Thursday, August 20, 2009

Heart and balls: 'Top Chef' Las Vegas, Episode One

Posted By on Thu, Aug 20, 2009 at 2:57 PM

click to enlarge GO TEAM! Kevin Gillespie wins the first elimination challenge
  • GO TEAM! Kevin Gillespie wins the first elimination challenge

Score one for Atlanta!

In a sea of tattoos, piercings, and un-shucked clams on last night's debut of “Top Chef Las Vegas” (at first, I thought I might have accidentally been watching a new episode of “LA Ink”), Atlanta's three resident cheftestants managed to make quite a splash. Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill, who came off with an odd mixture of arrogance and good guy charm, won the season's first elimination challenge for his procrastination-inspired arctic char and turnip salsa verde, winning over guest judge celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and tough guy Tom Colicchio.

Kevin was definitely the star of the evening, but my heart already lies with Hector whose accent and cooking motto (“I cook with heart and balls”) are setting him up to be this season's gentle giant. I was a fan the minute he complemented Padma without just calling her hot, although I'll admit I'm still wrapping my head around the deep fried steak dish.

As for Eli, Atlanta's third representative, I'm pegging him as this season's class clown. His commentary (“I cook 'cause I'm a fat kid”) and faux-cocky attitude (which appears to be about as tough as his faux hawk) are funny without going the way of, say, "Top Chef" New York's Stephan. Stephan's honor I'll reserve for Michael Isabella, whose own cocky attitude and sexist comments put him as the prime suspect for season villain. Preeti may not have been able to shuck clams, but she does know what seitan is — take that, Jersey boy!

The food itself last night seemed to reflect the more accomplished nature of this year's crop of chefs. Sure, the flops were major — Jen's “vegan bar midnight special” crusty reileno was entirely unappealing and I imagine tasted like a mouthful of jalapeño flour — but the vast majority of the dishes exceeded my expectations for the first challenge. Michael Voltaggio, of the angsty Voltaggio brothers, proved his surfer boy attitude and droopy eyes say only a little about his cooking — in fact, for me, his plastic surgery inspired dish was the prettiest of the night. Michael Isabella's halibut “bar of soap” was clever and looked yummy, and Jennifer's own poached halibut scored some of the biggest compliments in “Top Chef” history: a resounding nod to Wolfgang Puck's comment about it being the best halibut you could find. I'll trust the judges on her halibut, but I'm already sick of Jennifer's permanent bitchy facial expression and Eric Ripert connections. She and Michael Isabella competed head to head and wound up neck in neck in the quickfire mise-en-place challenge shucking clams and I think they deserve each other.

So far, “Top Chef Las Vegas” has certainly taken a cue from its host city and upped the ante. These 17 — make that 16 — chefs are more accomplished and more outspoken than those of most past seasons and the twists and turns already promise to make things a whole lot more interesting than last season's plate after plate of mostly boring food served by mostly boring chefs (the only contestant who instantly bothered me more than Jennifer was Leah). And with the prize up by $25,000 and the quickfire handing out $15,000 instead of just immunity, I hope the contestants up the ante as well.

Come on Hector, I'm rooting for you.

(Photo by Trae Patton)

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