The first episode of Top Chef D.C. aired last night, and like every other food obsessive I know, I was glued to the set. Now in its seventh season, at this point the show is pretty much pure formula -- Quickfire Challenge, chefs' race through Whole Foods, Elimination Challenge, critics' table, pack your knives and go. But it's still entertaining, sometimes even food for thought.
This season there's a new judge, Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, and the seventeen "cheftestants" -- okay, sometimes the language cloys -- have converged on Washington, D.C.
They include two Coloradans: Kelly Liken of restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, and Kenny Gilbert, who owns Passionate Culinary Enterprises LLC in Telluride (no, I have no idea what that is). Colorado's done well on Top Chef in the past. Boulder's Melissa Harrison hung in for several Season Five episodes and Hosea Rosenberg of Jax was the winner. Liken may be a very nice person, but her smug little smile when she says she's not used to losing makes you hope she'll tumble fast.
This early on, you don't really get a sense of how the contestants cook or think about food, although almost everyone's resume is impressive: many CIA alums and a CIA instructor, James Beard Award nominees, executive chefs. Best among the early clips of people discussing their backgrounds and ambitions is Tiffany Derry, who started work in an IHOP at the age of fifteen, and whose delight at being in Obama's DC is open-hearted and infectious. When Angelo Sosa says he plans to win every challenge, it apparently annoys many viewers; a large majority find him too cocky, according to one of those dopey instant audience polls. But he knows what he's talking about, and goes on to win both the Quickfire and the Elimination.
Telluride's Kenny stays close on his heels. The Quickfire is a test of technique and accuracy that involves peeling potatoes, cutting onions into brunoise, fabricating chickens, and then making a dish with these ingredients. Kenny's a machine as he chops, solid and confident. You can see the other contestants glancing sideways at his flying knife, wincing when he calls out that he's done. Still, his dish takes second place to Angelo's.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are to make something that expresses themselves and their backgrounds. They're divided into groups of four, and a winner and loser are named for each group. With so many chefs still in the race, it's clear there are some fine dishes -- including Likens's spice-crusted strip steak with fiddlehead fern and currant lavender sauce -- that don't get onscreen accolades, and also some duds we never hear about.
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But two of the duds are striking. Wanting to showcase maple syrup, John Somerville of Michigan, a man with dusty dreadlocks and an expression that's simultaneously thoughtful and befuddled, has put together a clumsy, messy dessert that uses store-bought puff pastry and, according to the judges, doesn't even taste of maple syrup. Bad choices on every level. But watching John's face as he realizes he's being eliminated, it hits you full force just how crazy-making it must be to cook in a strange kitchen, using tools not your own, surrounded by equally stressed and bustling fellow chefs who all have an interest in seeing you fail.
Jacqueline Lombard manages to stay in the game despite a revolting-looking chicken liver mousse that she boasts is low fat -- the antithesis of what a mousse should be. There's a very peculiar moment in which she tells Tom Coliccio that she's served this mousse hundreds of times. (But has she made it herself? he asks. Twice, since she's evasive.) She also tells him it was a problem that she didn't have the recipe with her.
Kenny and Angelo are the last two standing, both as composed as ever. Kenny's cinnamon coffee-rubbed trout with black bean mole, goat cheese polenta and quinoa looks as messy as it sounds, but we have to take the judges' word for it that it's delicious. Angelo has prepared arctic char with pickled shallots, chili'd tapioca, dill and smoked bacon froth; it's presented as a neat little tiered spoonful.
You could conclude from this episode that the contest's essentially over because either Angelo and Kenny will win, but despite the formulaic elements, Top Chef never turns out the way you think it will.