the producers would opt to begin the season with a mise-en-place tournament that would test their knife skills, their speed, and their ability to execute efficiently under intense pressure. Each round would force them to prep a different ingredient: in the first round they would have to peel ten potatoes; in the second, brunoise 10 cups of onions; in the third, break down four chickens into eight parts; and then, in the final leg, they would have to use those ingredients to prepare a dish. And, oh, there was also $20K on the line for the winner as it was a high-stakes challenge. (I discussed the oddness of having Vegas-style high-stakes in Washington in my review.)

The four remaining chefs still standing at the end--Timothy, Kevin, Kenny, and Angelo--then had a half an hour to prepare a dish using the onions, chicken, and potatoes that would wow Padma and Tom... and demonstrate to the other contestants just how strong they are.

Here's what they made:
  • Angelo: roasted chicken wing and thigh; curried onion jam; potato noodles
  • Kevin: boneless chicken wing with hot and sour broth, tomatoes, fennel, potato, and mushroom
  • Tim: garlic-roasted chicken, potato galette, oyster mushrooms
  • Kenny: duo of chicken with Moroccan spice, potato puree, and onion confit

I knew instantly that it would be between Angelo and Kenny. Just looking at how well executed and presented their dishes were, it was blatantly obvious that one of these two would be walking away with the $20,000. Tim's dish had way too much cream and just looked messy and less sophisticated. (There's nothing wrong with simplicity in a dish but then it needs to be presented immaculately.) Kevin's broth was criticized for having way too much salt.

Which, yes, left it to Kenny and Angelo. I thought Kenny pulled off an amazingly complex dish in just under 30 minutes; that beautiful plate could have come out of any four-star kitchen. Plus, he really showcased a variety of flavors and spices. Meanwhile, I was extremely impressed by Angelo's use of the starch here as he transformed the spuds into gorgeous potato noodles, no small feat given the time crunch they had.

Not surprisingly, Angelo was named the winner of the Quickfire... and a rivalry between him and Kenny was born right there.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs would have to take the flavors of their own constituencies and transform them into dishes that represented where they came from. The chefs would be split into teams of four, with them competing head to head within the group, with one chef from each team up for the win... and one up for elimination.

So what did they make? Let's discuss.

Team 1:
  • Amanda (California): red snapper carpaccio with cucumber, clementines, sencha oil, daikon, and caraway gelee
  • Arnold (Thailand and Tennessee): kaffir lime and basil cake with palm sugar anglaise and "Myint" julep
  • Kevin (Mid-Atlantic): Pennsylvania lamb, Meyer lemon and pistachio marmalade, and spring onions
  • Jacqueline (New York): duo of Hudson Valley chicken liver and port wine mousse

Amanda's dish, meant to evoke early Wolfgang Puck California cuisine was criticized for being messy and underseasoned. I'd have to agree with the messiness of the presentation; that gelee looked really loose and unappetizing and it didn't so much evoke Puck as it did almost parody him. Hmmm... Kevin's dish was universally praised as being tender and well seasoned, and he introduced some nice notes of ginger there as well. I knew straightaway that Jacqueline would be up for elimination for her coarse and grainy chicken liver mousse, which she made without any fat. Not only should the terrine have been sieved but there was no reason to make this a non-fat liver mousse. Just odd.

Team 2:
  • Stephen (Ohio): potato-crushed ribeye, celery root puree, scarlet stadium mustard vinaigrette
  • Ed (New England): sauteed cod cakes with Boston baked beans and shaved fennel salad
  • Lynne (Hudson Valley): corn-camembert ice cream on waffles, with bacon praline and caramel sauce
  • Tracey (The South): stone-ground grits, maple cheddar, Port Royal Rock shrimp
  • Kenny (Colorado): coffee-rubbed trout, black bean mole, goat cheese polenta, and quinoa

Tracey's shrimp were criticized for being bland; Ed's beans and beans were said to be too heavy, with Tom feeling that the fish cakes were all filler and very little cod itself. Stephen destroyed the integrity and flavor of the rib-eye by deep frying it... and turning it into little more that fried shoe leather. Kenny's dish was universally praised for its depth of flavor and lovely presentation.

Team 3:
  • Alex (Russia and California): deconstructed short rib borscht with cabbage, red beet puree, creme fraiche
  • Tamesha (Caribbean): jerk chicken sphere, soft polenta, tamarind, mango, papaya, jicama, and cilantro
  • Andrea (South Florida and Italy): pork with chorizo potato gnocchi, calabaza, and orange gremolata
  • Tim (Maryland): pan searched Maryland rockfish with pickled leek, dill, and grilled crostini with ginger and sesame seeds

The judges thought that Andrea's gnocchi was well seasoned, though it didn't exactly scream South Florida/Miami. Tim's fish dish didn't go over too well, with the judges criticizing the homogeneous quality of the two sauces; likewise, I didn't feel like it captured Maryland at all. Yes, the rockfish was from there but there were so many other things that Tim could have done that would better summed up the Chesapeake Bay area. However, I would applaud Alex for taking a calculated risk with his deconstructed borscht, which was very well done indeed: each of the ingredients was expertly prepared and they added up to a sum that captured the essence of borscht.

Team 4:
  • Tiffany (The South): Cajun shrimp and crawfish salad, chicken-fried tomatillos, and bacon-sherry vinaigrette
  • Kelly (Rocky Mountains): spice-crusted New York strip steak with fiddlehead fern, asparagus, and wild mushroom saute
  • Angelo (Rural Connecticut): smoked arctic char with pickled shallots, chili tapioca, and smoked bacon broth
  • John (Michigan): maple mousse napoleon with crisp macadamia nuts and vanilla sauce

Angelo once again ranked high; his arctic char was universally loved by the judges, though Gail questioned whether there was too much dill (Tom disagreed). It was a confident and accomplished dish that once again demonstrated his skill and poise. Kelly's New York strip steak was praised for her deft seasoning and execution. But the dreadlocked and awkward John didn't fare so well. His dish wasn't a favorite as the judges tasted sugar but not maple in the allegedly maple napoleon, which was also messy and not well executed at all. It was likely that he'd be sent home for this poor showing.

The top chefs ended up, not surprisingly, being Angelo, Kenny, Alex, and Kevin, with all of them receiving some well-earned praise. It fell to new judge Eric Ripert to announce the winner who was... Angelo. Again! Look for this extremely ambitious chef to fight to keep his lead week after week. There's a huge target on this guy's back...

At the bottom of the pack: Stephen, John, Jacqueline, and Tim. Most of these came as no surprise but I think that Tim was shocked to find himself up for elimination after he performed so well during the Quickfire (though didn't win that challenge). His speed and skill might be there but he has to work on his presentation and conceptualization skills. As for the others, I would have sent all three home, to be honest. Jacqueline made so many errors in her dish that it was shocking she even made it into the competition; every step she made was a huge and glaring misstep. Stephen showed very little skill or ability with his dish and a woeful appreciation of ingredients. And then there was John, whose maple napoleon was one of the worst dishes of the evening... and he didn't even make the pastry himself! No surprise that the Michigan chef was sent packing.

Do you agree with the judges' decision last night? Should Angelo have won? Did John deserve to be sent home? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Outside the Lunch Box"), the chefs create healthy kid fare at a middle school in support of First Lady Michelle Obama's national initiative to end childhood obesity.

Top Chef Preview: Who Got High and Came Up with This?

Top Chef Preview: Going Back to School


2muchtv said…
I like John's boldness in choosing to do a dessert for the first challenge, but I think the judges were right to send him home. Not making his own pastry was the straw that broke the camel's back.
susie que said…
I think that both John and Jacqueline should have been sent home. Yes, each tried to do something different but there's no point in making a "brave" choice if you don't have the skills to execute the dish correctly.
rockauteur said…
John looked like he should be on Hell's Kitchen instead of Top Chef, with his weirdo look and personality (or even a spoof of Top Chef). I do agree with 2muchtv's comment about him being ballsy for doing dessert in the first challenge but he failed so badly, that it didn't look like a risk, it just looked like a mess. glad to see him gone.

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