Most TV shows would kill for Top Chef’s reputation: In its tenth season, it continues to represent an upper-middlebrow trashy sensibility that purees accessibility, celebrity, and actual talent in a back-stabbery broth of semi-sophistication. Let us sup together!
This season takes place in Seattle, one of the coolest cities in America. (If you’ve ever seen Portlandia, it’s kinda like that.) Seattle is always ready with a robust cup of coffee and a harvest-engineered meal that inspires and delights. Every single person in Seattle knows more about food than you do. Never go there.
But our show begins at Craft, a Los Angeles restaurant owned by Tom Colicchio, the squinty potentate of Top Chef. Five contestants will work alongside Colicchio’s staff as they prepare dinner. Only some will make their way to Seattle.
Micah, a chef from the Standard Hotel, says that to compete on Top Chef you must have the mindset that “you’re going to smash everybody.” His use of “smash” instead of the more common “crush” marks him as a free-thinking renegade and a credit to his employer — a hotel chain so radical it prints its name upside-down. (I wish Holiday Inn would print its name upside-down, just to screw with the Standard Hotel.)
Anyway, Micah is told to fillet a fish and he makes a mess of it. Why? It might have something to do with the fact that he’s never been a sous chef. (This blows Tom Colicchio’s mind — and not in a good way.)
Lizzie is from South Africa and she has a crush on Colicchio and she has to make tortellini and she does a great job and Colicchio is impressed and God’s in His heaven and all’s right in the world.
Anthony, a large man, needs to break down ducks. He does so with a small paring knife — he likes working with tiny knives — but he nicks a breast, which is a big goof-up! Blood splatters everywhere. (Just kidding, nothing really bad happens.)
And next comes John. John is a controversial chef from Dallas — the “most hated chef in Dallas” for those of you following Nate Silver’s statistical model of chef-popularity. John used to do lots of drugs; he knows all the cool TV chefs like Anthony Bourdain (Colicchio admits to knowing him as well, though he doesn’t exactly seem thrilled about it). John’s basically the guy who watched all his friends become famous while he labored in obscurity. (I’m looking in a mirror as I type this.) Well, now it’s John’s turn. He’s got the attitude, skills, and cool-looking face to make 2012 the Year of John the Chef!
Jorel is from Denver and sports one of “those” mustaches and is “butcher-focused,” so when Colicchio asks him to butcher a chicken, he’s happy to do so. Unfortunately, he didn’t ask Colicchio how he wanted the bird butchered — Collichio wanted the bones on the bird. But the bones are gone now, butchered into oblivion.
Meanwhile in Las Vegas, five different chefs are brought face-to-face with a bloated, swarthy George W. Bush impersonator by the name of Emeril Lagasse. “Welcome to my restaurant,” he says in an inscrutable tone as I wonder, “In what kind of world does this guy own a restaurant?”
Emeril wants his chefs to make soup, which is something he always judges a restaurant by. This surprises me: I would never order soup at a restaurant; it seems like a total waste of money. Soup is something I can make on my own, so why would I pay a stranger to make it for me? This truly befuddles me. Then I remember that our world is defined by chaos and decay and I decide not to worry my beautiful mind about it.
Emeril keeps emphasizing the importance of soup: He says it’s about depth, flavors, and passion, which makes me think he doesn’t really know what soup is.
Kristen and Stephanie are two female chefs who know each other from back in the day. They spend a lot of time together and even live in the same building. They even have matching spoon tattoos on their arms. Emeril assumes they’re lesbians (spoons are the most lesbian utensil), but they’re not — “just to clarify.”
Josh has a waxed mustache like Jorel. (Neither of them wears a monocle, so I’m pretty sure they’re not actually evil railroad barons.) Josh’s wife is going to have a baby while he’s away on Top Chef. He says if the baby is a boy he’ll name his son “Top-Chef-Seattle-The-Boy.” (JOKE) He prepares his soup too quickly so it risks getting cold while it loiters in its bowl awaiting consumption.
Jeffrey, meanwhile, prays his gazpacho will be cold enough in time for the tasting. It’s kind of crazy, when you think about it: One guy is worried his soup is too hot, and the other guy is worried his soup is too cold. It reminds me of a famous story called “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” a bone-chilling tale about ursine obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Tina makes seafood and chorizo soup with garlic mayo. Stephanie has prepared cauliflower soup with lobster knuckles. The phrase “lobster knuckles” almost makes me ill; it’s about as disgusting as “growth spurt,” which is just as suggestive and inaccurate.
Jeffrey’s gazpacho cools in time. In fact, it has “depth!” He’s going to Seattle! Kristen’s going to Seattle too — Emeril, talking with his mouth full, says the scallops in her English pea broth are “perfect” — but Stephanie has to go home. The two spoon tattoos have been separated. It’s sad.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Colicchio wants a high-pressure, “real-life” situation to see his chefs’ nerves — do they have it takes to walk that razor’s edge along the burning desire of terror? They work in his busy kitchen, scrambling to keep pace with the regular staff.
I envy Colicchio as he stands around with his arms crossed, yelling at chefs: “Sear that duck breast! I need more muffins in the muffin basket!” etc.
John is pulled aside and told to pack his bags for Seattle because he’s going to compete on Top Chef! He seared a halibut correctly. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have our bad-boy chef!
We leave Craft and travel to Cut, which is Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant. Wolfgang Puck, a.k.a. King of Airport Food, extrudes a series of vowels that communicate how important it is do a good job when you’re cooking. He tells a humbling story about how hard it is to make an omelette. (Once he was judged harshly for making a shitty omelette.) His group of chefs has 45 minutes to make an omelette. For the record: Omelettes are my least favorite food. They make me incredibly depressed for some reason.
A grubby chef named Daniel brags about how his new restaurant is No. 1 on Yelp. A lady named Kuniko came to America from Hong Kong to find her fortune. Her omelette features … wait for it … KALE. I anxiously await my royalties. (For those of you who don’t know, I basically OWN kale.)
Carla is a noisy, fake-faced plasticine drama queen. She sucks up all the oxygen in the kitchen and converts it to drama, which she spews willy-nilly. She complains about her stove, which compels Wolfgang to observe: “The stove is like a woman, it never do what it supposed to do!” Everybody chuckles and I’m relieved that I don’t know any women — they sound like a real handful!
Wolfgang tastes everyone’s omelettes. Tyler put asparagus and a whole salad on top of his. Kuniko’s omelette is “almost there,” while Daniel’s was “a little bit overdone.” Christina makes a lobster Philippino omelette; Eliza customizes her omelette by dropping a huge steak on top; it’s “really complicated.” Carla’s offering is Mediterranean. Wolfgang, continuing his charming analogies, says: “It looks like a woman with a lot of makeup on.” (My notes: “Wolfgang Puck sounds like that strange man who made The Room.”)
Daniel (a.k.a. Yelp-guy) is sent home; he’s “pissed off.” He should give Top Chef one star on Yelp! (Boom: My first-ever Yelp joke! Please give it four stars on Yelp! [Boom: My first-ever meta-Yelp joke!])
Empire State South, a restaurant owned by Hugh Acheson in Atlanta, is our last venue. Acheson’s group of chefs is tasked with making a salad — but not just any salad — a “beautiful salad.”
When Acheson learns that one of the chefs — a kindly guy named Bart — has been knighted in Belgium, he asks him if he wears a suit of armor in the kitchen. This is enough to make me hate Acheson with a white-hot intensity that even my own death will not quench.
Gina is founder of something called “Nourishing USA” and describes herself as a “ferocious tiger.” Sheldon is the best chef in Hawaii. Danyele is a hipster who prides herself on using foods that are in season. She sets some tomatoes on fire.
Sheldon’s salad features fried Brussels sprouts; he needs more vinaigrette. Bart makes lobster salad. I love Bart, but maybe his salad is too busy? A chef named Brooke made kale salad with fried kale on top! She’s totally representing Kale City, and I thank her for it.
Gina describes her salad as “delicious,” which is presumptuous — and Acheson notices. She also kindly requests that she not be made to cry. She’s a little on edge. She’s sent home.
The rest of the gang are off to Seattle. Bart, overcome with happiness, shouts, “Let’s go cooking!” He’s already my favorite person on TV.
Back at Craft, the chefs are still working in the kitchen with all the regular chefs. Colicchio tastes their work and says things like, “You know how to cook pasta,” or “Nice job on the duck,” or “Put these apples in a bucket and set it on fire.” I think it would be fun to be a chef.
Eventually Colicchio brings the chefs out to his patio for some bushwhackin’. Jorel is sent home because he put too much salt in his ballzhemel(?) and also because there can be only one crazy mustache per reality show (except for Mustache Maniacs, airing 24/7 on the Mustache Channel). And then, in a shocking move, Anthony is sent home as well! It seems he was too tentative in the kitchen. Micah, however, survives. He announces: “I have that drive, that hunger, that thirst for blood.” Sigh.
David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.