Top Chef New Orleans Recap: Episode 2
By David Mumpower
October 16, 2013

He looks more like Ed Grimley than a hot dude.

Previously on Top Chef, a massive influx of new contestants attempted to follow in the footsteps of Paul Qui and Kristen Kish to become the new champion. Seventeen outsiders invaded New Orleans, while a pair of home grown chefs personally selected by Padma Lakshmi all accepted the challenge. Most of the chefs presented exceptional dishes for the judges. A woman named Nina Compton whose father ruled an entire country proved to be the best.

Meanwhile, three participants failed on a grand scale. Any of Aaron Cuschieri, Patty Vega or Ramon Bojorquez could have been eliminated for their mistakes. In fact, I half-expected at least two of them to be asked to pack their knives and go since the show is heaving with would-be Top Chefs at the moment. Eventually, Ramon became the first player removed from the competition although he was kindly informed that this season will include Last Chance Kitchen once again.

The most fortunate person was Patty Vega, who cried tears of shame throughout the episode. Her elimination seemed certain right up until Ramon’s name was called. The primary question as we head into this week’s episode is whether her terrible start was simply a bad night or if she is in waaaaaay over her head. If it’s the latter, she will not last another round because she was just that awful during the first challenge.

In the wake of the elimination, semi-returning player Stephanie Cmar describes the waiting room as “doomsday”. She also notes that she does not cry like a pansy, which is a statement she will be held to for the rest of the season. If I see any tears, she’s Boston Pansy the rest of the way.

Only moments later, Padma enters the stew area to inform the players that their next challenge is already starting. This Quickfire will require the participants to craft a delicious gumbo to satisfy the locals of New Orleans. The meal’s ingredients should reflect the heritage of each player. Creole legend Leah Chase is also announced as the judge of the challenge. Ergo, the flavor had better be authentic because they’re cooking for the queen of gumbo.

The one bit of good news for the chefs is that they have more time than normal for their dish. They can start as soon as they return home. Once they reach the Top Chef kitchen, they will have 15 minutes to finalize their meal. Effectively, all of the players will do their kicking this evening then warm their dishes tomorrow. Sleep will be at a premium, so there should be a lot of irritability by the close of business tomorrow. That’s a delicious drama cocktail for a house (too) full of relative strangers.

Understandably, the New Orleans chefs feel like they have an advantage once the rules are announced. Justin Devillier, who seems like the more talented of the two local residents, demonstrates cool confidence throughout the evening. Michael Sichel, who seems like the more adversarial, does so well that he dumps his first batch of gumbo in the garbage. He then adds that he is a cancer survivor since his youth, so I presume that his edgy personality was forged in the fire of radiation.

The next pair of interviews represent the opposite ends of the confidence spectrum on this season of Top Chef. Bret Pelaggi’s current professional title is house husband. His place of employment suddenly shut down and he had not found other employment by the time of casting this season. Bret is clearly defensive about his job status, and he seems insecure about his placement among the talented cast members as well.

Conversely, Jason Cichonski loves everything about being Jason Cichonski. He is in the business of Jason Cichonski, and business is good. Somewhere in the middle between their levels of confidence is where the rest of humanity is situated.

After the final 15 minutes of preparation in the kitchen, Leah Chase arrives. She is greeted with a standing ovation from a room full of deeply impressed chefs. The kindly 90-year-old goes out of her way to say something positive about each meal placed before her. Not all of the chefs are shown, though, so there is no way to tell whose dishes are the best/worst. It is the problem of having 18 competitors remaining in an hour long show.

When Leah announces her choices for worst meal, she is equally helpful. Jason Luvs Jason used beets in his meal, and the nonagenarian would have preferred making the beets into borscht. I would wryly note that even at 90, Leah still took a moment to appreciate how attractive Jason is, though. Michael also finishes on the bottom, which is unsurprising given that he was the only who had to restart. The final member of the bottom group is Patty, who seems to be the worst chef in the group, at least so far. I suspect she needs to borrow some of Jason’s confidence if she is to advance far into the game.

The top group includes Aaron, who definitely needed some good news after his performance in the prior challenge. Carrie and Shirley join him. They seem like two of the best chefs this season, at least thus far. From Leah’s reaction, I expect Shirley to win but Carrie’s dish reminds the elderly woman of one of her own recipes. That is enough to earn her the win. Overall, either all of the chefs did very well or Leah is simply too gentle a soul to criticize much. Or maybe it’s both.

After the Quickfire is decided, chef Susan Spicer of Bayona Restaurant in New Orleans arrives. She provides the details of one of the most well intended challenges in the history of Top Chef. As everyone knows, the city was decimated by Hurricane Katrina. Housing projects will be ongoing for decades to come. Many of the people handling construction are volunteers from Habit for Humanity. The elimination challenge requires groups of Top Chef contestants to build menus for food trucks. They will then drive to a series of building projects to provide sustenance for the charitable builders. Everything about this idea is wonderful. Well done, Top Chef producers.

“We were so happy to see a food truck. We were so happy to see any kind of truck with food because we had nothing. Absolutely nothing. Katrina took everything I had, really. You gotta know I was 83-years-old then and people say ‘You should quit.’ I dunno. The Pope quit. But I have to keep going because there’s a lot of work to do in this city.” – Leah Chase, heroine of New Orleans

There are four different teams. Two of them are comprised of five players while two only include four. That extra person seems like a huge advantage to me, but we will see how it plays out. Nicholas, Jason, Bret and Patty are one of the four player teams, and their Blue group is instantly highlighted. In other words, they are either going to hit this meal out of the park or one of their four will be eliminated.

The next bunch revealed is the Yellow team of Aaron, Carlos, Travis, Carrie and Brian. The same reality show editing rules apply to them. So the Green and Red teams are probably not going to be a factor tonight. With 18 contestants involved and a third of the show already gone, anyone else involved who is not up for the win or elimination will have little to no screen time. It’s a necessary constraint in crafting tonight’s show. The people who won’t be shown as much are the Green team of Louis, Sara, Shirley and Stephanie and the Red team of Bene, Janine, Justin, Michael and Nina.

The Yellow team’s concept is a taco truck, and they express confidence because “We have the Mexican on the Mexican taco truck.” The Blue team chooses a beach theme, deciding upon the surf truck. The Green team mentions shawarma as an option, which should make all of us want to watch The Avengers once again. The Red team seems to have an advantage since both locals are in this group. Their initial conversation is odd, though. Bene offers multiple suggestions that do not get shot down as much as totally ignored. It’s as if nobody can hear him talking. Apparently, there is a disadvantage to having an additional cook in that five people talk over one another more than four would.

The bonding experience for the chefs involves a crawfish boil at the house. Jason adopts a pet named Rocky the Red Crawfish. I expect this to be a children’s book any day now. After bonding with his new friend by haphazardly throwing the thing 15 feet into a tiny pool, Jason announces that he will work the window at his surf truck. “He looks like a surfer dude… And he’s really fking pretty, so…” That’s how his buddy Nicholas evaluates the situation. My thinking is that a four player team is going to need all four chefs working the grills. We’ll see which of us is right.

Justin recounts his personal experience with Hurricane Katrina. He and his (eventual) wife and fled the night before its arrival. When they returned 10 days later, all of their stuff was destroyed. Justin is now the third person in this episode to recount how Katrina ruined all of his belongings. Suffice to say that the meals for these volunteers should be perfect. Everybody working to rebuild this town is a hero.

Work site #1 is serviced by the Red team and the Yellow team. Poor Bene is being treated like a sous chef and he knows it. If he wants to be competitive on Top Chef, he will have to learn to speak up for himself. Otherwise, some manipulative opponent will use him to do all the heavy lifting then leave Bene stuck with the blame when the dish implodes. Angelo Sosa was really good at using weaker willed contestants in this fashion.

Work site #1 is serviced by the Red team and the Yellow team. Poor Bene is being treated like a sous chef and he knows it. If he wants to be competitive on Top Chef, he will have to learn to speak up for himself. Otherwise, some manipulative opponent will use him to do all the heavy lifting then leave Bene stuck with the blame when the dish implodes. Angelo Sosa was really good at using weaker willed contestants in this fashion.

Now is the moment on Top Chef when a player makes an obviously critical error. Jason Luvs Jason prioritizes his front of the house working by pre-wrapping his salmon ahead of time. The editors wouldn’t be showing this unless Jason is either going to win or lose because of this decision, more likely the latter. I’m not saying he will be voted out but his appearance in the bottom group seems certain. That’s bad news for the entirety of the Blue team, especially Patty. Since she has finished on the bottom twice already, a third appearance means likely elimination. This is a Jason-intensive segment, though, which is also a bad sign.

The next segment of the show focuses on interactions with the workers themselves. Frankly, I would have enjoyed an additional hour of the show predicated upon their stories. This is a great documentary waiting to happen. Thankfully, all of the food is very well received. The volunteers are gratified by the attention. High quality restaurant fare out of a food truck also kicks the ass of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that a couple of them say they ordinarily eat for lunch.

The lavish praise is exhausted at the start of judging. Everyone loves the Mexican taco truck. Padma demands to know who created the empanada. Carrie, the reigning Quickfire champion, is identified. She may win both of tonight’s challenges. Carlos cleverly plays to the crowd by begging for audience participation about the quality of the cuisine. I don’t think they need the help, though. Padma smiles the entire segment. The Yellow team will be tough to beat tonight.

As expected, the judges hate the Blue team. Jason knows that the rolls are too soft to serve. He has made a critical mistake. The judges also do not enjoy Bret’s decision to serve cold ceviche with “piping hot” plantains; he also hasn’t seasoned his food well, one of Tom’s pet peeves. They do like Nicholas’ dish, so he is winning the personal battle with his buddy Jason. For her part, Patty has bombed yet again as the judges struggle to say something positive about her dish.

The Red team, the one that is 40% New Orleans, does fairly well. There are the quibbles here and there about specific flavors and, oddly, ginger volume. The only dish that merits any true praise is Nina’s jerk chicken sandwich, on which she politely gives Bene credit for being a glorified go-fer. Judging from the faces of Tom and Gail, this is probably the best meal they have tasted thus far. Nina seems to be the best chef in the early going.

The Green team presents a series of dishes that strike me as perfect food truck cuisine. It’s economically sized but clearly delicious. Calendar Girl’s tuna sliders are the life of the party while Shirley’s lamb salad is apparently not as nasty as it sounds. Overall, the Green team’s performance is barely evaluated on camera. So my speculation about editing for time appears to be correct.

As was the case last week, the first portion of Judges Table is broadcast to the Stew Room. Tom quickly identifies the Yellow Team as being his favorite while Gail nominates the Green Team. That leaves the Red and Blue teams on the bottom. Before the judges get to the bad news, the Yellow team is called back for a victory lap. This conversation is a series of exchanged compliments. There is no doubt about which dish is best, though. Carrie wins again for what must be the tastiest empanada this side of Tijuana. Carrie goes two for two in the episode, identifying her as the early favorite or possibly co-favorite along with Nina.

After the celebration for the Yellow team, the Blue team is forcibly invited to a reality show funeral. Out of the four people, Patty seems to be the worst one thus far. Realistically, the only person who is safe, however, is Nicholas. All three other dishes were despised by the judges, a point they drove home during the conversation.

Bret chooses this moment to make the world’s worst argument. He notes that the other teams had issues with food portions. Some of them ran out while his team had no problem serving all potential customers. The judges openly giggle at this, asking him to think about the flaw in his logic. The other teams had people go back for seconds. The Blue team did not. They were clearly the worst of the bunch.

Tom queries Jason Luvs Jason about hand rolls. The chef immediately identifies that he hand-rolled his wraps ahead of time, acknowledging a miscalculation. He regrets not making the food to order. Tom then attacks Patty over the quality of her tomato. He irritably growls, “Did you think it was good?” When she acknowledges that it was “nothing special”, he appears frustrated that she did not recognize that her component was inferior. He believes she should have known to remove it from the plate.

The conversation is oddly dismissive. The judges clearly believe that the Blue team failed completely. Any of the three of them could be eliminated. As Tom mocks every aspect of Jason’s dish, the choice becomes obvious. Patty and Bret made mistakes but Jason delivered food that bordered on inedible. Jason is better at looking good than he is at cooking food. He is eliminated from Top Chef. Patty dodges another bullet.