Last night marked the premiere of Top Chef's eleventh season, and this year — as you may have heard — the action is going down in New Orleans. To help keep track of it all, Grub Street has called in Dave Holmes, whose name you might recognize from his many breathtakingly entertaining recaps over on Vulture, or perhaps from his many TV credits. Dave is coming at Top Chef with a fresh-ish set of eyes (which, we think, probably helped in getting him to agree to recap an entire season of this thing). In any event, all you really need to know is that this is going to be good. Let's get to it.
This season, Top Chef goes to New Orleans! And from what we see in its premiere, generally makes the mistake that most of us outsiders do, which is to conflate the New Orleans experience strictly with what goes on in the French Quarter. Are you worried that you won’t immediately see beads or masks or be told to let the good times roll? Don’t worry, cher, you totally will. Reducing a diverse and vibrant city down to its most marketable elements is Big and Easy.
Here’s a fun story about the last time I was in New Orleans, by which I mean the French Quarter. It was around 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, and I was in my hotel room splashing water on my face between drinking sessions. (As Hobbits are to meals, tourists in New Orleans are to drinking sessions: There are the Bloody Marys at brunch, the early afternoon beers, the late afternoon beers, happy hour, the drinks you drink while you stuff dinner into your face, after-dinner cocktails, and then whatever it is that happens after midnight that results in you waking up in your shoes with a sprained shoulder.) As I prepared to leave my room, I heard a sound that as a dog owner I immediately recognized as urine hitting a carpet, and I swung my door open to see the sad face of a middle-aged man letting it rip right there on my door. There is so much culture in New Orleans, but this is what the French Quarter generally ends up being: Milhouse’s dad in a Tommy Bahama shirt, with a Hurricane in one hand and his dick in the other, splashing urine on your calves. Guess which side you’ll be seeing here.
The first cheftestant we meet is Sara, who tells us “There are a bunch of labels for the way I dress: rockabilly, weirdo, that girl.” Literally any woman wearing any kind of clothing could conceivably be referred to as “that girl,” but sure. “This is who I am,” she concludes, and who she is is a woman with jet-black hair, red-red lips, and a Rosie the Riveter do-rag, which has consistently been a popular look since at least my high school years. As for New Orleans, “There is so much history here, there is so much great food, I just want to get cooking.” Agreed! Except on “great food,” the producers focus on a beignet. Have you eaten a beignet? A beignet is essentially a hot wet doughnut fragment with a mountain of powdered sugar on top. The last time I ate one, I ate eleven more and then I vomited. I have conflicted feelings about beignets. I also have impulse-control issues.
Yes, yes, you’re saying, but where is the cheftestant whose hunkiness we will not be allowed to forget? Settle down, because here comes Jason, who was voted sexiest chef in Philadelphia and who also does the thing where he spits alcohol into a flame and creates a fireball, which, hey, everyone, you can stop doing that now. He assures us, “I know people have the impression that I’m a douchebag, but I can throw down in the kitchen,” perhaps forgetting that we are living in a Guy Fieri world, where throwing down in the kitchen and being a douchebag do not exclude one another. Still, he has good abs, and as a homosexual, I am required by law to respect them.
Jason runs right into his pal and rival Nick, and they have this fun exchange:
Nick: “You look like you just got off a yacht!”
Jason “You look like your wife dressed you.”
Both statements are accurate!
Nick tells the camera: “I think Jason’s a very good chef, but I think I’m better. I tell him all the time. He thinks it’s funny, but it’s not. I am.” You’re right, Nick! (In that it’s not funny. Better start stepping it up with the soundbites.) (For the record, I find Nick much cuter, simply for being more unassuming.)
Australian Janine would like to let you know right at the top that she is attractive. “The fact that I’m not so ugly, usually it’s something that I have to get people to overcome.” Her strategy for getting you to overcome it is to wear tiny jean shorts. Have you overcome her looks yet? What is your problem?
They just keep coming: Beni would like to be the “first Top gay Chef” and then laughs at his choice of words, which is hilarious because sex. Shirley grew up in Beijing, and “cannot shut [her] mouth,” unlike most reality show participants, who are taciturn and introspective. Our first sleeve tattoo comes by way of New Orleans resident Justin, co-winner of Padma’s Picks with Galatoire’s executive chef Michael. And then they just kind of give up trying to introduce everyone. There are a couple of Chicagoans, a couple of James Beards, a Michelin star winner, a lady who could fit easily into One Direction, and countless deep V-necks.
It’s business time. Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio sneak in behind everyone, possibly to surprise them, but probably because they are drunk and forgot which door to use. Their First! Shocking! Twist! is that there will be no Quickfire. Instead, we will be roulant right into the Elimination Challenge, which will require them to cook “in the heart of the Louisiana Swamp.” What does that mean? Will they be in swampland, or, like, waist-deep in muck, being nibbled by creatures?
There is simply no time to explain, because Padma and Tom must throw out beads that correspond to the proteins the chefs will cook with: alligator, frog, and turtle. They’ll have two hours in the Top Chef kitchen to get started, and then two more to finish “at the swamp.” I still don’t know what that means. A private dining society known as the Dinner Lab will bring 100 people around to each cheftestant, each diner will give a string of beads to their favorite meal, and the bottom three bead-receivers are up for elimination.
Honestly, at this point, they should really just have them cook beads.
And they’re off to gather their supplies! Aryan Justin is going to cook something Asian, because “my ex-boyfriend was Taiwanese, my current boyfriend is Vietnamese, I only date Asian guys.” All well and good, but why mention the ex-boyfriend? A quick word about the Asians-only dating policy and a confirmation of the current boyfriend’s Vietnameseness gets the point across just fine. I think he wants us to ask about the ex. Maybe he’s a big Taiwanese pop star or something. He’ll bring it up again, I feel like.
Oh, someone is back from last season but is new to me because I didn’t watch last season. Stephanie was eliminated in the first episode of season ten, and has spent the time since then retraining herself and “trying to find a level of perfection” that she has already failed to do because perfection is perfect and by definition has no levels. But keep trying, Stephers!
Beni says “you can tell it’s our first time in the kitchen,” and he’s absolutely right. It’s also hard to tell exactly what’s going on. There are nineteen people dressed in identical white jackets, ducking fridge doors, furiously whisking. It’s hard for anyone to stand out, but Aaron manages, mostly by comparing food to rock and roll and allowing me to black out that space on my cooking-competition-show Bingo card. Also, Carlos reveals that he entered the United States illegally and came up through the ranks to own his own place. And Nina is from St. Lucia, which she says like “Saloosha.” She also has two symmetrical moles, one on either cheek, that give her the illusion of wearing a Halloween mask of her own face.
Tom comes into the kitchen just in time for Sexy Chef Jason to cut his own thumb and bleed sexy blood on himself. Sara reveals that her current job is trying to bring real food to airports so as to get out from the shadow of her previous employer, Wolfgang Puck. (On the airport tip, have you tried Vino Volo? From here on out, I am only traveling to places with Vino Volos in their airports. Sorry, Mom and Dad.)
Ramon is making a Thai dashi, to represent his time in Thailand as a Muy Thai fighter. But the dashi is ever so hot, and it’s about to go into a cooler, and as we all know, dashi will form bacteria if it cools too quickly (or slowly? or something?), so he’s going to put ice in, even if it results in a watered-down dashi. The ice in this dashi is the ricin in the last few episodes of Breaking Bad: You know that shit is coming back.
Emeril comes by with a box of beignets and then Harry Connick Jr. pops out of a gumbo pot and delivers the full “Napoleonic Code” monologue from A Streetcar Named Desire. I am kidding about the last part, but barely.
The cheftestants arrive at the swamp, which as it turns out means “field that seems perfectly fit for cultivation.” And they are shocked to learn that they’ll have to assemble their own kitchen! And then the producers are shocked that that’s these people’s area of expertise, because it takes them about four seconds.
Let’s cook! Patti, who we are just meeting, had planned to make some alligator roulades, but there’s not enough to go around, so instead she’s making a pan sauce with the flavor profile of a gumbo and offering no explanation as to how that will result in more food.
The judges show up on a party barge of some kind. Tom calls Padma “the Swamp Queen,” and she confirms to all around her: “I am. I am the Swamp Queen.” It’s very matter-of-fact. I have no reason not to believe her.
Our dining club makes its rounds, snacks on its snacks, and listens to cheftestants say things like “Nice and fried, nice and fresh, little bacon behind it.” Do you think that’s the worst part of being in a dining club? Or is it the other people in the dining club? (Trick question; it’s a tie. One of the clubbers, in response to Curtis Stone’s query about what will win him over, says: “Whatever pops best, whatever’s that first initial wow.” Jesus, these people.)
There are croquettes and meatballs and deconstructed BLTs and everything else you’d expect from a show like this. Janine’s alligator confit is the best-looking dish by a mile, and One Directioner Carrie’s chilled poached frog legs with oyster emulsion seems the most refreshing on what is visibly a humid-ass summer night. But Salooshan Nina is immediately barely able to lift her head for all the beads her curried turtle wins her. Sara’s General Tso’s alligator gets some raves as well, but oh, the spice! It’s really fun to watch strangers go on and on talking about a taste, you guys.
On the other end of the quality spectrum, Ramon’s dashi is deemed weak (Why would you ice it down, Ramon?) and Patti’s cajun alligator with yuca puree just looks bland. It’s a tan windbreaker in snack form. She seems nervous. It’s possible this show is not for her. But everyone gets at least a few beads.
Another! Shocking! Twist! This season, as the judges deliberate, the cheftestants will have the
obligation opportunity to watch and listen! Padma reveals that Sara’s dish “blew [her] socks away,” which is not a thing. (Listen, I’ve been in and out on this show for the last ten seasons; is Padma drunk a lot? I feel like she’s drunk a lot.) After much drunkliberation, the judges reveal the top three: pixieish Carrie, Sara the Rosie the Riveter, and our winner: Nina. Kadooze to Saloosha.
Bottom three is indecisive Patti, Muy Thai Ramon, and rock-and-roll Aaron. But one look at Tom’s face when Ramon cops to icing down his dashi tells you everything you need to know: He’s going home. (For real: Murder victims in the Scream series have made more understated faces than Tom does here. Don’t ice down a dashi in this guy’s presence, will you promise me that?)
So there we go! There is of course a super-trailer for the rest of the season, and it’s basically a parade of New Orleans clichÃ©s, just like this episode has been. Except: Jon Favreau (actor-director, not presidential speechwriter) will oversee a challenge in which the cheftestants “cook only what can be found in Dumpsters in the French Quarter.” So ... barf? The chefs will be cooking with barf?
I am starving and tired of food at the same time. See you next week.