Top Chef - Padma stole my pun

Yes, that's right, it's Top Chef Season 7, and within the opening minutes, host Padma Lakshmi got the "hail to the chef" groaner out of the way once and for all. That's great, you say, but who are the chefs?

There's Tamesha, Ed and Kenny, and Kevin who has been friends with Kenny for years. There's Tiffany, a Texan, and Arnold, the only Tennessean to buy orchids at Whole Foods. Amanda and Stephen and Andrea and Jacqueline, who is from Brooklyn. Kelly from Colorado; Lynne, who is 51 and works for the other CIA; Tracey from Atlanta.

Alex has the same "Upper Vest Side" accent as Janosz from Ghostbusters 2, but is actually Russian. Tim is the hometown chef whose wife died recently. John appears to be a bit kooky. And then there's Angelo, another New Yorker, who redefines douchey cocktail party namedropping. Tim totally calls him on it, but only in confessional. I'm telling you, it's got to stop.

The Quickfire Challenge is a familiar mise-en-place race in four stages: peel 10 potatoes, brunoise 10 cups of onions (that's chopping them into tiny cubes--"an ayf by an ayf by an ayf," Kevin helpfully reminds us), break down 4 chickens and then cook a dish with those ingredients and a handful of pantry items. Winner gets $20,000; it's that High Stakes Quickfire again.

Kenny starts out smoking the competition, and Angelo immediately sets in to beat him. Fat chance. Kenny takes each and every one of the three opening rounds, convincingly. I wonder the same thing every time I watch these races: why does everyone else stop when a chef shouts, "CHECK!"? Keep on chopping, you dopes!

Anyway, the final four is Kenny, Kevin, Angelo, and Tim. Kenny's Moroccan chicken duo and Angelo's roasted chicken with onion jam vie for the top spot, and in a truly annoying development, Angelo takes the win over technically-dominant Kenny. Angelo tells us he wants to be the first chef to win every single challenge. Thanks, Angelo, that really clears up your motivation.

For the Elimination Challenge, our intrepid chefs are asked to create a dish that represents their electorate, if you will--their home towns. The 17 chefs will be split into four groups, with each group sending two chefs to Judges Table, one to win and one to go home. The Quickfire's final four get to pick teams.

Angelo: Tiffany, Kelly, John
Kenny: Tracey, Lynne, Stephen, plus last-picked Ed (who Angelo got to assign to any team he wanted to)
Timothy: Alex, Tamesha, Andrea

Angelo and his popped collar leads the rest of the chefs to Whole Foods to shop. John buys something pre-made from the freezer--always a good sign. Tim's going for local rockfish, while Alex wants to deconstruct his mother's borscht recipe. My wife loves Jacqueline's apple cups. That she's planning on filling them with chicken liver mousseline is perhaps a bit of a wet blanket.

The kitchen leads to some further revelations. Angelo, believe it or not, is from Connecticut. "I feel like an orchestra with flavors," he effuses about his own talents. John's choosing to make a dessert with his pre-made goods--always a good sign. Kenny's dish, a cinnamon and coffee-rubbed trout with goat cheese polenta, takes the prize for most appetizing. Jacqueline's terrine, which she chooses to not strain, is by far the least appealing.

At the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, the chefs prepare to serve the guests of the Cherry Blossom Festival's opening ceremonies. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet our new Toby Young: Eric Ripert! What a blessed eviction of an incumbent.

Amanda deserves kudos for having the onions to use a term like "neo-classical California cuisine" in the opening challenge of Top Chef. These are the faces real chefs make when you use a term like that:

"Neo-what now?"

She makes a jagged red snapper carpaccio with clementines and caraway. Arnold bakes a kaffir lime and basil cake, and gets no commentary for his effort. Kevin's sous vide lamb with Meyer lemon marmalade sounds tasty and is tasty. Everyone, especially Ripert, notices how grainy Jacqueline's liver and port wine mousse is.

Stephen's potato-crusted deep-fried ribeye is too thin and too tough as a result. Heavy Boston baked beans and over-breaded cod cakes doom Ed's dish. Tracey blands up some shrimp with her cheddar grits. Kenny's dish pleases all, especially Ripert who likes the quinoa particularly. Lynne whips up some waffles and corn-Camembert ice cream and, apparently, no one notices.

Alex pays tribute to his mom with a well-cooked beef short rib and beets. Tamesha wields the power supreme and crafts jerk chicken globes; that's the last we hear of them. No one in Miami would recognize Andrea's pork with chorizo gnocchi, but it tastes all right. Tim offers rockfish with pickled leeks and sesame seeds; there's too much skin and not enough cooperation with his sauces.

Tiffany's Cajun shrimp and crawfish salad with tomatillos happened. Kelly seasoned her New York strip steak well, and served it with fiddlehead ferns. Angelo conducts his orchestra into Arctic char with pickled shallots, tapioca, and smoked bacon foam, as well as a bit more dill than Gail wanted. John takes his store-bought pastry crusts and tries to whip up a believable maple napoleon; no one buys it.

The Stew Room is dead silent. (At least, it is when we first see it; during the mid-break vignette, a bunch of stickinbutts bemoan the partying being done by other chefs, but manage to avoid saying that they aren't there to make friends.) Padma arrives and calls out Kevin, Alex, Kenny and Angelo--very clearly the winning group.

Kenny's dish was perhaps poorly edited but tasted great. Kevin's dish featured all the composition that Kenny's lacked, and was just as tasty. Alex did his momma proud. And dammit, Angelo's assurance that he knows what you should notice in your mouth, plus how and when, appears to have come true in Gail's mouth, at least; Eric liked the bacon foam, too. He announces that the winner of the first Elimination Challenge is Angelo, who is now 2 for 2. Ugh.

Angelo is asked to call out Stephen, Jacqueline, John, and Tim. Tim's all pissed. The judges ding Stephen on his tough ribeye, Jacqueline on announcing at dinner that she didn't add any fat to what is always a fatty dish, but worse that she still doesn't know the recipe by heart after having made it 100 times. John's pastry was soggy and just a bad idea from the start. Tim should have eliminated the rockfish skin, which got unpleasant in the mouth.

The first elimination of this season is, rightfully, John. He failed on the premise and the execution of the challenge--never a good sign. Plus, he's just kind of a weird dude.

Looks like we'll get more Bourdain (guess that rumored feud wasn't so serious after all), Mike Isabella from Season 6, plus trips to NASA and the original CIA. And a three-legged challenge? It's got my vote. A political pun! In your face, Padma!

Welcome back, readers.