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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Top Chef Season 7, episode 1: Mousse habitat

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Top Chef premiered its seventh season yesterday in cherry blossom-drenched Washington D.C., and as always the early-season strategy was less about winning than about avoiding notice. Early episodes of each Top Chef season are solely an exercise in weeding out the chefs with the dullest knives and weakest strategies.
WARNING: Mucho spoilers after the jump...

The premiere came down to two rutting mousses, one sweet (dreadlocked stoner John Summerville's maple syrup lather), and one savory (out-of-her-league caterer Jacqueline Lombard's low fat chicken liver pâté).

The obvious development this year is the ramped-up quality of the competitors. Past seasons have had a mere handful of potential winners, owners of successful restaurants squaring off against caterers and "personal chefs". The result is as predictable as if you let loose Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley against a high-school hoops team in a game of H-O-R-S-E. Almost all of this year's contestants, in a change, are culinary school graduates and veterans of stages working in Michelin-starred kitchens. The upgrade in talent is reflected in the obligatory reality-show townhouse. Gone are last season's bunkbeds and steaming hot-tub suggesting that underneath their sweaty chef's whites, these cooks just want to party. Gone are the tattoo sleeves and faux-hawks. No, this season's chefs are here to fucking cook.

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The most aggressive of them all is Angelo Sosa, a 35-year old Manhattan restaurateur who won the Quickfire Challenge (in part a speed challenge to peel onions and dice onions faster than the other sixteen competitors without slicing your finger off) and then also won the Elimination challenge with a dish of Arctic Char with pickled shallots, tapioca and smoked bacon froth. In five out of the past six seasons, the winner of the first challenge has either won the Top Chef title or been the runner-up, so he's been established as the chef to beat, as well as the season's "Designated Asshole," played in previous seasons by Michael Voltaggio, Stefan Richter, and Lisa Fernandes. Each season has one chef who is there to win, not to make friends, and Angelo signaled his audition for the role by announcing up front, "Whoever is going to go against me, there's going to be blood on the stage." Later, he announced "I'm literally going to be a sniper, I'm here to win this thing." Now, it hasn't been so many years since Washington D.C. actually HAD a literal sniper, so maybe Sosa could have gone with "figuratively, I shall be sniping at them", or even just started with the "I'm here to win this thing" part. In any case, his role here is clear. His treatment of the delicate Arctic Char was sophisticated and perfectly executed, with strong flavors that complemented, rather than overwhelmed, his mild fish.

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Standing in contrast to Sosa's polish and strategy is Brooklyn caterer Jacqueline Lombard, who insists, "I want to show that any self-taught chef can beat the pants off these guys." She failed to prove that point last night, making a gummy chicken liver mousse that almost got her sent home. Julia Child's classic take on this dish has almost as much butter and cream as chicken liver. Lombard’'s had no added fat and was bound only by egg whites. The reckoning at Judges Table basically went:

Tom Colicchio: This is terrible! Have you ever made this before?
Jacqueline: "Hundreds of times, but today I wasn't allowed to look at my recipe."
Tom: "After making it hundreds of times you needed a recipe??"
Jacqueline: "GAWD, I didn't MEMORIZE IT. What am I, a frickin' SCIENTIST?"


Atlanta is represented by Table 1280's Tracey Bloom, who was so peripheral in this episode she barely made an impact. It's a little bittersweet after last season's huge ATL presence, when even the early-to-exit left us with the enduring "heart and balls" rallying cry.

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In the end, the one told to pack his knives and go was John Summerville, a druggy chef from rural Ohio with gray dreadlocks down to his knees. The Bravo network website quotes Summerville's motto as “spreading the infectious spirit of cooking!!!” but people this homeless-looking shouldn't use the word "infectious" so close to the word "cooking". Let's point out the one iron-clad immutable rule established over six seasons of Top Chef: MAKING DESSERTS GETS YOU SENT HOME. Pastry chefs are a special flaky breed. They come in early, work their spun sugar magic, then get the hell out of the kitchen before the real chefs arrive. Dinner chefs don't know how to make dessert any more than your cardiologist knows how to do a root canal, they're just different skill sets. Summerville acknowledged his peril by admitting "dessert is a risky move, but I'm a strong enough chef that I'm going to be able to beat everybody!" But the next time we see him, he admits "I'm having some problem with the ovens." By "problem", he means he's too stoned to turn on the little oven light and realize his macadamia nuts are on fire. At Elimination Table, judges Eric Ripert and Gail Simmons eviscerated him for using store-bought puff pastry and mango puree out of a can. Mistaking Top Chef for an episode of Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade made him the first victim of the season, and he sobbed like a newborn as he apologized for "letting down my family and my supporters", as if there were John Summerville Internet Fan Clubs that somehow sprung up during his literal fifteen minutes of fame.

The judges’ table has added Eric Ripert to the long-standing team of Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons. Ripert is a familiar face on television, of course, but he and Colicchio’s celebrity is hard-won and well-deserved. Ripert won four stars from the New York Times at age 29 at Le Bernadin and hasn’t lost a star in the fifteen years since (only six restaurants currently have the distinction.) Colicchio won the James Beard award for best American Chef last month, a title Ripert won in 2003. Despite being established TV presences, each spends more time holding a knife than a microphone. Look for the eventual winner of this contest to be the competitor who absorbs every morsel of criticism given by these food deities and adjusts accordingly. Look for the loser of any given episode to be a contestant like Summerville, insisting, “They didn’t get the chance to see what I’m really capable of”, or “they just don’t get my food.” They get it all right. Now pack your knives and go buy some shampoo.

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