Time flies. To celebrate ten consecutive years of Top Chef–ing, the 13th season takes us back to the state where it all began: California, land of (almond) milk and honey. For the Golden State anniversary, we’ll be traveling up and down the coast, Padma Lakshmi explains, as does a chalkboard outlining upcoming coastal locations hanging in the background. Traveling up and down the coast seems both stressful and inefficient (travel up or travel down — pick one), but then, this kind of rigid, linear thinking is the reason they are Top Chefs and I am currently burning tempeh in a peeling skillet. Anyway. First stop: L.A.
Let’s identify the players: “You’re the strongest troupe we’ve ever brought in,” Tom Colicchio says, threateningly. “But you have a lot to live up to.”
Quickly, Padma asks, “Who here is an executive chef?” All of the hands go up except one. “I’m the only sous-chef?” says Frances, who is indeed the only sous-chef. Immediately, she is my favorite, both because she is a natural underdog — in a moment we will learn that she hasn’t even won a James Beard Award yet — but also because she is the first chef to establish a personality. But not for long! “I am the super-sassy chef from Kansas City!” chirps Renee, like a Zumba instructor. “In the kitchen, I try not to have very much emotion, except for being genuine and authentic to myself.” Coincidentally, being genuine and authentic to myself is also my favorite emotion, right after “the feeling of eating doughnuts” and “generalized anxiety.” She is a happy person, this Renee: “I like my life, and if that annoys you, then go like your life!” This is where Renee and I part ways. It is also where she and Amar part ways. Mocking her privately, Amar is endearing, like a puppy with a Mohawk. Like a puppy with a Mohawk whose favorite emotion is not the feeling of ambient authenticity.
But who is that familiar apple-cheeked face in the corner? It’s Grayson! Eliminated in season nine when she “mentally gave up,” Grayson has returned to exact vengeance on those who once shunned her. “I’m a little bit older, I’m a little bit fatter, and hopefully I’m a lotta bit better,” she says. Can people really change, though? D.C.-based Garret doesn’t think so. “There’s a reason why she didn’t win,” he tells himself. Ah, yes, as the old saying goes: Fail once, fail forever. Garret, on the other hand, is ready for anyone, because his parents were academics. If he believes this, then Garret has had a very specific experience of the world. Another fun Garret fact from the Bravo website is that Garret enjoys “drawing cats in [his] free time.”
Another person who exists is Angelina, who is from Miami and is 24. Kwame is from the Bronx and has the good sense to mostly stay out of this episode. Pink-haired Karen is supposed to be at the James Beard Awards tonight. Because she’s nominated, you know? Phillip has a penetrating gaze and a man bun, because he is from Los Angeles. Phillip has won a bunch of food competitions already, and this is the natural next step, he guesses. There are also a bunch of men who kind of look like incarnations of each other at different weights, except some are bald and some are not bald. And then some other people, who might develop distinguishing characteristics at another time.
For now, though, the icebreakers are over. On to the Quickfire Challenge. Like this episode, the challenge will be a two-parter, beginning with a classic mise en place race where the chefs have to prep one of five classic California ingredients (oranges, asparagus, eggs, chickens, or artichokes) as quickly as possible. “We’re looking for perfection,” Tom menaces. Renee cannot be bullied. Nothing stands between Renee, her chicken, and victory. “Yeahhhh, I got this,” she says.
She does, in fact, got this. She could dismantle an entire zoo. Her dismembered chickens look great, Tom tells her, but she does not need his reassurance: She already knows her chickens look great. This is what happens when you are happy with your life. “She must be badass,” says an awed Amar, ashamed he ever doubted her.
Not everyone is equally badass, however: Garret keeps breaking his egg yolks. “How hard can it be?” he asks, signaling that it’s going to be very, very hard. It is not clear if Garret is having one of those days or one of those lives. Meanwhile, Phillip is felled when he accidentally squirts orange juice in his own eye and is momentarily blinded. It is a metaphor for something. “I definitely think had I had both eyes I easily could have made it in the top five,” he reflects, mournfully.
Speaking of sudden blindness, the top nine mise en placers get to move on to the next part of this Not-Very-Quick-at-All-Fire: In teams of three, they’ll have 30 minutes to cook a “classic California ingredient.” But there’s a catch! The catch is that they will each only get to work on the dish for ten minutes! And there’s more — when they’re not working on the dish, they’ll be blindfolded, with no idea what anyone else is doing. “The last time I was blindfolded was the first time I met my wife,” Frances chuckles. Frances understands. Unfortunately, Jason, who is also someone on this show, does not understand. “I want to provide a range of ingredients,” he says, helpfully preparing a mélange of arbitrary items that in no way indicate a plan. Jason seems nice. Jason also seems like someone you would not want to be lost in the woods with. “Oh, I sprinkled the breadcrumbs in all of the directions, because I didn’t know which way you’d want to go!” Jason would say cheerfully, before we died.
It’s hard to admit being wrong, but I was wrong: Super-sassy Renee is more like super-sassy great and leads her team to victory, which means that she, Frances, and Amar all get immunity. “A hundred percent, I’m not going to be eliminated on the first round!” says Frances, gleefully. “Let’s keep this momentum going,” says Padma, bleakly.
Time for the first elimination challenge of the season. The mission: Prepare literally anything for an L.A. showcase at Lake Hollywood Park for 200 VIP guests. “You really need to bring your A game,” Tom informs them. “The guests that are coming tomorrow can make or break careers.” This is noooo problem for Phillip, because he loves bloggers! He’s even, like, familiar with a whole bunch of them. “You know, I don’t really have a dish in my head,” Phillip says. “That’s not really my style.” I wonder what it’s like to be Phillip. I imagine it is nice. Isaac, on the other hand, whom we’ve met but not met, is real stressed out because his mentor Emeril Lagasse is going to be one of the judges, and he’s got to make him proud. I know exactly what it is like to be Isaac, minus the Emeril part.
Everyone plots their debut dish, the one that will introduce them to the Los Angeles VIP guest community. Garret, meanwhile, muses: “Cooking is a continuation of philosophy, because it’s a study of aesthetics — gustatory aesthetics, but there’s nothing more connected with human existence than a cultural manifestation of cuisine.” This is Garret’s special way of saying he’s going to make a Vietnamese-Italian chicken noodle soup. Amar and Grayson both decide to express themselves through meatballs, but the difference is that Amar’s are inspired by everything bagels. I don’t really know what that means, but I support him. Isaac decides to earn Emeril’s love with a version of his grandmother’s shrimp courtbouillon. Jeremy, a man who is generally “stoked,” heads for the Whole Foods fish counter, because he’s a “fish guy.”
Exhausted from the pressure, or the grocery store, or the weight of mortality, everyone heads back to their new digs to figure out roommate arrangements. Frances and Renee have become fast friends, because of their joint Quickfire success/shared love of mint, and decide to bunk together. But then it turns out that Frances’s wife — mild intrigue — looks a lot like Renee. I was prepared to say they don’t actually look that much alike, but they do. They do look that much alike. Luckily, this issue is easily resolved when everyone immediately moves on.
Guest judges Emeril and Gail Simmons join forces with Padma and Tom to take in the Lake Hollywood Park VIP critic-and-blogger scene and plot their strategy while Phillip harvests dried grass. At his restaurant, he explains with touched intensity, he smokes goat cheese tableside, over hay, and what is hay, really, but dried grass? “That’s kind of gross,” suggests killjoy cheftestant Marjorie. But Phillip is undeterred; Phillip knows a good idea when he has one. Phillip’s random assortment of vegetables (with puffed amaranth!) is universally beloved, lauded by judges and bloggers alike.
Other hits: Jeremy’s Pacific snapper crudo (with kombu gel and lime zest) also gets raves.* (“I nailed it!” he marvels.) Someone I’ve never seen before named Chad makes a tangerine aguachile with scallop and shrimp cake and ground grasshopper, which has a “deep funk” (“in a good way!”); low-profile Bostonian Carl’s simple-looking Middle Eastern carrot soup is deemed spectacularly well spiced and has no grasshoppers; and Isaac’s homey courtbouillon lives up to Emeril’s expectations, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief and whatever else happens now is going to be fine.
At least for us. Grayson is not fine. Her pork-and-veal meatballs, she explains to Tom, totally do have a point of view, because of all her European influences. Padma tells her she could get meatballs at her local pizzeria and they would taste exactly the same, which certainly appears to be true. It looks good, and so does everything at all pizza places. Grayson is stunned. “I made 400 balls!” she yelps. “Okay,” says Padma in a pure manifestation of her power, terrifying and beautiful at once. Meanwhile, Garret (oh, Garret!) is suffering, bouncing between ecstasy and agony. First, he’s thrilled because Gail and Emeril love his soup, with the handmade noodles and the perfectly toasted garlic. But then Padma and Tom come by, and they think his garlic is burnt and his noodles are broken. Broken like his egg yolks. Broken like his spirit.
Back at the ranch, Tom delivers his verdict: “There wasn’t a dish that stood out as being just god-awful!” If I were Garret, I would feel momentarily soothed. The top three: puppyish Amar, understated Carl, and the winner, fish-guy Jeremy, who cheerfully declares himself a force to be reckoned with. “I’m ready for the next challenge, man,” he announces beachily. Unfortunately, precocious Angelina, repeat contestant Grayson, and broken noodle Garret may not be. “I think I failed to provide the due vigilance to execute that dish with consistency,” Garret admits, falling on his santoku. It’s over. Grayson and her meatballs will live to fight another day, and Garret will return to his practice of gastronomic aesthetics in D.C.
And that’s it for night one. Questions remain unanswered: Will Grayson push beyond red sauce? Also, who is Chad, really? We don’t even have to wait a week to get answers, because there is yet another elimination challenge airing on the Bravo network tonight. The chefs will open four pop-up restaurants across Los Angeles, and we will likely confirm that group projects are still miserable. See you tomorrow!
*This post has been updated to show that Jeremy did, in fact, make kombu gel.