Top Chef Boston Recap
By Jason Lee
October 20, 2014

At least the loser on the right doesn't have to work with Mike Isabella every day.

Ah, another year, another new season of Top Chef. Or as I like to call it, MY FAVORITE FREAKING TIME OF THE YEAR. Yes, after whetting our appetite with Top Chef Duels, the main course - Top Chef Boston - is finally here. We’ll get to watch the latest crop of cheftestants run around and cook their tails off in one of this country’s most historic cities... a location that is incredibly fitting for me given that my recent hiatus from BOP resulted from having to endure three arduous years of law school in the Boston area. And now as I valiantly strive to emerge from my law school bubble and reengage into the real world, I’m treated to the luxury of watching 16 aspiring Top Chefs suffer through their own culinary gauntlet in Boston. Why, hello Irony. Such a pleasure seeing you again.

We join this season’s cheftestants as they make their way to the Top Chef Kitchen. There’s no ferry ride to Ellis Island like in Top Chef NYC, and no cozy meeting in the Top Chef House like in Top Chef New Orleans last year. Nope, the producers are getting straight down to business. Just how we like it. We’re treated to a few Real World-ish opening narrations courtesy of a few cheftestants who are lucky enough to get gifted a bit of early airtime. These bits make it clear that the cheftestants are eminently aware of exactly what winning (or coming close to winning) Top Chef would do for their career - namely, take off like Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The cheftestants file into the kitchen and are greeted by Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais - the secret that Bravo didn’t even try to keep - who’ll be a judge this season. Padma promises that the cheftestants are “gonna be seeing a lot of him.” I’m fine with that, as long as Richard keeps his ego in check. On Top Chef All-Stars, he had an annoying tendency to compensate for his perpetual second-guessing of himself by reaffirming (over and over) his grandiose talent and culinary creativity.

Aaaaaand right off the bat, we’re treated to a little bit of that. Perhaps eager to establish his judging chops, Richard notes that appearing on two (!!!) seasons of Top Chef was perhaps the hardest thing he ever had to do, but he reaped enormous rewards like opening up seven restaurants (!!!) and garnering a James Beard nomination (!!!).

But enough about Richard. He wants to hear a little bit about the cheftestants. And, of course, given limited airtime, Bravo only wants you to hear about some of the more interesting ones—specifically, the chefs to watch and the chefs who will likely be on the chopping block in approximately 55 minutes.

We meet:

Katsuji, a Mexican-Japanese chef who owns a kosher restaurant.
Mei Lin, who works for Top Chef Las Vegas winner Michael Voltaggio at his Los Angeles restaurant, Ink (awesome food, I highly recommend it)
Ron, an Atlanta chef who’s been in the biz for 17+ years
Adam, a skinny, tattooed, slick-back hair chef who’s worked for the legendary Jean-Georges
Keriann, an attractive young chef who mentions, in the most offhand way possible, that she was the first female and first American to win the title of World’s Greatest Young Chef (who exactly bestowed this accolade is left hopelessly, and perhaps intentionally, vague)
George, a business partner of the always-brusque, always-entertaining Mike Isabella, who came -THIS- CLOSE to winning Top Chef All Stars
Joy, an immediately likable chef with a gorgeous afro who owns a small farm-to-table restaurant in Maryland. She mentions that hearing about everyone else’s culinary resume makes her feel underqualified. Uh oh, I’m getting shades of Arianne from Top Chef New York (anyone remember her?)

Yes, I know that I just threw a lot of names at you, but don’t worry, I still don’t have any idea who anyone is either. And perhaps realizing that, Padma offers to help “weed out the competition.” We’re having a SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE. Apparently this will be a thing this season. Cheftestants will regularly be put on the chopping block if they end up at the bottom of a quickfire.

Yep. Shit just got real.

For their first quickfire, the cheftestants will be treated to one of the most iconic and riveting quickfires the show puts on: the Mise En Place Relay Race! The group will be divided into four teams, based on where they happened to be standing, and each person will be tasked with either breaking down (1) three lobsters, (2) 10 oysters, (3) eight Boston mackerel, or (4) 21 little neck clams. The slowest person on the slowest team will be up for elimination.

The chefs argue amongst themselves as to who will take which item. I can imagine how frustrating this is - the chefs know little-to-nothing about each other, and thus can’t pull rank based on demonstrated skill. Instead, the biggest, most emphatic chefs seem to get their way. I imagine this will end up biting some of the teams in the butt. For example, on the Red Team, George says that he really wants to do the mackerel. But then Gregory says that he really wants to do the mackerel. And George says that he can do mackerel faster and doesn’t really know how to open clams. But he gets stuck with clams anyways.

The Quickfire begins and I won’t bore you with the various drama that takes place as the cheftestants work furiously to (1) prep the seafood as quickly as possible, and (2) avoid severing fingers in the process.

After the lobster round, Blue is solidly in the lead, led by Mei Lin, with Red and Green close behind, and Yellow in last. They’re onto oysters and Doug comments that because of his short stature, he has to be like “Napoleon in the kitchen.” Given the pejorative comparisons that Napoleon typically draws, and given his epic failure in Russia, I’m wondering if Doug might want to rethink his comparison.

Oysters are done and Green has jumped Red, with Blue still in the lead and Yellow still lagging. Ron on the Yellow team blazes through his mackerel and rockets his team into second place.

It’s onto clams... and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, we’re witnessing one of the most bizarre sights in recent Top Chef memory. Armed with a huge lead, Katsuji realizes to his horror that he does not know how to open clams. He appears to hold each clam in a kitchen towel and slam it over and over again on the table. BANG BANG BANG. It’s both comical and riveting. His entire team watches in shock. Mei Lin is dumbfounded. BANG BANG BANG. No one can believe what they’re seeing.

Green just barely edges out Yellow for the win. They both celebrate. BANG BANG BANG. Katsuji continues his work. Red is smelling blood in the water, but unfortunately, George’s prediction is proving prescient. He is not good at opening clams. BANG BANG BANG. But neither is Katsuji.

By some miracle, Katsuji finishes his clams and his team is safe. He breathes a sigh of relief but should be able to feel the target that’s now been placed on his back. George finishes up his clams, knowing that the slowest person on his team will be up for elimination.

And that person is him. George is given the opportunity to cook one-on-one with any cheftestant—if he wins, they’re both safe, but if he loses, he’s out. I’m sure that every person in the room expects him to pick (BANG BANG BANG) Katsuji as his opponent, but no, George has a better idea. As payback for stealing the mackerel and sticking him with the clams, George picks his teammate Gregory.

When Padma gives them the signal, the two race around the kitchen to prepare their respective dishes. George is focused on doing one good mackerel dish, while Gregory wants to put together a seafood trio. I’m hearing alarm bells - on Top Chef, trios are almost never a good idea. Inevitably, there’s something on the plate that a judge dislikes or finds to be not well-prepared. Will Gregory fall victim to the same folly?

George eventually puts forth a pan-seared mackerel with fennel, orange, and kalamata olives. Greg serves up his seafood trio with oyster and yuzu, mackerel and mirin, and lobster with chilled coconut.

After tasting the dishes, Richard declares that George demonstrated elegance and knowledge of his ingredients, but failed to add enough heat. Gregory’s dish is dubbed bright and refreshing, but is warned against doing trios in the future, as they simply provide “two opportunities to fail.”

George needs to win to stay in, but he can’t. His nemesis Gregory comes away with the victory. His teammate Joy notes that George was “one to fear,” and thus his elimination makes clear that no one is safe. I’m thinking George’s problem was that he was revenge-minded instead of strategic. Had he picked Katsuji, he might still be in this thing. Instead, he walks off with his blood boiling. It’s over for him before it really started.

Onto the elimination challenge! The cheftestants will be working at the first-ever Top Chef Food Festival, serving up food at their own individual booths to 250 diners, alongside some of Boston’s best chefs, including Barbara Lynch, Todd English, and Ming Tsai. WOW. That’s an impressive lineup. Props to Top Chef for convincing such illustrious chefs to offer up their fine dining cuisine on plastic plates in makeshift booths. As for the theme of the event, the cheftestants are to serve an updated version of the first dish they remember cooking. This is quintessential Top Chef. It hits three frequently used chords - serve (1) an update of (2) a personal dish from your past that (3) tells us a story about you. Love it.

The chefs make the obligatory run around Whole Foods and head back to the kitchen, where they toil away for three hours. It’s pretty chaotic, as you’d expect - the chefs, after all, have never seen the kitchen before and thus aren’t sure where they should set up cooking stations, where the pots are, etc. Upon walking in, Tom Colicchio (in his first appearance this season) declares it to be “a war zone.” If he thought the environment was crazy, just wait 'til he gets a load of Katsuji’s dish, which sounds (to put it lightly) like an utter mess. Among the ingredients: shrimp, cheese, squid ink, chicharrones, cream, fried tortillas, saffron, couscous, cilantro, chipotle peppers, half-and-half, lemon peel, and serrano sauce. Tom looks on in disbelief. To me, it sounds like all of the ingredients in a single episode of Chopped put together onto one plate.

The chefs make it over to the food festival and all of a sudden, I (and other viewers, too, I’m sure) turn into a gawking, foodie fanboy. OMG THERE’S TOP CHEF WINNER KRISTIN! AND TODD ENGLISH! WHOA, BARBARA LYNCH! AAAUUUGHHH, MING TSAI! OMG OMG OMG TIFFANI FAISON. YOU DESERVED TO WIN TOP CHEF DUELS, TIFFANI!

Kristin and Tiffani make their way over to Stacy’s booth. “You’re the only one from Boston?” Kristin asks. Yep. Kristin and Tiffani tell her that she has to win for Boston. #GirlPower #BostonStrong

The diners start to arrive... or as Stacy puts it, it’s time to “bend over and grab your ankles.” What a delicious metaphor to kick off our food festival. The diners start to dig in, and the camera gives us a passing glance at Katsuji wearing a cowboy hat. In Boston. At a food festival. Okay, I have no idea what’s going on with him anymore.

The judges - Gail and Tom paired up, and Padma and Richard paired up - start sampling, and overall the reactions are quite good. There don’t appear to be too many disasters, which is amazing for the first episode of the season. Typically, the judges in the first episode eliminate the one chef who really had no reason even appearing on the show. It’s very often a “WTF were we thinking?” moment. And though I can identify a couple of candidates for that honor, for the most part, the chefs appear to have done really well.

Given that there were 15 dishes sampled, I’ll spare you the details on each one. Suffice to say that there was a lot of chicken served, but no mechanical screw-ups and no procedural screw-ups. If any of the chefs excelled or made mistakes, it was generally due to the conception of their dishes. A few examples.

For example, Katsuji serves up what he calls “Petroleum shrimp,” with saffron couscous, serrano aioli, and squid ink fondue (I’ll refrain from making a BP gulf oil spill joke right about now). Richard criticizes, in passive-aggressive fashion, the number of ingredients that went into the dish. Padma criticizes, in blunt fashion, the plating of the dish.

Michael grew up on Russia on a farm, and drawing on memories of making corn soup, serves chilled corn soup with pickled cherries and sriracha caviar. The color is a revolting shade of yellow. Like orangey, highlighter yellow. If you were to come across a tree frog of that hue, the color would indicate, “I AM A HIGHLY POISONOUS TREE FROG SO YOU’D DO BEST NOT TO EAT ME.” Tom tries the dish, dislikes the “fishy finish,” and gets no heat from the sriracha. Michael declares that he got sufficient heat upon tasting the dish and thus he’s not sure what’s wrong with Tom’s palate.

Let’s just pause for a moment and take that in.

Gregory, drawing on something his grandmother used to make, offers up Haitian stewed chicken, fried bananas, spicy “pikliz” (Is that some different spelling? Is Bravo going gangsta on me or something? Is this some iPhone lingo I’m not down with?). Richard asks about his use of Scotch Bonnet Pepper in the dish. Gregory responds that when he was young, he and his cousin would run around eating Scotch Bonnet Peppers and his uncle, a tailor, would grab them and scratch their tongues with little bits of fabric.

Let’s just pause for a moment and take that in.

Finally, we have Aaron, who’s doing bacon and eggs reimagined in the form of temari-braised pork belly and a miso-poached egg (very Asian). Except that by the time Padma shows up, he only has one really fatty piece of pork belly left. Padma inquires whether he meant for her piece to have so much fat on it. He says no. She puts it in her mouth and very visibly gags. She spits the meat out into a napkin. “My apologies,” Richard says, turning red. Richard tries to help Aaron save face by complementing his compote, but Padma will have none of it. “I would love to see you clean up not only your act a little bit, but also your station,” she says, gesturing to his booth.


As she walks away, Aaron comments that he “just got burned by Padma.” A few feet away, Padma turns to Richard and says, “I didn’t even eat the fat part. It’s a mess - mess, messy mess.”

I love Padma.

After service, the chefs congregate in the stew room where they all agree that this was a very tough challenge. Welcome to Top Chef, n00bs. Padma enters and calls them all before Judges Table. The cheftestants have no idea what is going on. All they’re sure about is there’s not gonna be a TV feed of the judges’ discussion like last season.

At Judges Table, Tom compliments the rustic, homey style that most chefs employed. Richard comments knowingly, “it’s hard, isn’t it?” The cheftestants all laugh. Yes. Yes, the first challenge on Top Chef is always hard. It’s tough to know what you’re in for until you’re actually in it.

Padma asks everyone to step to the side of the kitchen except for Doug, Mei, and Gregory. Those three are nervous but hopeful. Padma breaks the tension by congratulating them on serving up the judges’ three favorite dishes. They smile. Tom compliments Mei’s reimagined congee, which he says was “spot on.” He loved the combination of “crispy bits, sweet notes, and sour notes.” He says he found “no flaw in the dish at all.” Wow.

Padma thinks that Gregory’s Haitian chicken could have been crazy bad, as it was almost too salty and almost too spicy, but turned out to be crazy good. Richard compares it to a high-speed action sequence in a movie, and rambles on confusingly about 18-wheelers and salty chicken and sweet bananas.

Gail loved Doug’s fried chicken, which was bright and fresh. His dish was seasoned exactly as she wanted it.

Richard, as the newest judge, is given the honor of announcing the winner, which he says displayed “laser-beam precision,” and served food that was not only appropriate for a food festival, but for fine dining. That winner is Mei, who also rocked her part of the Mise En Place relay challenge. Mei is thrilled and thinks that Michael Voltaggio would be super proud. He should be. Michael wasn’t even in the top three in the opening challenge his season of Top Chef.

Padma then announces that Katie, Michael, and Katsuji are in the bottom three. None of these are surprises. Their dishes were failures of conception, all around.

Gail says that Katie’s broccoli salad felt like a side dish - very incomplete. She had no idea what purpose her bacon snow served. Katie agrees that she lost focus by incorporating the bacon powder.

Gail thinks that Michael had a great concept with his corn soup, but she only tasted salmon roe. Michael admits that upon tasting his dish, he thought it was a bit fishy, but didn’t want to take off the roe because it was already listed on his menu.

“Wait,” Tom says, “so you tasted it?”

“I thought it was a bit fishy, but I didn’t think it was too bad,” Michael responds.

“Oh, so you thought it was bad, but not bad enough?” Tom asks.

“I tasted the fish, but I liked it,” says Michael.

“So now you liked it?” Tom presses, exasperated. “Was it too fishy, or did you like it?”

“I liked it and didn’t think it was too fishy,” Michael states.

Uh oh. This is bad news. One of Tom’s big pet peeves is when a “good” chef can’t tell when his dish is bad. It shows a total lack of judgment and understanding of food. This does not augur well for Michael.

Richard thinks that Katsuji incorporated some nice elements, but was overly complicated. Katsuji compares himself to a kid in a candy store, and declares that he was just excited about getting to use so many ingredients. Gail, Tom, and Katsuji then go on to list the multitude of ingredients he put in his dish. As they do so, Katsuji clearly has no idea why this lack of restraint might have been a misstep. Tom pointedly tells him that while some dishes work right out of the gate, other dishes need work, and that Katsuji “will probably spend a lot of time on this dish.”

As a side note, I love this format for announcing the winner and loser of the elimination challenge. Cheftestants in the middle (Sara from last season quickly jumps to mind) often complain that they never get any feedback. By letting the other chefs watch, the judges are allowing them to see exactly what resonates (one way or another) with the judges. This is very, very smart and could lead to better food over the course of the season.

Aaaaaand the loser is... Michael. Tom says that the judges had issues with all three dishes on the bottom of the challenge, but that the sweetness of Michael’s corn soup with the fishiness of the salmon eggs resulted in the worst dish of the night.

In his closing interview, Michael opines that he tried to be creative and original, and that it might have backfired. He says that sometimes you need to fail to succeed, but he wishes that Tom had been a bit more open-minded. “You have to grow with age or get left behind,” he says, and declares that he doesn’t care what Tom thinks.

Sometimes, though, Michael, you also have to learn how to accept valid criticism in order to grow as well.