'Top Chef: New Orleans' Recap - Episode 1
Soiree in the Swamp
Courtesy of Bravo
I'm very excited to be recapping Top Chef: New Orleans for all of you lovely readers as I'm sure this season will be a lot of fun to watch for all of us. I've been patiently waiting since Top Chef: Miami for the producers to come to their senses and feature a New Orleans season, but had to sadly watch Las Vegas, Washington D.C., Chicago, Texas and Seattle have all the fun first. Now we finally have our turn to torture up-and-coming chefs in cutthroat kitchen competition.
Also exciting is all the potential hilarity for us locals and New Orleans experts as we tally up the Big Easy cliches and faux pas that are sure to be heading our way.
So without further ado, let's get started.
Padma Lakshmi begins by telling us that this season of Top Chef will be the toughest season ever (like she's said every other season), and we also hear things like "the bar is set REALLY high this time" ... "someone has a Michelin star, OMG" ... so many talented people!
And we're told that the winner will receive a feature in Food & Wine Magazine, a showcase at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, $125,000 furnished by Healthy Choice (can't forget that part) and the prestigious title of "Top Chef." Then Padma says, "let the good times roll" and it's so, so awkward. It's like she's saying, "let the colonoscopy roll" or "let my in-laws stay at my house for a week roll."
Meet & Greet
After the credits we see flashes of all the sights: St. Louis Cathedral, the Crescent City Connection, crawfish, Cafe du Monde, etc.
We meet a handful of the new cheftestants; first we meet Sara from Minnesota riding a street car to the Top Chef house, because that's totally how someone would roll into town (it's not). She talks about how she's a unique snowflake who looks totally weird but she just wants to be herself. She's got a cute retro Rosie the Riveter vibe going on and looks like most of the girls in my neighborhood, so maybe she's weird in Minnesota but she looks completely normal in New Orleans.
Next we see a Ken doll in pink shorts claiming to be a chef (Sexy Jason) and sporting a trendy short DJ Skrillex coif who feels like he has to prove that he's actually talented and doesn't just skate by on his looks (and who will later try to charm the pants off people for votes for best dish). We're also introduced to a pretty blond Aussie girl (Janine) who doesn't want you to hate her because she's beautiful. She's actually like, talented and stuff. I mean, can't we all just think of the poor good-looking people? They have to like, fight so hard for respect, while they wear flip-flops and Daisy Dukes in a kitchen. Which can I just say that any chef I know would have thrown her out of said kitchen until she procured herself some non-slip shoes, but I digress.
I'm sure they are lovely people.
We also get to meet the New Orleans cool kids, Justin Devillier from La Petite Grocery and Michael Sichel from Galatoire's. They were the winners of the web series Padma's Picks for local chefs to compete for spots on the show. And while I'm sure these guys are wonderful, I'm kind of sad not to see a woman representing the city.
Next we see people making a fuss out of Carlos from Chicago's Michelin Star. He's kind of a really big deal. Everyone is super intimidated and keeps talking about it, so basically they should just put a big star on Carlos' head for the rest of the season. But I do have to say that it's pretty impressive that the man went from being an illegal alien dish washer to a chef with a Michelin Star.
Padma and head judge Chef Tom Colicchio walk in to make everyone really nervous and give them their first elimination challenge. There will be no "quick fire" today because of the Padma's Picks web series and the winners get immunity.
They start throwing everyone Mardi Gras beads that feature the proteins they will be using; alligator, frog legs and turtle. Most of them have never worked with these Louisiana delicacies and it's clear that the two guys from New Orleans are going to have a pretty big advantage here, so it makes sense to find an excuse to just give them immunity. The cheftestants will have time in the Top Chef kitchens to prep the first day and time to cook on-sight at the swamp the next day for a "swamp soiree," which sounds pretty humid and hot and mosquito-infested to me, but what do I know.
To pick up the proteins needed they make the trek to Perino's on the Westbank and also to Whole Foods. Michael from Galatoire's drives and points out the sights along the way like a nice travel guide, but it seems like Travis (who only dates Asians) just wants him to shut up so they can concentrate on the food. Which is not really the way to be in these parts.
They go back to Top Chef-land and start to prepare their dish in the most beautiful kitchen imaginable, with rows of $400 blenders and food processors, brand new top notch pots and pans, and basically anything you'd ever want in a kitchen, times 100.
Chef Tom walks in to get to know everyone and make the rounds for his first sniff 'n sneer of the season and you can tell that he knows he makes the cheftestants nervous and kind of likes it. He laughs at Sexy Jason for cutting his finger. I laugh, too.
Before they have to travel to the swamp, Emeril Lagasse comes by to bring the cheftestants beignets. Everyone is pretty excited to meet him and Sexy Jason is like, "Emeril put Louisiana on the map for food" and somewhere Justin Wilson is like, "sup?" and Paul Prudhomme is like, "yo!"
I can't quite make out where they actually end up going, but when they get to their swamp site, all their equipment is hanging out in a big pile and nothing is put together. They really are not giving these guys any breaks. So after putting together propane tank burners and tables, they start to realize how not fun it is to cook for a swamp barbecue. Some people start freaking out and it looks like a girl named Patty has to start from scratch, totally negating all the prep she had done the day before.
After the food frenzy and after the sun goes down, it actually looks quite lovely, which probably has more to do with the pretty blue lights shining on everything and the fairy light ambience. People start showing up via pontoon boat and they're all wearing Mardi Gras beads. I immediately cringe at these people wearing the beads but realize that they'll be using them to vote for their favorite dish, which is actually a pretty cute idea. Padma, Chef Tom and Emeril bring Chef Curtis Stone along with them for judging duties.
Right away it seems like a lot of people love Nina from St. Lucia's turtle meatball curry, and honestly it does sound pretty great and an accessible way for a person to try turtle who wouldn't normally seek it out. Another dish that stands out is Carrie's poached frog legs with fried zucchini salad and oyster cream. It seems like a good idea to do a cold dish when you're cooking off-site, especially in the sweaty swamp. I'm sure it was a refreshing dish.
By the end of the evening Nina looks totally weighed down in beads, like after a day at the Endymion parade. And poor Aaron and Patty have one or two beads, which is sad because they know they're in trouble. I honestly don't know what Aaron was thinking in the first place, serving pasta off-site like that. Pasta is usually a serve-immediately-type dish, and not something that can sit around all night in a warming tray because it will turn to mush. That's why all those pasta dishes at church potlucks taste like saucy blobs.
This is the hard part for me. Any type of creative competition show like Project Runway or Face/Off or Top Chef brings me back to art school critiques where your work gets picked apart, dissected and looked at under a tiny microscope. I still have nightmares about it and every time I watch these shows with judges panels, it's like a flashback to college.
The interesting part about this particular judges panel is that the cheftestants can watch a live stream of the judges talking about their dishes. I'm sure for a few of them it was pretty horrifying, especially the mention of Carlos Michelin Star's soggy bread.
On the top were Nina and her meatballs, Sara with her General Tso's gator and Carrie's poached frog legs, with Nina for the win. And I would like to note that all three top contenders were women. How cool is that?
On the bottom were Aaron for his over-cooked pasta, Patty for her tough alligator and yuca puree, and Ramon for his dashi broth.
Chef Tom and Emeril seem sympathetic to Patty because she's never worked with alligator before and cries, but they are totally offended by Aaron's pasta and downright appalled by Ramon's dashi. The fact that Ramon used ice to cool down his broth totally confounded them. Their minds exploded by how stupid of a decision it was, and it ultimately got him sent home.
I'm sad to see Ramon go, because he seemed like a cool guy and you could tell that he knew better, but he probably let his nerves get the best of him.
The moral of the story here is never ever use ice to cool down your dashi. And I'm not sure why, but that sounds slightly dirty.
Stay tuned for next week when the cheftestants make gumbo for Leah Chase, which would be like making fried chicken for Colonel Sanders or spaghetti for Mario Batali. No pressure!