Top Chef Recap
By Jason Lee
August 24, 2009

We never could figure out what her tattoo said.

And we're back.

No more Masters, no more going back to high school at the end of August, we are comfortably back at home with the aspiring Top Chef contestants and our beloved judges, Tom, Gail and Padma.

This iteration of TV's finest culinary program will see its chefs compete in the city of sin. Already, Top Chef has quite the tie to Las Vegas - the Season 1 finale took place there (memorably with the Cirque du Soleil challenge, which David completely botched) and many iconic contestants (most notably Season 2 villain, Marcel) continue to work there. We'll have to see how this year's crop handles the blazing heat and high stakes.

Right off the bat, the first thing to notice is the much higher caliber of chefs that we have. I'm not sure if the producers of the show felt that Top Chef: Las Vegas was in danger of falling into the shadow of Top Chef: Masters given their disparate levels of talent, but for whatever reason, in looking out to see multiple James Beard Award nominees (three by my count) and one chef who's been awarded a Michelin star (a HUGE honor), we have every reason to think that this season will rock.

At least, the food should.

We've seen different entrances for the cheftestants over the years - Season 4 brought everyone from the airport to a hotel lobby for an amuse bouche Quickfire. Season 5 brought the cast to Governor's Island, NY for an apple-peeling Quickfire. This season has none of that off-the-boat/off-the-plane throw them to the wolves creativity. Instead, the cheftestants walk into their house, their luggage chugging along behind them, and get a look at their new digs.

First thought: Top Chef has never looked more Real World.

Second thought: Cheftestants usually get situated in a gorgeous penthouse over looking the city. Guess the hotels were too expensive in Las Vegas for that?

We and the cast members get to know each other a little bit before they're shuttled away to the Top Chef kitchen. We have two brothers who haven't seen each other in 12 years (one quiet and thoughtful, the other brash and loud). We have a effeminate chef from France who apparently is straight. We have one of Eric Ripert's sous-chefs. We have a superstitious chef who won't unpack, lest she have to pack her bags after the Elimination Challenge.

We also have one loudmouth who goes around, both with his cheftestants and in his monologues, dissing the competition and arrogantly letting us know that he's the one to beat this year. Oh lord, there's always one of those on Top Chef. This braggart, named Mike, is easily my pick for "person that I will hate this season." He's clearly impressed with his own skill. He's the obnoxious cousin who would hit on your girlfriend when you brought her home to meet the family at Thanksgiving.

We get to the Top Chef kitchen (which looks bigger than in years past) and Padma springs a surprise on us. The Quickfire for the first episode will be the Mise en Place Relay Race. Four teams of four chefs will have four tasks to accomplish in the quickest time possible. I love this challenge but I'm surprised that we're seeing it so early, especially when we really don't know who is who yet. I fondly remember in Season 3 when we saw a team of misfits (including Hung and Sara) take down the popular kids (including CJ and Casey). Now THAT was drama. Here, I'm not sure who to root for yet.

The chefs draw chips to see what team they're on. Robin, an older lady, draws a golden chip, which means not only does she not have to participate in the Quickfire, she has immunity for this episode. WOW. What a lucky draw.

The tasks for the relay race are to shuck 15 clams, peel 30 prawns, clean five lobsters and butcher two chops of prime rib. Tom blows his whistle and the teams are off. Two teams, the black and the blue teams, are doing great and pretty evenly matched. The other two teams are struggling. One girl, Preeti, is trying to open her clams as you would an oyster, which is apparently NOT how you do it. Meanwhile the other girl has sliced her fingers and is bleeding all over the clams.

It's official: we are certainly NOT watching Masters anymore.

While two teams flounder, it's down to the Blue and Black team for the win. Different people are screaming at different people and I can't quite tell what's going on. All I know is that the French guy just massacred the lobsters and has given the Blue team a huge time advantage, which they capitalize on and win.

But there's a twist! The four chefs on the winning team now have an opportunity to participate in a cook-off for the chance to win $15,000. HOLY COW. Being able to take home some cold, hard cash for winning a Quickfire? Vegas is certainly gonna pay out.

Robin, Miss Immunity, has the chance to trade her immunity to participate in the cook-off but she wisely declines. Yeah, I would, too.

The four chefs of the blue team each begin cooking their own ingredient. For a while, it looks like the guys on the team, who did the lobster and the prime rib, have an advantage - not only are they more confident but they have better ingredients. The prawn and clam ladies are struggling.

Time is up and we have a clam ceviche from Jennifer (Eric Ripert's sous chef), lobster with star anise from Mattin (the French guy), shrimp and grits from Jesse (a plump, tattoo-ed girl) and a fennel crusted rib-eye from Bryan (the quiet one of the brothers). In a surprise turn, Tom finds Mattin and Bryan's dishes flavorless and picks Jennifer and Jesse as the top. Jesse ends up wining and gleefully picks up her $15K chip.

Padma goes on to announce the Elimination Challenge. The judges want to learn more about their "dark side," so the chefs have to make a dish based on one of their vices. They will cook in their Quickfire teams - the top chef in each team will be eligible for winning the challenge, the bottom chef in each team will be up for elimination.

Oh, and by the way, the guest judge will be Wolfgang Puck. The chefs stare forward in fear.

Each chef gets $150 and they head out to Whole Foods. Everyone is running through the store like crazy, while douchey Mike takes some time to bash the rest of the contestants. First thing we see is one chef heading straight to the seafood counter to buy some scallops. Oh lord, I am so sick of seeing scallops on this show. In the words of Fabio, "It's Top CHEF not Top SCALLOP."

Another strange development is that Jen, a second tattoo-ed lady though much thinner than Jesse, has decided to make a poblano pepper stuffed with seitan, a wheat glutten that's made to taste like meat. Now, my ex-boyfriend was vegan and he loved seitan, but I still don't see how that's going to taste good.

The chefs purchase their ingredients and head back to the kitchen to cook. Everyone is scurrying everywhere and I can't keep the teams straight. All I know is that there are some strange dishes being made. Deep fried rib-eye, bacon smart-ass is even doing an ode to Vegas by doing a "nice rack" of lamb will a sauce made from some "juicy coconuts."

Ha...ha...*insert awkward silence*

Also of note, the girls are not strong this year. Most of them don't seem to know what they're doing and when they do know what they're doing, it doesn't sound good (see bacon doughnuts and poblano pepper with seitan above).

The Blue team serves first. We have arrogant Mike, whose vice is his foul mouth, with an olive oil poached halibut, designed to look like the bar of soap that his mother used to wash out his mouth, along with some wood-roasted eggplant. Eli's vice is drinking and he has buttered scallops with beer powder. Ashley's vice is a love of red wine so she has a chicken liver ravioli with a red wine demi glace. Hector loves his disgusting cigars and has made a smoked rib-eye with carrot puree.

The judges like Eli's scallops and Mike's eggplant but detest Hector's deep-fried rib-eye, which has none of the smoke that he'd supposedly infused the dish with.

Next we have Bryan (quiet brother), who loves bourbon, with a NY strip steak, parsnip puree and bourbon reduction. French Mattin is stubborn and has cooked a buffalo rib-eye with madeira sauce. Jennifer loves alcohol (notice a trend yet?) and poached her halibut with whisky, bourbon and scotch. Jesse loves her whiskey and braised some chicken with a whiskey reduction.

The judges like Bryan's meat but Wolfgang Puck compares his puree to baby food. Jennifer's sauce is praised, Mattin's meat was great but the accompaniments made no sense and Jesse's chicken (as she had feared earlier) is far too dry.

Next we have Ash, who procrastinates, and has made a poached halibut and ratatouille. Hot-tempered Jen has her poblano pepper and seitan. Ron, a Haitian, makes some incomprehensible statement about how he was on a boat for 20 days, somehow connecting it to this big fish he cooked. Laurine made bacon donuts with chocolate and beer sauce.

Wolfgang doesn't like Ron's fish dish, which has too much going on. Lauraine's sauce is beautiful but Wolfgang says that her doughnuts are far too hard - much more like golfballs than doughnuts. Jen's chili is derided all around, with no flavor, big chunks of garlic and a clunky presentation.

The last group has smart-ass Mike with his rack of lamb and juicy coconuts. Preeti, the one who memorably displayed a complete lack of skill in opening clams, has chosen to make a pork tenderloin with bourbon sauce (what is up with all this bourbon all of a sudden?). Kevin procrastinates and so he cooked somethings slow and others fast, putting together an arctic char and turnip salsa verde. Eve struggles with overcomplicating things and has made a shrimp and scallop curry.

Tom appreciates Mike's joke about the nice rack / juicy coconuts but strongly criticizes Eve for improperly searing her scallops. The arctic char dish gets praise all around.

The cheftestants are waiting in the stew room, bitterly complaining about how bored they are. Just wait, little ones, it only gets worse in the stew room. Finally, Padma comes by and calls for Ron (fish guy), Mike (soapy halibut), Kevin (arctic char) and Jennifer (halibut with three types of alcohol).

At this point, I realize that the women may not be strong as a group but you better watch out for Jennifer. She's good.

The judges explain why they liked the four chef's dishes. Mike's flavors were strong, Jennifer cooked her fish to perfection, Ron brought some great island flavors and Kevin just had a beautiful dish. I thought, based on Wolfgang Puck's effusive praise, that Jennifer would be going home the winner but it is KEVIN who wins this round. He makes some pompous statements about how the other chefs will know that he's a big dog as they walk back to the stew room.

On the bottom, we have Jesse (dry chicken), Eve (no sear on scallops), Hector (deep-fried rib-eye) and Jen (poblano pepper with seitan). Yep, with three women on the bottom, it's clear that the girls are weak this year.

The judges reiterate their complaints. Hector should not have deep-fried his steak - if he wanted more smoky flavor he should have grilled it on the wood stove. Jen's chicken was too dry - she agrees and explains exactly where she went wrong. The judges are impressed. Eve's dish was confusing - she said that she overcomplicates things but the dish was boring and bland. Jen's pepper was clunky and had no heat to match her "hot temper." Jen tries to make the excuse that she was trying to use seitan and cook "out of the box."

Gail: "We're not mad at you for using seitan, we're mad at you because you didn't cook it in a way that tasted good."


The chefs go back to the stew room with Jen collapsing on the floor in dramatic fashion. Meanwhile, the judges decide who's going home. Gail stands up for Jesse, saying that she knew exactly what her mistake was. Tom agrees and said that the dish was well conceived, she just made an error. Wolfgang puck excuses Hector's decision to deep-fry his steak saying that every country has their own way of cooking.

NOTE: At this point in the show, my boyfriend (who happens to be Mexican) shouts out in indignation, "We don't deep fry steaks!" He is deathly afraid that Hector has convinced Wolfgang Puck that it's a Mexican culinary tradition to deep-fry steaks when it is not. "Why is my burrito deep-fried?" he imagines asking after Wolfgang Puck opens up a Mexican restaurant. "Why is my burrito a chimichanga?"

The two chefs that are really in danger of going home is Jen with her seitan pepper and Eve with her bad seafood dish. Padma says that Jen's dish was like a Vegan bar midnight special and Gail calls it a mess. Gail also disliked Eve's dish, which turned her off and looked sad.

"The bigger issue," Tom says, "is that the shrimp was over cooked, the sauce was weak and the scallops were not seared properly."

Double ouch. He's basically saying, "the bigger issue is that your dish sucked."

Despite Tom's zealous panning of Eve's dish I still think that Jen is going home for a dish that was ill-conceived and badly-cooked. And I'm right. After the four come back out, Tom delivers his final zingers before Padma announces that Jen should go home.

Incidentally, Jen was the superstitous chef in the beginning who refused to unpack her things for fear of being sent home and having to re-pack everything. Sorry honey, looks like you just saved yourself some time by leaving everything in your luggage.

All in all, it wasn't a bad show. I'm having an easier time telling one chef from another and I'm glad to see that we might have some real stand outs this season. It'll take another five episodes or so to weed out the under-achievers, but once we trim the fat, I think we're in for a good run.

Even if they aren't Masters just yet.