the feeding tube

Top Chef Premiere Recap: Ranch Dressing and Strawberry Syrup

It’s like we never left.

It’s been many long, Top Chef–less months. But as of last night, we’re back in the saddle! This year, Top Chef takes us to Charleston, South Carolina, where the grits are hot, the tea is cold, and our lady of perpetual sorrow Padma Lakshmi seems as mournfully stoned as ever.

But I hope you are sitting down while you read this, because right off the bat there is a shocking twist! (Unless you have seen the previews, in which case, not so shocking.) This season, eight of the chefs will be normal first-time Top Chef competitors, but the other eight will be Top Chef vets returned for a second chance at glory! “Over the years, I’ve been a part of very successful restaurants,” says season-two non-winner and 2012 Sexiest Man Alive Sam Talbot. “But the title of Top Chef? The success that would come from that could be limitless.” It is true. Sometimes, I wonder why my success feels so limited, and then I remember that I am not a Top Chef. “Everybody wants to be Top Chef,” observes a sleepy tattooed man who will presumably be competing on this show.

To that end, it is time to get cooking! First up: The new chefs! Glowing with the innocence of dreams un-dashed, they parade into the kitchen to meet their fate. “I’m feeling very confident,” says the sleepy tattooed man, who turns out to be B.J. Smith from Portland. Louisville’s own Annie Pettry, on the other hand, is simmering with nervous energy. “I know I’m a badass,” she announces, as I do every morning, in the mirror, “but this is the scariest thing I’ve ever done.” Meanwhile, Sylva Senat, in from Philadelphia, is beginning to suspect that there might be a shocking twist this season. “It’s eight of us,” he says, surveying his competition, “so I’m wondering if there’s more people coming.”

And wouldn’t you know it, here’s Shirley! Shirley Chung’s story is that she almost won season 11 in New Orleans, but then she didn’t, and now she’s back. “Seriously, Shirley Chung, you’re actually here again?” says Shirley Chung, simmering alone in the “Stew Room,” waiting for more old pals to arrive. For example, here is Brooke Williamson! Brooke is the runner-up from Top Chef Seattle, and points out that unless she wins, she’ll have done worse than last time. That’s the spirit I like to see! Also, ray of bowtied sunshine Katsuji Tanabe, from Top Chef Boston! “Are you stoked?” asks handsome Sam Talbot, pulsing with rugged masculinity. I am!

Meanwhile in the kitchen, Tom confirms Sylva’s suspicions: There are indeed more people coming, but they are stowed away in the Stew Room right now, only he doesn’t say that part, because Tom is a man who loves surprises almost as much as he loves shawl collars. “It doesn’t matter who’s up next,” threatens Jamie Lynch, a new chef whose distinguishing characteristic thus far is his neck tattoo. “The goal for me is to beat everybody.”

Speaking of who’s up next, you’re probably wondering: Will noted Seattle competitor John Tesar be coming to Charleston? Well, have I got news for you. Yes. “John is like my stepdad,” offers Brooke, carefully, explaining that he’s the kind of pink-shirted middle-age man who “sometimes you’re excited to see, and sometimes you roll your eyes at.” She is a sharp observer of character, that Brooke.

Rounding out our home team: Amanda Baumgarten, from Top Chef D.C.; Casey Thompson, from Top Chef Miami and Top Chef All-Stars; and Sheldon Simeon, also from Top Chef Seattle. We will discuss them at another time.

There are literally too many cooks in the kitchen in these early episodes. Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

For now, it’s on to the first Quickfire Challenge, featuring all of the new people, while the old people spy on them from a secret television in the Stew Room. “I feel like I’m watching Top Chef, but I’m not in it right now,” notes Shirley.

My sentiments exactly.

Gerald Sombright is based in Miami and has five kids. Jim Smith is the executive chef of the State of Alabama. Another fun fact about Jim Smith is that he has seen every episode of Star Trek ever made. Also, there are even more people! (These early episodes are like college orientation; it is impossible to know who is going to end up mattering in the end.)

Anyway, for their inaugural challenge, Tom has decided that everyone will get one hour to make as many dishes as they can out of a very special ingredient. The very special ingredient is a chicken. Padma and Tom will taste the dishes as they are ready. I love simple challenges like this because they are guaranteed to go poorly.

And indeed, the chicken dance is a disaster for basically everyone. As the official chef of Alabama, Jim decides to do three separate dishes, including but not limited to fried chicken livers with strawberry-cane syrup vinaigrette, and ranch dressing, which he promises is actually delicious, in an unexpected sort of way. “I’m sweating like crazy!” he drawls. “The heat’s on! I’m ready!” Padma pets him softly. It is a gesture that looks like kindness.

Gerald says he’s doing chicken noodle soup, and also smoked chicken breast; B.J., classically trained barbecuer that he is, is doing a thing that involves white meat plus another thing involving dark meat; and neck-tattooed Jamie is doing chicken grand-mère. Padma, however, is reasonably preoccupied by more pressing concerns re: Jamie.“Are you tattooed everywhere?” she purrs. (He is not.)

Another new person! Silvia Barban is Italian and therefore makes pasta, even though the one thing she promised herself she wouldn’t make during a Quickfire is pasta. I understand. The call of pasta is too strong for all of us.

Finally, it is time to meet Emily Hahn, who has the advantage of already living in Charleston, but the disadvantage of being a villainess. “I have been fired from a couple of jobs because of my attitude,” she says, “but attitude is everything.” I have thought about it a lot, and I am going to be honest with you: I still don’t know what it means. After explaining her game plan to Tom and Padma — the plan is “chicken” — she informs them that she has had “enough talking” and banishes them from her kingdom.

Suffice it to say, things go wrong for the chefs and when it’s all said and done, Tom is disappointed in everyone, but he admits he liked Italian Silvia’s pasta, scowling Emily’s Korean barbecued chicken wings, and Alabama Jim’s chicken-innards mélange. And the winner is — wait for it — Alabama Jim, for his strawberry chicken innards! The Stew Room is shocked. I am shocked. Alabama Jim is more than shocked. “I just wanna hug that guy,” coos Sam Talbot, beautifully. Now for the bad news: Gerald’s sauce was greasy, Jamie’s vegetables were burnt, and Tom still can’t forgive Annie for a little fight they had about panzanella, so they’re on bottom. Tom delivers the news gravely: the loser is Gerald. “I’m disappointed,” agrees Gerald, “but that was my least favorite dish that I’ve probably ever cooked in my life.” Oh, Gerald. You will never make it in Trump’s America.

Concentrate … Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

There is no time to wallow, though, because it’s time for the veterans to make their entrance. “Hello, hello!” chuckles Padma. “Fuck,” mutters Silvia. “Hehehe,” titters Tom. Silvia is nervous because she has a crush on Sam Talbot. Jim is nervous because that is his general state. Emily, however, is not nervous at all, because, she points out, everyone returning is someone who has already been eliminated at least once. Emily is a real glass-half-full kind of girl, you can tell.

Another surprise! Restaurateur and Top Chef master Graham Elliot will also be on the judging panel this season, and will oversee the second Quickfire of the night: The chefs will have 30 minutes to put a creative spin on a Charleston classic, shrimp and grits, which honestly doesn’t seem like a very creative challenge to me, but whatever, he’s new. Sheldon says he wants to represent Hawaii. Brooke wraps a Scotch egg in ground shrimp. Shirley announces her intention to cook “so the judges feel like they just had a giant hug.” Katsuji will attempt simplicity, and Sheldon will attempt to use an immersion blender.

Everyone does interesting global-grits things, either because this is an easier challenge, or because they have all been on this show before. I thought Sam’s shrimp-and-coconut grits with blackened tomatoes, vinegar, chili, and maple syrup was definitely top-three material, but then, it is also possible that I am confused and I am actually talking about his face.

In any case, Graham Elliot says the obvious standouts were Amanda’s head-on shrimp and grits with ham, pickled raisins, and roasted peaches, Brooke’s shrimp-encrusted Scotch egg bonanza, and Shirley’s grits-and-steamed-egg-custard combo

And the winner is … Brooke’s shrimp egg!

Graham Elliot does not, however, care for Casey’s coconut shrimp and grits with corn (too corny) Katsuji’s complicated Mexican adobo-style extravaganza (too complicated), or John’s Korean-style interpretation, with faux kimchee and kimchee butter (generally baffling). Since whatever the problem with John’s dish is is beyond articulation, John is named the loser, so he must now fight Gerald to sudden death.

As the sun rises in the East, the warriors prepare for battle. “At 58 years old, I’m kind of a dying breed,” muses John, with a sadness that can only come from a man once named the most hated chef in Dallas. When it is his turn, Gerald shares the hardest thing he’s gone through was the time he had to live out of his car to put a roof over his kids’ heads.

On that note, everything takes a dark turn. As they pull up to the site of their impeding duel, John and Gerald discover that they are actually on Boone Hall Plantation, which on the plus side is beautiful, but on the minus side is a former plantation. “This is where slaves lived,” whispers John, who is white. “I know,” says Gerald, who is black. John and Gerald agree that it is important not to shy away from history. In flowing floral ruffles, Padma leads a quick group discussion on the legacy of slavery in America. “There’s certainly a lot of history here,” transitions our trusty sidekick Gail Simmons, “but we’re here because it’s home to one of the world’s largest oyster festivals.” Ehhhhhh.

So, okay, it’s time for an oyster roast. Seems simple, but Graham cheerfully assures them that there are many ways it can all go wrong. For instance, your oysters could be filled with crabs, a horrifying possibility neither Gerald nor I had previously considered. Luckily, Gerald has time to roast a new batch real quick, so he can serve his oysters with Thai-style mignonette and be sure they are blessedly free of crabs. Meanwhile, John cream-poaches his oysters with a truffle infusion, which he can do, because he brought a truffle from home. Never travel without it, that’s what I say!

It is a difficult decision. On the one hand, Gerald’s dish had “true oyster flavor,” but then again, John’s dish “developed a lot of flavor.” So much flavor! Will they choose the one with the flavor, or the other one with the flavor? The other one, it turns out. Gerald’s Thai spices weren’t spicy enough, and he so he banished to the internet-only wilds of “Last Chance Kitchen.”

And after all that, we’re done with the kickoff! Coming up this season: Sheldon has a medical emergency! Emily has a tearful breakdown! Padma eats the best meal of her life, except for all the other meals, and Jim smokes a chili pepper! It’s going to be big, you guys. See you next week.

Top Chef Premiere Recap: Strawberry Syrup and Ranch Dressing