The ”Top Chef” season premiere: Appetizing!
Last night, a few hours before the Top Chef premiere, I ate dinner at a high-class restaurant in Brooklyn — one of New York’s best, or so I’d read. Things were off from the get-go. We didn’t get bread plates for our bread. Our suave French waiter didn’t have his English or his menu down. In my starter course, brash grapefruit didn’t agree with tamer snap peas. After that, skate appeared, admirably buttery yet light, but the collards that came with it were doused in three-alarm lemon. Only dessert deserved high marks, but then again, it came out of a bucket: I ordered Thai chili chocolate Laboratorio gelato. And throughout the three courses, nobody bothered to come wipe the bread crumbs off our table.
Do I sound like an insufferable food Nazi? Hey, Top Chef helped make me this way. Used to be I’d gravitate toward the roasted chicken on any menu; spicy tuna rolls were my version of exotic. Then came a few great meals in knowing company. In no time, I discovered Chowhound. And the delightful Frank Bruni of The New York Times. And Top Chef, truly an eye-opening show. It’s not like I really know how to cook — the last thing I made at home was a power smoothie with walnuts, blueberries, rice milk, aloe-vera juice, Vitamin C powder, and spirulina mulch, and boy did it taste gross — but I love this sexy program because it affirms eating as an artful way of seeing. Everybody has pleasure centers on the back of the tongue, and according to Top Chef, we should coddle them, trust them, even make quiet, tasteful love to them. And then also get pissed off when they are slapped around by a poser chef who dares to par-cook his boar chops.
So I for one could not be more excited that Top Chef is back among us for the summer. And last night’s first course was a grade-A slice of meat, immaculately prepared. Our 15 ”cheftestants” — a nonsense word flung around on the Bravo website that I don’t believe I shall use ever again — descended on Miami, where we met a couple of them on their way in from the airport. The ones to remember were Clay, Mississippi bred, who vowed to bring soulful Southern cooking to a show that has for the past two seasons gone without it; Tre, a buff Dallas chef de cuisine with a tattoo that reads ”Gotta Have Passion” running down his arm; and Hung, a Marcel type racing ahead early as the villain, after immediately declaring himself the C.P.A. — ”certified professional a–hole” — of the crew. These hopefuls and 12 others met up for heavy snacks and hellos at Casa Casuarina, the giant former home of Gianni Versace (where — it went unmentioned — he also got shot twice in the back of the head, yuck, ten years ago next month).
Soon our hosts arrived, stoner-mellow Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, smiling assassin. Tom said hi and implied from the outset, just to be clear, that he’s no Tim Gunn. ”I’m not your mentor,” he said. ”I’m the head judge of the show.” Tough! Also tough: Padma announced the first quickfire challenge was…now, as if we all weren’t expecting that. The mission? Make an amuse-bouche in 10 minutes, with whatever they could scavenge from the prosciutto wraps, salami, oysters, kumquats, and deviled eggs over there on the Casa Casuarina grazing table. The winner was Micah, the Boca Ratonian by way of South Africa who put together something she called (quotes hers) ”Tuscan Sushi Revisited,” an upright fish roll-up stuffed with Gorgonzola and some fig. I don’t like figs, but this did look good. Hung, that punk, also finished in the top three, with a hamachi featuring creamy egg rice, hot sauce, grape, olives, and a pesto vinaigrette.
As for the bottom trio, I was sorry to see Mississippi boy Clay fail to impress, because bringing Southern cooking to the show seems like a noble goal to me. (Plus, I grew up mostly in Biloxi.) But his fruit gazpacho, delivered in a bowl he carved into an apple with a plastic knife, was an amuse-bouche big enough for a healthy breakfast. (”Oh great,” I thought. ”The Southern guy is dumb.”) Also finishing in the bottom was our friend Tre, who said (seriously) he was worried about getting depressed after Tom dissed the champagne in his hamachi tartare.
NEXT: The main course