The first episode of Season 7 of “Top Chef” opens in Washington, D.C. with the lovely Padma Lakshmi calling the nation’s capital “the city of idealists, visionaries and ruthless powerseekers,” and you can’t help but wonder if she’s talking about the town or the new cast. This batch of hopefuls includes the usual suspects: The Award Winner (Andrea Curto-Randazzo), The Big Deal (Kelly Liken), The Caterer (Jacqueline Lombard), The Dad (Stephen Hopcraft), The European (Alex Reznik), The Good Guy (Kevin Srbaga), The Hottie (Amanda Baumgarten), The Kid (Tamesha Warren), The Personality (Arnold Myint), The Quiet Threat (Tiffany Derry), The Sad Story (Timothy Dean), The Sass (Tracey Bloom), The Terminator (Kenny Gilbert), The Underdog (Ed Cotton), and some welcome new additions — The Instructor (Lynne Gigliotti), The Michelin Star (Angelo Sosa), and The Oddball (John Somerville — Sorry!).
The Quickfire Challenge isn’t anything groundbreaking, just another mis en place tournament that we’ve seen before. The chefs have to peel potatoes, brunoise onions, break down raw whole chickens into 8 pieces, and then cook a dish with these and other ingredients. The slowest chefs will be weeded out at each leg so that only four remain for the cooking portion. What’s really interesting isn’t the $20,000 at stake (which has Jersey Boy and aspiring homemaker Kevin drooling) but rather that most of the cheftestants clearly didn’t bother to brush up on the basics after they were cast. This kind of challenge is classic TC yet so many of these chefs struggle. Given, they have to peel potatoes with a paring knife and not a speedy peeler, but still.
My money is initially on Lynne Gigliotti, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. She lives and breathes this sort of technique stuff. Or so you’d think. Gigliotti doesn’t make it past the chicken. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Larger-than-life Colorado caterer Kenny Gilbert breezes through the potato peeling with a pace that unnerves Kevin and infuriates Angelo. Angelo’s a bit of a name dropper and has a lot of swagger. I don’t want to like him, but something tells me I’ll come to respect his skills. To be honest, no one comes across as the obvious fan favorite at the moment, perhaps because in addition to talent, there’s no shortage of ego or name-dropping.
Stephen, Amanda (who cuts herself and bleeds all over her potatoes), and Jacqueline don’t advance past the potatoes nor does Kelly, who started the show by saying, “When I want something, I go after it 100% and I don’t lose very often.” Whoops! The onion brunoise, which I think is far easier than peeling potatoes with a paring knife, trips up more cheftestants. Kenny smokes the competition again, in particular Tracey and John, who are left in the dust along with Andrea, prompting Andrea to whine, “I was one of Food & Wine‘s ‘Top 10 Best New Chefs in America,’ but I can’t dice up onions?” Um, I guess not?
Taking down chickens is really easy if you know how to do it. And, once again, Kenny shows that he, indeed, does. He boasts, “Every time I butcher something, I butcher it in the same way. Take the breast off first. Remove the wing. Pop the thigh bone. Cut the leg and thigh in half, so that chicken is done in a good thirty seconds.” Maybe Kenny should be the instructor, rather than Lynne, who fails to butcher her four fouls on time. Angelo, Kevin, and Tim join Kenny at the cook-off.
Angelo, who is obviously out for blood (Kenny’s, to be precise) makes rustic roasted chicken thigh, curried onion jam, and potato noodles. Kevin prepares an ambitious and busy looking boneless chicken wing, hot & sour broth, tomatoes, fennel, potato and mushroom. Timothy cooks a garlic roasted chicken, potato galette, and oyster mushrooms. There’s a lot going on on the plate, including a giant sprig of rosemary that I think is pretty ’80s. Kenny creates a duo of chicken with Moroccan spice, potatoe puree and onion confit. Is anyone else growing weary of duos?
The stone-faced judges criticize Tim for using too much cream and Kevin for using too much (!) salt. If Tom Colicchio says you used too much salt in something, it must be like a salt lick as he’s always calling out cheftestants for under-seasoning their food. Kenny gets snaps for his dish, but the spoils go to Angelo, who remarks, “I actually want to be the first contestant to win every single challenge.” Cut to Kenny saying, “What the $^%?”
For the elimination challenge, the wannabes have to cater the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which makes me believe Kenny will have a tremendous advantage. They break down into four groups, chosen in kickball-style manner, which ticks off Tracey as she quickly realizes that Kenny has chosen her as the weak link of his group that also includes Ed, Lynne, and Steven. Angelo selects Tiffany, Kelly, and John. Kevin takes Arnold, Amanda, and Jacqueline. Tim opts for Alex, Angela, and Tamesha. Each chef will cook something that represents their hometown.
The trip to Whole Foods is notable only for John’s selection of something weird in the frozen foods case. But he’s weird, so. The prep is unremarkable for everyone except Jacqueline (whose mousse is grainy) and John (who burns his pistachios), and Tracey calling Steven a hick for no apparent reason. The dishes are largely underwhelming. Amanda makes a slimy fish dish, Arnold bakes a lime-basil cake that looks like it has fish roe on it, Jacqueline botches a grainy, low-fat chicken liver mousse that outrages Gail Simmons, and Stephen overcooks a deep-fried rib eye that draws criticism from “The Bachelor” Dr. Andy Baldwin. And if Dr. Andy Baldwin doesn’t like it, well, you can be sure no one will. Ed makes cod cakes with Boston baked beans, which looks and sounds all kinds of awful. Tracey’s entry is a bland shrimp and grits dish. Kelly plays it safe with a well-seasoned New York Strip steak. Tamesha serves jerk chicken “spheres,” which are really just chicken meatballs, with jicama. My chef-friend Lisa hates jicama. Hi, Lisa! Andrea does gnocchi, which don’t exactly scream “Miami!” but are well seasoned (i.e. well-salted!). Tim fumbles with chewy rockfish. John produces a disastrous maple dessert that is neither maple-y nor good unlikes Lynne’s sweet and savory ice cream and waffles.
The four best dishes include Kevin’s simple seasonal lamb, Kenny’s cinnamon-coffee rubbed trout, Angelo’s Arctic char with smoked bacon broth, and Alec’s successful deconstructed short rib borscht. Much to Kenny’s ire, Angelo walks away with another W. The Arctic char did look elegant and clearly packed a lot of flavor, but he’s quite immodest about it, cackling, “They will be chasing me.” Angelo also says, “I will set the presidents.” I think he meant precedents, but maybe he was confused, what with being in the capital and all.
Tim didn’t take kindly to being up for elimination along with Stephen, Jacqueline (who is razzed by Tom for not having memorized a dish she’s made “hundreds of times”), and John. For the deadly sin of using a store-bought ingredient (puff pastry!) that accounted for a third of his dish, odd John is sent packing. I’m being too hard on him. He just had weird hair and a strange energy. But it was sad to see him tear up as he spoke of being the first to be 86d this season. He has a James Beard Foundation nomination so he is obviously talented, but I doubt his appearance on the show will do him any favors.
We get a sneak peek of who’s there to play the game (Tiffany) and who’s just there to play (Stephen?) as well as a look at conflicts that will erupt in future episodes. Is anyone else betting on Angelo and Kenny coming to near blows? Or Tracey and Kenny? Who do you think is in it for the long haul? And who are you rooting for? Talk back here or join the discussion on Facebook.