Top Chef: It's a hell of a town

Welcome back, fans of sharp knives, sharp haircuts, and Padma's scar. It's Top Chef 5!

My general thoughts on this episode are as follows: "Seventeen new chefs--some in bikinis!" "Why is there so much bright overexposure in the open--Ow, my corneas!" "Don't be sleepin on this season. Shit." "This episode could be over after the Quickfire, and I'd be happy." "The NY Top Chef Kitchen is pretty cool."

Top Chef is a nice break from the last season or two of Project Runway. There are significantly fewer self-styled characters on TC. You can't blame Fabio for being Italian (and boy is he Italian). In fact, it's a very international cast of chefs: there's Fabio, Stefan (Finland), Radhika (India), and Daniel (Long Island).

I won't take up too much space running down each character's bio; Wikipedia is doing the heavy lifting for me here. I'll limit myself to some notes. Eugene and Jamie are the tatted ones. Lauren and Patrick are practically still in diapers, and also know each other from the playground or something. Carla's a caterer; this will be interesting. Melissa is (for you Runway fans) Top Chef's Blayne.

The chefs meet Padma and Tom in a lovely park setting, and learn that of the 17 currently assembled, only 16 will actually enter the competition proper. That's right, an Elimination Quickfire. I am definitely hoping for Lauren to go. She talks like her dialogue was written by a high schooler (at 23, I suppose she's not far from that). She's overconfident and obnoxious. And she's a military wife. That will only get more annoying over time.

The QF begins as a skills test. Each chef will peel 15 apples by hand, knife only. The first nine are safe, while the rest will have to compete in round two. Fabio's not going home for "an hepple" (it's possible I'll make fun of his accent all season, even though I shouldn't). Stefan wins the first round, and thus gets elimination immunity.

Round two requires the chefs to brunoise the apples; this is a very fine, very precise dicing of the peeled apples. And Lauren can't pronounce it correctly. All the more reason I want her to go. Daniel, while slow with the peel, is a machine with the chopping.

The third round, in a very smart ordering of the tasks, is to make an dish with the apples, as well as a selection of other ingredients. On the spot, 20 minutes. I love this! It's so much better than having a paring knife challenge decide who leaves. During the introduction, Radhika declared that she knows people will assume she's just gonna make curries and rice all season, and wants to surpass that expectation. So in round three, she makes a chutney. Ahem. Lauren and Patrick, meanwhile, are whipping up salads. Way to wow the judges, kids!!! Lauren's is the least of the bottom four, and she is sent blessedly packing. Padma tells her there's a ferry waiting for her; I say, "And he's standing right next to you. Give him a hug." Ba-dum-TSSSH.

The Bronx is up and the Battery's down

The true Elimination Challenge begins with a knife draw. Ethnic neighborhoods are the theme of the block, and the chefs will pair up to go head to head in creating a neighborhood-inspired dish. At least none of the neighborhoods were misspelled this time (hello, "Duck a la Orange").

The contestants are already distinguishing themselves, which is nice. Stefan is an early favorite of mine, not just for winning the QF, but for his personality. He's genuinely impressed with NY, and seems to be a smart guy. Of course, that rubs both Fabio and Daniel the wrong way. Be prepared for Danny to start chanting USA USA USA at any moment. On the balcony of the new pad, the gays (Richard, Patrick, and Jamie being the only 3, if they are to be believed) have formed Team Rainbow. How nice for them.

Another early favorite is Hosea, a tree trunk of a dude with boxy glasses and a low tolerance for heat. A man mostly after my own heart. He and Carla team up for Russian. Other pairings include Richard/Jamie (Greek), Ariane/Stefan (Middle Eastern), Jeff/Fabio (Latin), Radhika/Jill (Jamaica), Leah/Melissa (Italian), Patrick/Daniel (Chinese), and Alex/Eugene (Indian).

Something becomes immediately clear, and it's amazing to me that the judges didn't appear to make more of it. Almost every pairing features a chef who has no experience with that cuisine whatsoever! Ariane, Melissa (come on, girl--Italian??), Patrick, Eugene...zippo. Unbelievable.

After what would (for me) have been a very fun grocery shopping trip in their respective neighborhoods, the chefs return to the kitchen. Nice subway tile and mural. Very cool. Jeff aka Prettyboy is definitely aiming too high. Alex seems to think that Latin (his heritage) and Indian (his challenge) are a natural marriage. I guess I don't see it, but they are on the same parallel, so I guess it could work.

Our good friends Tom and Gail and Gail's boobies (David) will be joined by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, an important dude with multiple Michelin stars. The tasting begins.

Middle Eastern
Ariane: encrusted rack of lamb with farro "risotto"
Stefan: lamb chop with tabouli, and beef-onion skewer with fennel and cinnamon
Judges: Ariane's farro is inexcusably underdone, while Stefan's use of cinnamon is very pleasing to Tom in particular.
Winner: Stefan (who I am seriously loving so far)

Greek
Richard: lamb slider with orzo-feta salad
Jamie: Greek salad, deconstructed, with seared black bass
Judges: Richard's lamb was overcooked, which pretty much seals his fate.
Winner: Jamie (although Richard has a little win in his pants for Tom)

Jamaican
Jill: plantain fritter with jerk scallops
Radhika: jerk halibut on three bean rice, and mango salad
Judges: zzzzzzz....(neither chef did a particularly good job)
Winner: Jill

Latin
Fabio: mango-jalapeno pork with avocado and mushroom
Jeff: coffee-seared beef tenderloin with plantain
Judges: I'm not really sure what happened here. It seemed like the judges were saying bad things about Jeff and good things about Fabio, but then all of a sudden everyone but Tom was voting for Jeff.
Winner: Prettyboy, amazingly

Russian
Hosea: trio of smoked fish, and apple chutney
Carla: smoked trout and salmon cake, and a potato latke ("latkee," Carla? C'mon)
Judges: Hosea's dish is eloquent and culturally legit, and he had the brains to use a boneless filet instead of Carla's whole smoked trout
Winner: Hosea

Italian
Leah: farro risotto with seared snapper (apparently farro is this year's tapioca pearl)
Melissa: seared ribeye with fried mushrooms
Judges: Melissa's ribeye could have been great, but was underseasoned and dry. Leah's farro is how you're supposed to do farro. Apparently.
Winner: Leah

Chinese
Daniel: poached chicken salad with fried wontons
Patrick: seared and mirin-glazed salmon with black rice noodles (which were gummier than Patrick expected. Has he never had black rice? It's a dirty snowball for crying out loud)
Judges: Oof. Tom says Wolfgang Puck's been making Daniel's salad for 25 years.
Winner: Daniel, in a very lackluster battle

Indian
Alex: grilled lambchops with spicy ragout and basmati rice
Eugene: masala lamb and tzatziki
Judges: Eugene was one of the culinarily illiterate chefs (indeed, he never went to culinary school). And yet, he accidentally crafted (by Padma's estimation, and in this case I definitely respect it) "curds and rice," a classic example of Indian home cookin'.
Winner: Eugene, solely for being pitch perfect with no experience

Overall, Tom is well-pleased. Only Ariane's raw farro was really unpardonable. The Chinese and Latin battles were disappointing. The potential winners are Stefan, Eugene, and Leah. The potential losers are Patrick and Ariane.

The judges thought that Leah's take on "new Italian" in New York was spot-on (I refuse to say "on point"). Stefan's technique was great, and his dish was simple in its superficial complexity. And it appears that Padma just wants to go hug Eugene, but indeed all the judges agree that his flavor profile was perfect Indian. I never noticed that the winner of the first challenge has won each and every season, but Padma has, and she announces that my boy Stefan has won this opening Elimination Challenge.

Ariane and Patrick finally get the calling out for not knowing their challenge cuisine. It's ridiculous, and Tom's in no laughing mood about it. Ariane's farro, whether called risotto or not, was still way undercooked. Patrick's technique was fine, but his inspiration never made it to the plate. The flavors were bland, and the whole thing seemed like Chinese food sanitized. After two lame "Why should you stay?" answers, Patrick is told he's late for bedtime and is given his bankie.

This was a great opening episode, no doubt about it. I'm looking forward to watching the rest of the season, and blogging it for you here every Thursday. So stick around; later, we'll have Martha, Rocco, and some British guy with nice glasses. Riveting!