Top Chef - Ante up, clams down

Yeah! Top Chef is back! The real stuff, too; not that smooshfest of love and respect that is Top Chef: Masters. I want ego and F-bombs, unbridled douchebaggery and fauxhawks--oh, man, the fauxhawks! And what better place to corral all those touchstones of a typical Top Chef season than Las Vegas, the New Wild West?

This year, I'm not going to run down all the contestants because that's what Wikipedia and Bravo.com are for. But when introductions are in order, I'll be sure to catch you up on the roll call. As the chefs arrive on-site and on-screen, however, I jotted down some immediate thoughts:

"Only one NY chef, and he's kind of annoyingly gay"
"Holy massive ear hoops!"
"Michael and Bryan, not just BROS but bros."
"Is French guy always going to look so nervous?"
"Las Vegas is a 'huge food mecca,' Seattle girl? Really?"
"Fat beard guy thinks good food comes from great equipment."

Yeah, I know--a ton of real and respectable chefs (not just Bobby Flay) are opening Las Vegas restaurants. But "huge food mecca"? Maybe not yet, Ashley (who looks an awful lot like fellow contestant Robin, also from Seattle). Last year, we had a gospel choir serenade the chefs on opening day; this year, it's showgirls. I think maybe that's why they're in Vegas.

The first Quickfire Challenge of Season 6 is the fan-fave mise en place relay race, aka chop shit up real fast and one chef makes an ass of him/herself. The chefs draw poker chips and team off by color. Robin draws the only gold chip, which Padma Lakshmi tells her means that A) she is exempt from competing in the relay race, and B) she wins immunity from the Elimination Challenge this week. Wow!

The challenge: 15 clams to shuck, 30 prawns to peel, 5 lobsters to break down, and 2 prime rib chops to break down off the rack and french. It's clear no one wants the clams, and two teams in particular make total fools of themselves. Jen Z. (she of the ear hoops) struggles mightily and in fact slices her finger quite well, but it is Preeti who barely finishes her clams before the winning team finishes the entire relay. Yeesh. Tom Colicchio is not impressed.

Two notes from the relay: Mattin, the French guy, is clearly technically skilled. Whether he has the gusto to win a competition like Top Chef remains to be seen. And Mike Isabella, sporting ink and a rough fauxhawk (and embarrassing me for doing the same), is the obvious choice for Season 6 villain. Unrepentant and rampant sexism runs throughout his confessional commentary.

At the end of the relay race, Padma tells winning Team Blue that to really win the QF, they'll have to cook-off against each other with the food item they tackled during the race; Robin has the option of jumping back in for this part of the competition but chooses to keep her immunity instead. The winner gets a $15,000 chip from M Resort and Casino (the site of the TC Kitchen). Another wow!

Jesse has never ever worked with prawns, but goes with a prawns and grits approach. Mattin seems at home with his homard. Bryan crusts his prime rib and serves it with braised celery. But Jennifer C., who had no confidence in working with her clams, makes a simple ceviche (pronounce that last 'e', Jen, PLEASE) that takes the win and the money chip.

Appropriately for both the chronology of the season and the setting, the first Elimination Challenge will serve as an introduction to the chefs' personalities by way of the reputation of Las Vegas: design a dish based on one of your personal vices. I'm gonna say right now, you will never see a bigger group of whiskey and bourbon drinkers outside of Brooklyn or Appalachia.

The chefs will cook against their QF teammates again, and the winners and losers from each group will be eligible to win or lose (respectively, of course). The guest judge will be none other than THE celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.

After the standard Whole Foods shopping spree, the chefs get cooking and we're given the opportunity to pick up little tidbits about some of the chefs. For example, Mike Isabella is a total dick. Jen Z. has a hot temper (rawr, she's kinda cute). Ron Duprat is a total fucking American Dream story, spending 27 days at sea to make it to the States--which he seems very willing to mention to generate a personal connection with, say, the judges. And for being from NY, Ash Fulk sure sounds straight off the farmstead; the "PAL-uh-so," Ash? Are you sure it's not the "Palazzo"?

Red Team: Michael V., Kevin, Eve, and Preeti
I thought I'd like Preeti because she was cooking with booze, but like I said, the livers of this whole group are teetering on the brink. Michael's channeling Sin City's boobage with his rack of lamb and coconut sauce. Padma pronounces Preeti's name with relish, but it's big, bearded Kevin's story that appears to seduce the judges. His arctic char impresses everyone, as does Michael's pun-factor and well-prepared lamb.

Winner: Kevin. Loser: Eve.

Green Team: Laurine, Ron, Ash, Jen Z.
Laurine is obviously trying to be every dude's dream girlfriend, with her bacon/donut/beer/chocolate concoction. Unfortunately, Wolfgang Puck is so disenchanted with her donuts that he actually lobs one toward the cameraman in the Judges' Table room. Jen is stuffing her massive, almost obscene chile relleno with seitan. This would be a hit in Madison, but the judges are kind of disgusted. "I love a good chile relleno," says Tom. "This is not a good chile relleno." Ron's almost completely off-topic story of his trip to America is accompanied by a really tasty piece of fish.

Winner: Ron. Loser: Jen Z.

Blue Team: Bryan, Robin, Jesse, Mattin, Jennifer C.
Jesse voices immediate concern for her chicken breast, which she has pulled out of the braise before the darker cuts. Indeed, it did dry out and the judges seem to appreciate her awareness of her mistake. The judges all like Bryan's steak, but Tom and Wolfgang wish there was less drizzled puree ("baby food," says Puck). Mattin's combination of buffalo and zucchini bewilders the judges. Jennifer's halibut, however, clearly blows everyone away; Puck says he'll tell his cooks to make it this way from now on.

Winner: Jennifer C. Loser: Jesse.

Black Team: Mike I., Hector, Ashley, Eli
Hector, whose vice is smoking, smokes a ribeye steak and then deep-fries it. He defends it as an attempt at chicharrones, but the judges all agree that he should have fire-grilled it to get more smoke. Mike continues to make himself as loathsome as possible. Ashley makes a chicken liver ravioli in honor of her fondness for red wine; cute, but surprising that she was the only one to go that route. Eli's scallops are commendable, but sadly it is Mike whose white fish displayed as a bar of soap (cursing) is a complex dish presented simply.

Winner: Mike I. Loser: Hector.

It's worth noting that the four winners all made fish. Gail seems to advocate strongest for Mike (she probably didn't hear the bullshit he was spewing in private), but the other three chefs all have their fans at Judges' Table. In the end, Wolfgang gives the win to Kevin, jolly Kevin with the bushy beard. His storytelling was the best of the four; I've got no complaints.

As for the bottom four, Jen's hot temper doesn't translate into much heat or flavor, and the seitan really turns off the judges. Hector's ribeye wasn't as smoky as advertised. Jesse's excess-based whole chicken was cooked clunkily, but her level of understanding appears to earn her clemency. For her alleged overcomplexity, Eve didn't make a very complex curry or a very well-seasoned shrimp. Jen, however, gets the axe. Goodbye neck tattoo and ear hoops! With your supposed temper, I'd have liked to see some trashing of the kitchen. Oh well, it's only week one.

I think it'll be an interesting season to watch. If nothing else, we can see if Mattin ever takes that absurd scarf off other than in the swimming pool.