Last night's episode of Top Chef: Texas should have come with a five-minute bonus Colicchio-lead meditation at the end -- it was INTENSE. I get it, the show's in Texas where everything's bigger, and hence this season includes about a million (or 29) contestants, but these first couple episodes (see last week's review) are sensory overload, with quick camera cuts from sizzling pan to finicky pressure cooker and from beautiful dish to a judge's curious expression. I'm excited for the upcoming weeks, when we get to know the cheftestants and their food, instead of seeing in flash by in an instant in rapid rounds of elimination.
All that said, last night judges wrangled the competition down to 16 chefs, who wandered around their new Top Chef digs, finding their bunk beds and roommates, in what looked like an upscale orphanage for the culinarily-inclined.
The episode began with a challenge for the 10 contestants who didn't cook last week. Ten ingredients, one per person, but of course, with a twist: after choosing ingredients, contestants either had 20, 40, or 60 minutes to cook. Risotto in 40 minutes? No joke. Oxtail in any amount of time less than near-eternity? Pressure cooker. Pressure cooker on Top Chef? Trouble.
Before the challenge began, Padma Lakshmi introduced Hugh Acheson, former competitor on Top Chef Masters, and the chef at Empire State South. It didn't take him long to warm up before becoming a bit of a hard-ass as he approached chefs as they cooked with words of encouragement like, "It's been a stumbling block for people in the past," to contestant Chaz Brown of Fatty Crab in New York as he prepared risotto. Turns out, Acheson was right, as you'll see in 'Most Disappointing Flub' below.
In the episode's second round, the six chefs told by judges that they were 'on the bubble' competed for two spots in the Top Chef house. Grayson Schmitz -- who was foiled last week when egomaniac and terrible butcher, Tyler Stone, mangled her pork tenderloin -- was granted a chef's coat with a nice nod from Emeril Lagasse. "I liked the whole combination," he said of her creamy polenta with bacon-wrapped shrimp and a port wine fig sauce. With a dish of barbeque duck, sweet Asian custard, pickled corn, and bacon, Kentucky chef, Edward Lee, joined her in making it off the bubble and into the competition. With the two of them, that's 16 competitiors, and next week will begin more traditional, less frantic (viewing, not cooking) Top Chef competition. Game on, people. Now, here are the highlights:
Biggest Padma Crush: Chaz Brown of Fatty Crab in New York, hands down. "I stil have a crush on Padma," Brown said at the beginning of the episode. "In middle school, I had her picture in my locker." While his friends probably thought, "Now, who the hell is that, Chaz?" as they stared at their own posters of Pamela Anderson's chest, Brown was an early-adopter of the Padma fascination. Wonder if his wife is impressed with his stalwart crush. Which brings us to ...
Most Disappointing Flub: The damned risotto. Sadly (because he's thoroughly entertaining), Brown didn't make it to the final 16 because he didn't have a dish. That risotto I mentioned above? While it may have been delicious, but it never quite made it to the plate.
"Please pack your knives and go," Padma told him.
"Padma," Brown said in his post-elimination interview, "it kind of feels like she's breaking up with me. I want my CDs back. We have to split up our friends. You cut me deep, Padma."
It's a darn shame; the guy made great television.
Best Term Coined by Top Chef: The Stew Room The contestants "on the bubble" may or may not have been sitting in the "stew room" since last week. It's the stainless steel-clad back-room of a kitchen somewhere in San Antonio, and they have to sit there as though in time-out while waiting for their moment to cook again -- all while knowing they were on the verge of elimination and will have to go head-to-head with one and other.
They "stew": Why me? How many will be allowed to compete? Is my life over? One can only hope that all sharp objects had been removed from the room.
Night's Egomaniac: Edward Lee The stew room will drive anyone to the edge, but Lee, though kidding at times, was more off-putting than the others. "Oh a cruise ship," he said with a smirmy judgy laugh when Molly Brandt said she worked on Allure of the Seas.
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"If they leave me here in the stew room long enough," Lee said, "I'm going to kill the other five people to get that jacket. That's how bad I want it." We almost believed him. In a swift moment in the kitchen, while using his knife to remove the top from a bottle, Lee slipped and sliced his finger. He threw on a latex glove and kept cooking, only to have blood spilling down his wrist in a disgusting leak. The Top Chef medic had to pay his station a visit and tape him up so to keep his dish from being something that only a vampire could enjoy.
But the shit-talk and pain paid off. Colicchio noted that his Asian/Southern duck was gutsy, while Lagasse seemed to want another bite.
Best Dish: Braised veal over creamy polenta with warm salad and charred pickled carrots
"I did the best that I could do with 60 minutes," Lindsay Autry said, in a severe understatement. The dish (pictured above), comforting and with dashes of freshness and color, looked incredible. Making braised veal appear sexy on a plate is no small task, but it was incredibly appealing, and from what Colicchio said, it's flavors matched. "I loved it. It's perfectly seasoned .. this is good cooking here," he said at judge's table.