Welcome back, food fans. Top Chef‘s Thursday, December 1, season 14 premiere took place in Charleston, South Carolina, with eight new chefs and eight returning veterans facing off in the best (according to host Padma Lakshmi) cooking competition on television. Will a seasoned chef take away the title from a hungry newbie, or will the fresh meat come out on top? Here’s the dish.
What Are You, Chicken?
The first Quickfire for the new chefs was based on making dishes out of chicken. Each chef was given a whole bird and tasked with creating as many dishes as they wanted from it. They all pledged to make a few dishes, meaning that blenders, knives and chicken bits flew.
Jim Smith, executive chef for the state of Alabama, focused on the bitlets. He got the quote train going, asking the other chefs, “You gonna use your innards?” while reminiscing about trips to the chicken shack with his dad and conceptualizing a stomach-churning combination of chicken livers, strawberries and ranch dressing.
Italian chef Silvia Barban (there by way of Brooklyn) was one of the few chefs to whip up two dishes, presenting the judges with a toothsome fresh tagliatelle with chicken ragu before tackling her second dish. “It’s a lot of risky,” she waxed. That it is, Silvia; that it is.
With the clock winding down, most chefs ended up with just a single dish. Head Judge Tom Colicchio’s highest praise was directed at Silvia’s pasta, Charleston chef Emily Hahn’s Asian BBQ wings in tamarind and chili glaze, and Jim’s fried chicken innards with bitter lettuces and strawberry vinaigrette — which ultimately won him the Quickfire and earned him immunity.
Gerald Sombright’s smoked buttermilk-poached chicken with chicken jus and wild mushroom and sweet potato fricassee was deemed too greasy, and he got knocked for his overcooked garnish, sending him to the sudden-death Quickfire.
Headed for the Grit Iron
New this season, MasterChef alum Graham Elliot joined the judging panel, introducing the veterans to their Quickfire: shrimp and grits with a twist.
Some chefs, like Hot Sam (a.k.a. Sam Talbot from season 2), kept their dish close to the original. Hot Sam made his grits with coconut milk, adding maple syrup and other touches that just prove the man has matured in his style like a damn fine wine. Southern girl and former fan favorite Casey Thompson (seasons 3 and 8) kept it simple, but pointed out that the 30-minute time limit was hardly enough time to make grits, let alone a whole dish. In fact, she later got dinged for her undercooked grits, proving her concerns valid.
Other chefs took things way over to the “inspired by” side of things. Shirley Chung (season 11) used inspiration from her beloved childhood egg custard for the “bowl of hug” dish, with bacon and corn. Katsuji Tanabe (season 12) had an editing problem on his season and was right back in the same boat in this first challenge, mentioning over a dozen ingredients in his dish. Funny enough, Judge Graham took him down a notch in his critique for failing to include more veggies in his Mexican adobe-style shrimp and grits.
Proving that chefs sometimes win for heading into left field, Brooke Williamson (season 10) scored the win with her Scotch egg dish, substituting ground shrimp for traditional sausage on the outer layer of her runny-yolked egg. #yolkporn #brunchplease
Season 10 alum John Tesar’s Korean shrimp and grits with faux kimchi plate looked slightly patricidal, with sloppy red streaking around the edges, and his “one-note” flavors landed him the loser spot on Team Veteran.
In Which the Sudden-Death Challenge Takes Place on a Cotton Plantation
Bravo jumped right into the roots of slavery in the South, taking the chef-testants to a cotton plantation for the sudden-death Quickfire. En route, Gerald talked about the crux of the season’s locale: a beautiful plantation deeply streaked by the terrible reality of an enslaved people.
Boone Hall Plantation, Padma explained, has been opened to the public since the 1950s to educate visitors about slavery. And also it hosts an oyster festival — a tidy transition, as only Padma can provide, and the basis of the Quickfire: roasted oysters.
Greasy Chicken Gerald and Murder Plate John took very different routes. John used oyster liquor, cream and a black truffle he brought along with him to create a hot stew poured over oysters he hoped would poach in the broth, inspired by a dish he made in Paris in 1982, which is probably before most of his competitors were born. Padma pointed out that the oyster was totally raw, but John said it was just “gently poached.”
Gerald’s whole oysters, roasted traditionally over coals, got the Thai treatment, but ultimately weren’t spicy or smoky enough for Tom’s taste. Gerald had to pack his knives and go, the first casualty of the season.
Tom’s Real Talk of the Evening
When newbie Annie Pettry (Louisville, Kentucky) presented her pan-seared chicken breast with panzanella, fennel puree, shaved fennel and black garlic jus, Tom revisited classic Top Chef territory. Namely, don’t call a thing the thing you’re calling it if that’s not really what it is.
Tom: “Why exactly is this a panzanella?”
Annie: “Because of the bread salad underneath the chicken.”
Tom: “I know what a panzanella is. … Why do you think this is a panzanella?”
Annie: “Because of the bread salad underneath.”
She got knocked for her crouton-y salad, landing in the bottom three but ultimately staying put. But it’s a lesson for all chef-testants: Sometimes a risotto is pilaf, and sometimes a panzanella is croutons.
Tell Us: Who is the early front-runner?
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