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Wrath of Seitan: Vices and Virtues on the Season Opener of "Top Chef: Las Vegas"

I'm ecstatic that Top Chef is back on the air again. While I've enjoyed Top Chef Masters, I'm more than ready to dig into my main course now.

On the season opener of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Sin City Vice"), seventeen chefs headed to sunny Las Vegas, each eager to take down their competition and walk away the winner of the title of Top Chef. But this first course in the ongoing competition was no walk in the park; rather, it tested the contestants in a series of challenges--from mise-en-place relays to cook-offs and extremely focused thematic dishes--that was tested to separate the wheat from the chaff.

You had the opportunity to read my advance review of the season premiere, but now that it's aired, we can get specific about just what went down this week on the culinary competition series.

So how did the new chefs perform in this first challenge? Let's discuss.

As I mentioned in my advance review of the premiere, the chefs this season are a motley bunch of visionaries, bastards, and egomaniacs. Which is pretty much par for the course when dealing with talented artists and craftsmen. Already my favorites are the stern taskmaster Jen C., whose consummate abilities are manifested in the first episode, even if she has to fend off questions about whether she is the "pastry chef" at Eric Ripert's restaurant. (The subtle misogyny of the comment wasn't lost on me.) I'm also rooting for Kevin Gillespie, the burly and bearded wit whose sarcasm is matched by his raw culinary skills. And I'm intrigued to see how the sibling rivalry between Michael and Bryan Voltaggio plays out this season. Will one brother rise as the other falls? Or will their brotherly feud knock them out of the competition altogether? Hmmm...

I thought that the use of the mise-en-place relay race was a good choice for the first Quickfire Challenge of the season, especially as it pushed the chefs to work together as a team and quickly displayed which of them had some crucial prep skills as well as the ability to work under direct pressure and intense scrutiny from their fellow contestants. In teams of four, the chefs had to shuck 15 clams, peel 15 spot sprawns, clean five lobsters, and break down two steaks from a ribeye.

But there was a twist: in choosing the teams, the chefs grabbed a random poker chip displaying a color. Robin selected the gold chip, winning her immunity in the Elimination Challenge as well as the ability to sit out the mise-en-place relay (a necessity given the odd number of competitors).

Some of the teams got off to an extremely rocky start. I don't believe that Preeti's team ever moved off of the clam-shucking leg (nope, they don't pop open like oysters) and Jen Z. quickly cut herself performing the same leg. But two teams managed to pull ahead quite quickly, finishing almost neck-and-neck. The winners, consisting of the Blue Team's Bryan, Jen C., Mattin, and Jesse, then squared off against one another for the win--and a Vegas-appropriate cash prize--in a timed cook-off. They had 30 minutes to prepare a dish based around the item that they dealt with in their individual leg of the relay.

Bryan prepared a fennel, coriander, and black pepper-crushed rib eye with caramelized celery and a puree of golden raisin and chive. Jen C. offered a clam ceviche with citron vinegar. Mattin cooked a lobster with bay leaves and star anise. And finally Jesse transformed a humble dish of shrimp and grits into a flavorful bowl of spicy prawns and polenta. The winner? Jen C., whose dish of clam ceviche, wowed the judges, despite her worries that it was too simplistic. (Jen: in this competition, simple preparations and clean depth of flavor always wins out.)

For their Elimination Challenge, the chefs were tasked with creating a dish based on a personal vice. They'd have $150 budget and two hours of prep time to carry out their vision, which would be judged by Wolfgang Puck. But there was yet another twist: they wouldn't be competing against the whole group, but rather the chefs would be going head-to-head with their specific teammates, with one person to be selected as a potential overall winner and one person up for elimination from each group.

So what did they prepare? Not unsurprisingly, most of the chefs went with a, shall we say, alcohol-infused vice to prepare their dishes, with a hell of a lot of whiskey, scotch, and bourbon flowing throughout the kitchen. And the protein of the day was clearly poached halibut of some kind, with no less than three chefs preparing halibut in this particular challenge. Let's take a look at what each of the cheftestants cooked up by team.

Red Team (Kevin, Michael V., Eve, Preeti):
  • Kevin: slow-cooked arctic char with salsa verde of turnips and celery salad
  • Michael V.: rack of lamb with coconut sauce and cauliflower gnocchi
  • Eve: shrimp and scallops with English peas in a curry cream sauce
  • Preeti: pork tenderloin with bourbon sweet potato puree and vermouth-braised dandelion greens

Green Team (Laurine, Ron, Ash, Jen Z.):
  • Laurine: bacon doughnuts with chocolate and Belgian beer sauces
  • Ron: jerk bass with collard greens and Haitian hash
  • Ash: poached halibut with ratatouille and parsley coulis
  • Jen Z.: chile relleno stuffed with seitan and a grilled tomatillo salsa

Blue Team (Jen C., Bryan, Robin, Jesse, Mattin):
  • Jen C.: poached halibut with whiskey, bourbon, scotch, and black peppercorn sauce
  • Bryan: New York strip steak with parsnip puree and bourbon reduction caramel
  • Robin: pork tenderloin stuffed with chorizo and green chili bread pudding
  • Jesse: "the whole bird," braised chicken with whiskey reduction, Yukon potatoes, and a fried egg
  • Mattin: buffalo rib eye with zucchini and garlic mashed potato and Madeira sauce

Black Team (Mike I., Ashley, Hector, Eli):
  • Mike I.: olive oil poached halibut with wood-roasted eggplant puree
  • Ashley: chicken liver and thigh ravioli with red wine demi-glace
  • Hector: smoked and deep-fried rib eye with carrot puree and ceviche of celery
  • Eli: "buttered" scotch with scallops, pulverized cashews, and beer powder

The standouts were clearly Kevin's arctic char with salsa verde of turnips and celery salad, a dish which cleverly inverted expectations about cooking time, with the arctic char slow cooked and the turnips, typically a vegetable that requires a lot of cooking time, quickly prepared as a verdant salsa. The Green Team's Ron landed in the top scorers for his island-infused bass, even though the judges weren't quite clear what his vice was (though his harrowing story about his 27 days at sea was memorable). Jen C.'s poached halibut was also a clear favorite and Puck praised her for its exquisite execution, saying that all halibut should be cooked so beautifully. Also in the top: Mike I.'s olive oil-poached halibut with its eggplant puree, a gorgeously pared down dish that was focused and memorably resembled the bar of soap Mike said he mother had washed his mouth out with.

Ultimately, the win went to Kevin for his arctic char and I'm extremely happy with the results. He showed not only immaculate execution in his dish, but forethought, vision, and charm as well, imploding out expectations of the dish and making us see the ingredients in new and unexpected ways. Bravo.

So who ended up on the bottom this week? Eve for her unbalanced dish of shrimp and scallops in a curry cream sauce, which lacked heat and flavor and offered the judges some rather unappetizing overcooked shellfish; she claimed that she toned down the dish in the final seasoning but it was such an unfocused and odd dish to begin with. Jesse's whole bird concept landed her on the chopping block due to the dryness of her chicken breast (she pulled it out of the braising liquid too quickly) but it was more the execution than anything else and the judges seemed taken with her conceptualization of the dish, with Puck praising her and saying that a few more attempts could yield a very memorable dish. Hector was criticized for his choice to deep-fry the rib eye steak rather than cooking it on the wood-burning grill if he wanted to infuse it with smoke flavor; he said that he wanted to transform the steak into something resembling chicharones but I think this was a mistake overall, especially in an American steakhouse like Cut.

Finally, there was Jen Z. who not unsurprisingly was marked for elimination for her "clunky" chile relleno, which she stuffed with seitan, a soy-based alternative meat that shaped out of soy gluten. It lacked heat and elegance and the choice of seitan was just astonishing. I understand that she wanted to take a risk and do something innovative and different but there's a difference between blind risk and calculated risk. The texture of the seitan was all wrong, the flavor was lacking, and there were huge chunks of garlic in the mix. Plus, the dish just lacked refinement and creativity. It wasn't all that unexpected then that Jen Z. would be the one to pack her knives and go.

What did you think of this week's episode? Do you agree with the judges' verdict that Jen Z. should have been sent packing for her gamble with seitan? Who are you rooting for so far? Who will win in the end? And who should go home now? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Bachelor/Ette Party"), it's a battle of the sexes rages when the male chefs battle the female chefs in a competition to cater a poolside bachelor-and-bachelorette party; Todd English drops by to guest judge.

Top Chef Preview: Rolling with It

Top Chef Preview: Addressing a Vegas Tradition


Bella Spruce said…
I think that Jen Z. AND Eve should have been sent home as they both made several mistakes and failed to deliver on all counts.

I'm really intrigued by Jen C., though, and look forward to seeing what she can do. Whoever assumed that she was just a pastry chef is in for a rude awakening. I think she is definitely a force to be reckoned with!
Mike C. said…
Great review Jace!

It's good to know I have a critic who loves all the shows I do.

I thought the judges were spot on this week. Jen Z. was absolutely clueless as she thought they were railing her because of what she used. railed you because it tasted like crap and was executed horribly!

Why Hector thought to deep fry a whole rib-eye, I'm still lost. Especially if you were going for a smoke flavor! Once you deep fry something you are going to lock in the flavors and there is no way any smoke was going to penetrate that meat.

I actually thought one dish that looked good that didn't get any comment, and I'm sure it was because it was incomplete, was Robin's pork 5 ways.

I can see a collapse in the near future for Eli. He just seems way to nervous to compete in this competition.

Love the brashness and competitive drive of Mike I., and the rivalry between the brothers is going to be great. It's intense characters like these guys that make this competition really come to life.

Jesse surprised me and I think if she gains some confidence and picks up some more skills along the way, she could be one of those dark horses.

All in all, as of right now, it's definiteley, IMO, going to come down to Jen C. and Kevin. They both know, especially after this first challenge, that they have what it takes to succeed. They by far had the best technique and execution tonight.

This is going to be a great season!
rockauteur said…
As a huge Top Chef fan, I was excited for the premiere... but I felt like 2 hours and 15 minutes of Top Chef in one night was a bit overkill. Top Chef Masters finale was a way better executed episode - with only 3 characters to track - with better skilled chefs and better food, for obvious reasons.

As far as Top Chef: Las Vegas goes, I think it was a misstep to have 17 contestants. Way too many people to track and get familiar with, or to root for. That being said, I am definitely rooting for Jen C. Not only can she win, she has the potential to become the first female winner to actually make something of herself with the prize... And talk about the prize - this year they stepped it up with $100,000 worth of kitchen gear plus the $125,000. Pretty good.

Speaking of money, I HATED the twist with the casino chip. I hate when people win not for their culinary skills, but because of luck, and even though the show takes place in Las Vegas, cooking is about skill, not about luck. I really hope there aren't too many casino-related twists here, though based on the coming attractions, I suspect we'll see a lot of that. Kudos to producers for trying something new, but I think it will fail ultimately as it doesn't work in the format.

STill, great start to the season. Rooting for Jen C and the brothers. Eve should have gone home!
Anonymous said…
I must be either getting really old or so "not" hip that it hurts. Was it just me or did these cheftestants have more body art and piercings that the first 5 seasons combined?

After seeing Jen Zs huge ear gauges mid-show, I was unpleasantly distracted by them while she was on camera for the remainder of the evening.
ntop said…
Seitan is NOT soy based.
Seitan is wheat gluten- hence the term "wheat meat". Some commercial products mix wheat and soy for their faux meat products, but strictly speaking seitan is NOT soy.

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