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Sharpen Your Knives: An Advance Review of the Season Premiere of "Top Chef: New York"

I'll be the first to admit that this past season of Project Runway, the last one (barring any court interference) that will air on Bravo, was pretty dull and lifeless and yet I kept watching, if only out of habit. My real Bravo pleasure has always been the far superior culinary competition series Top Chef, which returns tonight with a brand new season based in New York.

I had the opportunity to screen the fantastic season premiere of Top Chef ("Melting Pot") last week and have to say that the 73-minute opener contained more drama and tension than the entire last season of Project Runway. (Whew.) The production values are as high as ever, the judges just as opinionated, and the producers have cast talented chefs all eager for the chance to win the title of Top Chef. Many are arrogant (some outright condescendingly so, in the case of Stefan) but I can't help but shake the feeling that this is an extremely talented group of culinary dreamers right here.

The stakes are high, perhaps higher than they have been. The judges and the producers mean business and this is clearly evidenced by one of the most cutthroat Quickfire Challenges in the history of the series, in which the seventeen contestants compete head-to-head in a series of tasks that have them peeling apples, cutting brunoise, and cooking an inspired dish in just twenty minutes.

And, yes, I did say seventeen contestants. Look for one of them (and I'm not revealing who here) to get cut from the pack in the first twenty minutes. That's right folks. This first Quickfire Challenge, minutes after they've literally stepped off a boat and arrived in New York City, isn't just a challenge to determine who will have the upper hand in the Elimination Challenge. Oh, no, it's to determine just which sixteen chefs will end up appearing on Top Chef: New York and which one will have to get right back on that waiting boat and sail off right then and there. Ouch.

The challenges themselves are much trickier and far more intense than we're used to seeing in the season premiere episodes of this series to date. In addition to an intense Quickfire Challenge that forces the contestants to prove that they are in fact qualified to be on the series (and show off to the viewers at home their innate strengths and weaknesses right then and there), the first Elimination Challenge is a doozy.

Drawing knives, the contestants find themselves paired off and given various ethnic neighborhoods in NYC. Together, they'll visit these neighborhoods--ranging from Little Italy to Brighton Beach--and draw inspiration for a dish that uses the flavors and influence of their assigned neighborhood and cook head-to-head to present two different dishes to the judges. One will be named a potential winner of the overall challenge and the other will be a potential candidate to be send home.

As for the contestants themselves, it's still early to predict just who we'll be rooting for, though I'm already hoping that Hawaiian-born Eugene, a chef without any formal training who started in the industry as a dishwasher, will go far; he's earnest and scrappy and has an ambundance of talent. And he's got a quiet presence, unlike the blustery Stefan, who hails originally from Finland and gets into a heated argument with a fellow cheftestant in the first episode about whether vinaigrette is in fact an emulsion. (And, yes, we are talking heated argument.) Stefan clearly seems to be positioning himself as the season's villain and I'd hate him if he wasn't so damn talented himself. Right now, he's the one to beat and the other chefs (save maybe Italian Fabio) are already drawing a bullseye on his back.

As for the rest of the pack, I'm hoping that some other strong contenders will emerge. Surfer Jeff seems more concerned with making sure his hair is perfect (never a good sign in a chef) than in his food; caterer Carla comes off as disconcertingly eccentric and odd; and the three gay contestants quickly form a loose alliance they term "Team Rainbow." Guys, in a competition where it's crucial to stand on your own as a chef and visionary, it's never a good idea to tie your fate to others. Look for this alliance to quickly crumble... But it's still early days and it usually takes a few challenges for the true gems of the competition to emerge.

All in all, I thought that Top Chef: New York's season opener proved once again to be a swift, well-executed course that had me hungry for more. Here's to looking forward to next week and seeing just what new trouble the producers manage to cook up for these chefs next.

Top Chef: New York premieres tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on Bravo.


Anonymous said…
I'm so happy to have Top Chef back and even more thrilled that they're doing a season in New York. Finally! Thanks for the great review!
Anonymous said…
Great review. I am really looking forward to this being back tonight. I've missed you, TOP CHEF!
Jo said…
I'm hungry all of a sudden...

We always feel like we should make or eat a 'foodie' dinner on Top Chef night in our house.

Can't wait - thanks for the preview, Jace!
Anonymous said…
I need my Padma fix!

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