Each week we'll watch chef Jason Stratton display his mad skills and sartorial flair in the show's 13th season.
Hello, Top Chef. It's been a while. Let's kick things off with a classic first-of-the-season episode, featuring a mass of contestants nigh impossible to tell apart, except a few people who are either really good, or really irritating.
Seventeen chefs troop into the Top Chef kitchen. We get some establishing shots of LA, kitchen chaos, Tom spouting nuggets of culinary/life wisdom, and chefs saying ridiculous things like “I got two speeds: full bore and dead!”
“Welcome to California,” intones Padma; she explains they will be traveling up and down the coast, ending in San Francisco, the city where the show began 10 years ago.
Tom says this group of contenders is the strongest yet, but Padma needs numeric proof. “Who here is an executive chef?” she asks. More than a half dozen hands go up. One of which is our man, Jason Stratton, rocking a fantastic olive green jacket and fuschia pocket square.
After a few bleep-filled interview snippets from contestants who aren’t executive chefs, Padma wants to know who’s been a James Beard nominee. Again, more than a half-dozen hands. Again, Stratton is one of them. Apparently this ep was filmed the day of the actual James Beard Awards in Chicago this past spring; Boston chef Karen Akunowicz was nominated in the Best Chef Northeast category, but is missing the awards to be on this show. Okay, we get it Top Chef. You are kind of a big deal.
A redheaded chef named Renee who vaguely resembles a Disney princess introduces herself as “the super sassy chef from Kansas City.” Perky people are like supervillains on Top Chef. Grayson from the Texas season is also back to compete. Then there’s the dude who brags he already went on Chopped, Guy’s Grocery Games, and Cutthroat Kitchen. Does his family need to stage an intervention?
Time for a two-part quickfire. First up is a classic Top Chef mise en place race, featuring prep ingredients like artichokes, asparagus, and oranges. Because California.
The first nine people to finish their prep work will move on to the next round. Jason gets in right under the wire, after successfully cracking 20 egg yolks. “At the restaurant I just left, Spinasse, our signature dish is an egg yolk pasta called tajarin,” he tells the camera. “So separating eggs quickly? It’s no big deal.” Awww. I’m all about this new Mamnoon chapter in Stratton’s career, but all this talk of him making tajarin gets me nostalgic.
Being in the top nine earns Jason a slot in another classic quickfire: The blindfolded relay race. He’s up first, bemoaning his lack of a plan as he throws some wings and drumsticks on the grill and fires up a blanching pot. Things go downhill from there; Jason’s team is on the bottom.
Elimination challenge: The chefs will be feeding 200 people at an event beneath the Hollywood sign. Tom says he has invited influential food critics and bloggers from across the state. Yeah right, like Tom Colicchio would ever consort with food bloggers.
No crazy limitations or overly contrived product placement here—just cook a dish that signifies who you are as a person. Wait, I see what you’re doing here, Top Chef. The lack of guidelines is the challenge you must overcome. Diabolical.
DC chef Garret Fleming is making egg noodles with “an Italian take on Vietnamese chicken broth.” Just in case that didn't make him sound pompous enough, he goes on to tell the camera, “If you have your head up your culinary ass, you’re never going to grow as a chef. Cooking is a continuation of philosophy because it’s a study of aesthetics—gustatory aesthetics.” He also spouts the phrase “cultural manifestation of cuisine” at some point, but I can’t hear the rest over the gnashing of my teeth.
The next day everyone is set up in tents with lots of views of the Hollywood sign. Garret talks some serious shiz about former Top Chef contestant and fellow DC chef Mike Isabella who is, in his humble opinion, “serving one of the worst bastardizations of Italian food in the history of the world.” That seems a bit harsh...clearly Garret hasn't been to the Amante on Capitol Hill.
A man-bunned chef named Phillip makes a dish that calls for smoked hay; he subs in some dry grass from the park beneath his feet. Fellow chef Marjorie (a longtime Mike Isabella employee FWIW) points out this maneuver's dubious hygiene: “That’s kind of gross; I feel like there’s dogs right there.” Indeed, the camera cuts to some frolicking dogs just yards away. What, no footage of them peeing on grass, just to get the point across?
A bunch of skinny people show up to eat the food. Jason poached some heirloom chicken and served it with his salsa Apicius, giving him a chance to nerd out about the ancient Roman cookbook from whence the recipe came. Tom gives him mad props for being confident and relying on “solid techniques and good flavors.”
The food bloggers’ verdicts are in. Gail, bless her heart, thinks Jason should have been among the favorites. While judges deliberate, we’re back to Phillip the man-bunned Californian talking about all the food writers at the event (and mispronouncing "Zagat"). I was juuuuust about to start making fun of him...but we cut to Jason, who does it for me: “I know every critic in LA by face, blah blah blah,” he mimics. It’s only episode one and already he’s engaging in some light (and well-deserved) cattiness. It’s going to be a great season.
The winner: A chef named Jeremy Ford, a chef de cuisine at a Jean Georges joint in Miami. He's into fish.
The loser: Yikes, returning competitor Grayson is on the bottom thanks to some lame meatballs, but the judges ultimately send Garret the gustatory aesthetics guy packing. In the Bravo universe, justice has been served for badmouthing Mike Isabella on national television.
Next, on Top Chef: Ack! This premiere is two nights long. See you tomorrow...bring coffee.
- Wesley True, an Alabama-born chef who left a great career there to be exec chef at a Richard Blais restaurant in Atlanta, is a two-time James Beard nominee and the only other competitor I recognized, besides Stratton. So it's weird that he seems to be such a slovenly cook. At one point Padma has to admonish him, "If you put a spoon in your mouth, don't put it in my food."