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'Top Chef' recap, 'Sudden Death'

For The Baltimore Sun
'Top Chef' season premiere: There's already bloodletting in Boston

After 12 seasons, "Top Chef" heads to Boston, where I’m sure we will be constantly reminded about how old and important the city is and how rich it is with traditions. Oh yeah and the Red Sox. Don’t you dare forget about the Sox! #eyeroll

We start off with a montage of chefs talking about how important is it to win “Top Chef,” and beauty scenes of all the glorious historic landmarks around Boston.

Nineteen seconds in and we already have our first shot of Fenway Park. Oy.

This season, 16 chefs will battle it out for a feature in Food and Wine Magazine, an “appearance” at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, the same $125,000 and, of course, the title of Top Chef.

Wait a minute. It used to be a “showcase” at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen and now it’s just an “appearance?” What happened? Did last season’s winner, Nicholas Elmi, screw up or something? (He didn’t.)

No time to mess around: The chefs head straight to the “Top Chef” kitchen where, standing before them, is none other than our ever-so-glorious host Padma Lakshmi and “Top Chef All Stars Winner” Richard Blais, this season’s recurring judge.

The once faux-hawk-sporting molecular gastronomy/modernist cooking rebel is now a swanky restaurateur with a puffy hipster hair-do and seven restaurants under his belt. If anyone knows how “Top Chef” can change someone’s life, it’s him.

But enough about Blais. Let’s find out who these chefstestants are.

Everyone takes a turn to humblebrag about all the great chefs they’ve worked for and all the awards they’ve won. It’s straight out of central casting.

You’ve got the skinny jeans-wearing, tattoo-sporting Adam Harvey, who worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s vegan restaurant. (Of course he did.)

Mei Lin, the restrained Asian chef who is the sous chef of “Top Chef” Season 6 winner (and Frederick native) Michael Voltaggio at Ink in Los Angeles. (No pressure here, just don’t lose.)

And then there’s the wild card. Katsuji Tanabe, a Mexican-Japanese chef who sells kosher tacos in Beverly Hills. (Yeah, everyone’s a little confused about this guy.)

Right now, nobody cares who they were and what they did before today, because the season starts with a Sudden Death Quickfire Challenge and somebody is going home.

Padma warns there will be a few of these this season. Lose a Quickfire and you’re packing your knives.

By the looks on the chefs’ faces, you’d think Samuel L. Jackson just shouted, “Oh did I break your concentration?!” They’re not messing around this season.

The good news is the challenge is an oldie but a goodie: Mise en place relay race.

Padma divides the chefs into teams of four. Each member of a team will need to break down a different local New England ingredient. The local ingredients are three lobsters, 20 oysters, eight Boston mackerels and 21 clams.

This is like a four-by-four swimming relay race at the Olympics. Each chef has to pick and lobby for their own specialty and then work as a team. Even though this is a team challenge, the slowest person on the slowest team will be up for elimination, according to the judges.

On the Green Team, vegan tattoo chef is arguing with this season’s token Barbie chef, Kerianne Von Raesfeld, over who gets to break down lobster. Of course they’d argue over who breaks down lobster. Who doesn’t love tearing through lobster?

On the Red Team, nice guy George Pagonis really wanted the mackerel but relents to Gregory Gourdet and takes the clams instead. “I suck at clams, but I guess I’ll take it for the team,” George says. That’s usually a smart move. #Sarcasm.

In the flurry of cracking claws and shucking shells, we learn a few things about the chefs during this QuickFire.

• Tattoo vegan chef talks a good game. But I’ve seen toddlers from Gloucester go through lobster faster at a New England lobster bake.

• Chef Doug Adams from Portland, Ore., has a self-proclaimed Napoleon complex. That’s going to work out well for everybody.

• Like a true Bostonian, Stacy Cogswell claims she’s shucked a thousand clams in her career and would definitely have to move out of Boston if she loses. If everyone who once said, “I’d have to leave Boston if …” actually left, the city would be empty.

Katsuji, the Mexican-Japanese chef who owns a kosher Mexican restaurant, can’t shuck clams. Because they’re not kosher, obv.

In the end, after the chipped shells settle, chef Kerianne showed some chops. In the final stretch, she comes from behind and out shucks Boston native Stacy “shucker of a thousand clams” Cogswell to lead her team to victory. Somebody call Stacy a U-Haul.

Alas, nice guy finishes last. George struggled with the clams and since his team came in last, he’s the one on the chopping block. This comes as a surprise because he is a chef-partner with former “Top Chef” contestant Mike Isabella and is considered one of the favorites in this competition. I’ll tell you one thing: Isabella would have just taken those mackerel from Gourdet. None of this "taking one for the team" nonsense.

However, that was only part one of the Sudden Death Quickfire. This is a cooking show, after all, and we haven’t cooked anything yet.

Pagonis must now challenge one chef — any chef — to a Sudden Death cook off. If he wins, then both chefs get to stay. Lose this battle, and it’s over.

To no one’s surprise, Pagonis challenges Gourdet as payback for top-dogging him. They’ll have 20 minutes to come up with a dish featuring any of the mise en place ingredients.

As a payback dish, Pagonis goes with a simple pan-seared mackerel with fennel orange salad. With all those possible ingredients to choose from, it’s like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Gourdet wins with a “Seafood Trio” of Oysters with yuzu, marinated mackerel and lobster with coconut and tomato sauce.

In a bit of a shocker, the partner of a former “Top Chef All Stars” runner-up is the first sent home -- and it’s at the hands of executioner Blais, the person who beat Isabella in "Top Chef All Stars.” Now you know this game ain’t juked. Nobody is safe.

Elimination Challenge

Because Boston is so historic, the chefs are to make history of their own by hosting the first Top Chef Food Festival. Ugh, so all those food events “Top Chef” hosted in the past 11 seasons don’t count?

The chefs will have their own booths alongside some of Boston’s best chefs and restaurant owners. They’ll be preparing food for 250 people, and the dish? An updated version of the first dish they remember cooking.

Time to meet some of the other chefs who haven't gotten any camera time yet.

Joy Crump, a “farm-to-table” chef from Virginia, is going with fried chicken. But since time is a constraint, she’ll just be making crispy chicken skins. As long as they’re crispy, chicken is like making bacon without being cliche and played out. Speaking of which …

Aaron Grissom, who could be mistaken as a cast member of the recent season of "Saturday Night Live" (read: nondescript young guy) is going with bacon and eggs. It’s the first freaking challenge and you’re already pulling out pork belly? Have you not seen “Top Chef” before? Pork belly doesn’t come out until at least five episodes in!

On the flip side, Katie Weinner, a culinary school instructor who also runs a pop-up restaurant, is making broccoli salad. It must be what every aspiring “Top Chef” contestant dreams of at night. “Someday I’m going to be on ‘Top Chef’ to cook for the likes of Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse, and I’m gonna wow them with my broccoli salad!” Um, no.

Meanwhile, Michael Patlazhan, a private chef in Brooklyn, N.Y., is making chilled corn soup with sriracha pearls and caviar. This guy has probably eaten at WD-50 one too many times and thinks it’s easy to cook like Wylie Dufresne. His future is hazy.

Head judge Tom Colicchio and Blais stroll into the kitchen for the cook-n-chat. This is when Chef Tom puts the fear of God into you and makes you question your entire existence.

Aaron Grissom, aka Pork Belly guy, takes this opportunity to throw broccoli lady under the bus in front of Tom. When asked whether braising pork belly in such a short time is a challenge, he replies, “Yeah, but at the end of the day this is ‘Top Chef’ and I didn’t come here to toss salads.”

The kitchen reacts. Camera edits make it seem like broccoli lady heard and was offended. It's one of them manufactured “Oh no, he didn’t” moments. I see you what you’re doing, Bravo producers!

Here comes our favorite Japanese-Mexican chef, Katsuji, explaining to Tom and Richard his dish. I don’t know what he’s making, but this thing’s got more ingredients than “Top Chef” has seasons. Richard is confused. Tom is confused. We’re all confused.

Festival time.

It’s a who’s who of Boston chefs. Todd English, Ming Tsai, Jasper White -- you name it, they’re all here. “Top Chef” alums Kristen Kish and Tiffani Faison swing by to give fellow native Stacy Cogswell some encouragement. It’s either that or they’re reminding her of the QuickFire clam shucking embarrassment and her U-Haul is on the way.

Time to eat. Two-hundred-and-fifty food writers, bloggers and critics start strolling in. Can you imagine a more annoying group of people to cook for? Wait, yes I can -- 250 elite Yelpers. 

Judges Richard and Padma, Tom and Gail Simmons pair off to sample the dishes.

Among the highlights: Mei Lin’s congee with caramelized pork, Doug’s fried chicken with watermelon and Gregory’s Haitian stewed chicken with fried bananas. These will probably be your top three.

The fun happens when Aaron Grissom fails to save choice cuts for the judges and serves Padma an extremely fatty piece of pork belly. Aaron, who we’ve established is obviously not a connoisseur of the show by prematurely busting out pork belly, also fails the other important rule of “Top Chef”: Do NOT anger Padma.

By giving her that fatty piece of pork (which she spat out), Aaron invoked the wrath of Mean Girl Padma, who scolds him for having a messy station and tries to single-handedly put him on the bottom. But the cooler heads of Tom and Gail prevail.

Not so lucky, though, is Michael Patlazhan’s fishy corn soup with caviar, Katie Weinner’s broccoli salad and Katsuji Tanabe’s taco of a thousand ingredients. These three ill-concocted dishes are on the bottom.

The twist this season (at least for the premiere) is that instead of the Flat Screen of Doom for a preview of what judges think and tops/bottoms getting called up separately, all the chefs are called to the judges table at the same time.

The Top 3 are named and praised; the bottom three are scolded while the rest of the group watches. In real time, they’re seeing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I like this move. Instead of just seeing the booted chefs walk back into the stew room for hugs and goodbyes, you get to see them squirm and ultimately be put out of their misery.

It’s a “let that be a lesson to you all” type of execution. It’s a great way to motivate the remaining chefs to do better.

Speaking of doing better, you can’t do any worse than serving the judges fishy corn soup. Richard calls it an “unpleasant surprise,” while Padma and Gail say it was like fishy cereal. There’s a way to correctly utilize modernist techniques, but frankly, with just four years of experience under his belt, Michael Patlazhan just didn’t have it. Pack your knives and hydrocolloids and go.

Then comes the unthinkable. Instead of getting booted with grace, this dude has the nerve to question Tom Colicchio?! Saying that Tom needs to grow with age or get left behind?! He doesn’t care what Tom Colicchio thinks?!

I’m going to go ahead and declare that Mr. Patlazhan is going to be a “private” chef for a long long time.

The winner? Mei Lin’s comforting congee with braised pork. It was complex and flavorful; Richard says it was not only great for a food festival, but equally appropriate for fine dining. Congrats! Sorry, no prize for this win. That only comes when it’s a sponsored challenge.

In a preview of the upcoming season, we get glimpses of what’s to come. Expect lots of guest appearances like Andy Cohen, George Wendt and that tight end from the New England Patriots. No, the other one (thankfully). And it looks like there might be a judges-versus-chef challenge.

Oh, and if you happen to see Mark Wahlberg, say hello to his mother for me.

 

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