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First Impressions on the Season Premiere of "Top Chef"

It's pretty clear within the opening moments of last night's season premiere of Top Chef, this time set in Miami, that it blows FOX's Hell's Kitchen right out of the water in terms of talent.

Looking at any of these contestants, they all have more creativity, skill, and passion in their little fingers than any of the Hell's Kitchen competitors do in their whole beings. There's no sobbing during service or fainting in the kitchen going on here. No, instead its bravado, culinary know-how, and heaps of training that's on display and I wouldn't have it any other way. In its third season, Top Chef remains a stylish and slick production without the whiff of manufactured "reality" that dogs every minute of Hell's Kitchen.

These are some serious chefs that the Top Chef crew has assembled this time around; one can't help shake the feeling that this current crop of competitors outshine even their comperes from the first two seasons and producers have definitely made a point of trying to avoid the juvenile antics of last season, replacing an immature brigade with a professional-looking (well, at this point, anyway) crew of seasoned chefs, many of whom own their own restaurants, businesses, or work in top kitchens around the country.

Which is why I knew that Clay was a goner from the very first second they introduced him. Sure, he'd give the Hell's Kitchen team a run for their money but you could tell right away that he was way out of his depth, attempting to present a sort of down-home Southern style of cooking that never gels well with the haute cuisine aesthetics of the show. And as soon as he presented his amuse bouche--a hallowed-out apple with a gazpacho and fruit--for the Quickfire Challenge, I knew that (A) he had misunderstood the assignment and (B) poor Clay wouldn't be around for very much longer unless he had some seriously bad-ass cooking skills he had purposely kept under the radar. (No such luck.)

That said, I was mightily impressed with how Tre--a 30-year-old self-taught chef de cuisine--went from being in the bottom three of the Quickfire Challenge to the winner of the Elimination Challenge, a highly coveted position as the past two winners of the 1st Quickfire have gone on to win the title. His winning dish--seared ostrich filet with heirloom tomato risotto and abalone reduction--was beautifully presented and perfectly balanced. Top points for creativity in using the two proteins together in one dish, flawlessly executed.

With the win, Tre has positioned himself as the one to beat, though he had better watch his back: I was definitely dazzled by the talents of the runner-up, 29-year-old sous chef Hung, who presented a gorgeous and provocative combination of geoduck and black chicken, here served as a combination of slow-poached black chicken with raw geoduck and fennel with ginger and scallion. Also climbing the ranks: the not-so-humble Micah, who won the Quickfire Challenge and compared herself to Michelangelo. Can she back her arrogance with some sharp skills to match? We'll see.

Not sure that I've seen enough of the contestants to claim any favorites, but I do like Tre, Lia (I can spot a literature major anywhere), private chef and cancer survivor CJ, Jamaican Sara M (how can you not love a cheese maker?), and perky Micah (though if she doesn't chill with the helpfulness she might end up off the list). I'm on the fence about Hung; he's super-talented but seems to have been infected with the same sort of arrogance/self-entitlement that made Marcel such an obnoxious presence last season. (It's hardly surprising though that the two are friends and colleagues.) Sara N. flew under the radar a little bit but I do think she showed some real poise with the razor clams. Joey already irritates me.

As for the Elimination Challenge, it definitely forced the competitors into thinking outside the box when it came to some exotic ingredients for an unconventional surf-and-turf dish. (As a huge fan of wild boar, that would have been the first thing I reached for.) The results were an array of dishes, of which no two were alike, even when the same protein combo was involved (Hung vs. Sara M.). It was clear from the judges' reactions that Hung and Tre had the two best dishes (though why did they only select a top two, rather than the traditional three?) and obvious that Clay would end up in the bottom four, along with Howie, Brian, and Dale.

I couldn't really feel bad for Howie as he made the decision early on to spend less attention on the timing of the service than on the presentation and quality of his dish. I think that quality, yes, should be preferable over speed of service but in order to be a successful chef one must (to paraphrase guest judge Tony Bourdain) get the customer what they ordered, when they want it, and get it out there hot. Maybe if he had had another, say, 15 seconds to get those frog legs plated, the outcome of the Elimination Challenge may have been different; his risotto was beautifully presented and delicious. As for Dale, it was obvious that he had concocted a recipe that was way too complicated for the demands of the timeframe they had on hand but like Howie, he was able to articulate where he went wrong during the process in a way that previous contestants have not. And Brian? Well, he ended up just basically frying his rattlesnake, a huge, glaring mistake.

In the end, it was Clay who was told to pack his knives and go. I thought he had a really provocative backstory (his chef father killed himself) but it was clear that he was definitely out of his league here. Fourteen chefs remain and this is still anybody's game.

Next week on Top Chef ("Sunny Delights"), the chefs are tasked with working with fruit and are judged by guest judge Norman Van Aken, while new regular judge Ted Allen finally deigns to make an appearance.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Pirate Master (CBS); My Name is Earl/30 Rock (NBC); Smallville (CW); Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (FOX)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); The Office/Scrubs (NBC); Supernatural (CW); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX)

10 pm: Shark (CBS); Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Pirate Master.

On tonight's episode ("Bribes, Lies and Vengeful Eyes"), everyone's tired of Captain Joe Don and another mutiny attempt is hatched, while one pirate resorts to bribery in order to make sure that Pirates' Court voting goes his way. As they say in the promos, watch your back!

8:30 pm: 30 Rock.

It's a repeat of my favorite new series of the year. On tonight's episode of 30 Rock ("Jack Meets Dennis"), after Liz returns to the arms of her ex-boyfriend (guest star Dean Winters) simply because he asked her to, Jack decides to become her mentor and teach her a thing or two about life.

9 pm: The Office.

On tonight's repeat episode of The Office ("Diwali"), Michael and the Scranton gang attend a local celebration of Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, with Kelly, while the Stamford crew pull a late-nighter in order to finish some work.


h said…
Very interesting thoughts and a well-written post.
Anonymous said…
I'm really excited about this season of Top Chef. There's definitely some tough competition in that kitchen and I can't wait to see what they'll do. Not sure who my favorites are yet but I was happy to see that Tre redeemed himself in the elimination challenge. And Hung has some sharp skills that will be tough to beat. He's definitely arrogant but, so far, no where near as annoying as Marcel. But that could easily change!
Anonymous said…
We are pretty much in sync, as far as favorites. I like Tre a lot. Was the guy who was, like, 8 feet tall the same one who beat cancer? I liked him. Or them. I thought it was interesting the way he put it ("I came down with cancer")

I liked Micah from the start and Jamaican Sara. I like mohawk girl.

The thing about Hung...I really didn't see him as a Marcel-type (though, isn't he the one in the commercials saying, "Every season needs a villain, and I am him"?). To me, it was just that he seemed so humorless and serious. Just not a great presence.

Poor Clay - it was so clear he was a goner from the very start. No amount of editing could convince me otherwise.
Anonymous said…
Hung is a piece of crap and will not win. Mark my words!

As for the comparisons to Hell's Kitchen, you forget that Hell's Kitchen is intentionally cartoonish from Ramsey's over-the-top abusiveness to the contestants' failings (a ghetto girl, a spastic older Asian, a midget, and so on) while Top Chef is all about the food. It's like comparing Ugly Betty to Masterpiece Theatre.
Anonymous said…
Top Chef is the best cooking show ever! And Hell's Kithcen is a joke!
Anonymous said…
I love eating gooey ducks. My mother loves to make it with rice, tastes great! Though I do think you have to get used to the texture.

Geoducks are prized foods in food markets worldwide and are a highly valued fishery for the state (Puget Sound) , estimated at $40 million annually.

Check out geoduck for info.

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