Last night at La Grange, City of Aters had good beer, better tacos, and an hour of fantastic television on an enormous projector screen. It was the first City of Ate Top Chef Texas viewing party, and watching the show with a beer in hand, a selection of $2 tacos, and a crowd for ongoing commentary and company during commercials is the way to go. If you didn't make it this time, we'd love to see your face next Wednesday at 9 p.m. Now, onto our weekly recap:
This week's entire premise was one of the show's signature kinks, as 29 -- yes, 29 -- chefs competed in the first episode, each vying for one of 16 spots in the Top Chef house. It made for frantic culinary television, more impossible than usual to keep track of contestants or get to know them as they came, cooked, and faced the judges in rapid succession. Some dishes made me want to scratch and sniff the TV, and others were epic busts, as always.
In another surprise, BAM!, Emeril Lagasse's a judge this season, as is Hugh Acheson, both joining the three stalwarts: Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons.
"Get ready for our biggest season ever," Lakshmi announced at the show's opening, followed by a montage of a longhorn, boot shop, Texas flag, and a few other things that are so us. It's tough to imagine she's a mother who eats for a living.
"The first thing I think is damn Padma looks hot!" cheftestant Chris Crary said at the opening. True, she looks better than ever. Even Colicchio appears more polished and seems to have dropped a few lbs for the ninth season.
This episode, based in San Antonio, was a two-parter: The first group of chefs were given a whole pig. Each chose a pig part to prepare in their dish. No two people could use the same portion of the hog. But there was a catch. Some parts of meat were connected.
This proved to be the fatal flaw of the night's egomaniac (there's always one), Tyler Stone from Sacramento. Nice-girl chef Grayson Schmitz trusted him to cut away what he needed and leave the tenderloin for her. Um, no. He hacked away at the hunk of meat as though using a butter knife. Colicchio called him out on killing her portion, and asked whether Stone would buy such a piece of meat at a butcher shop. Well, uh, I'm not a butcher, he explained. Yeah, dude, but you are a chef.
Colicchio wasted no time. "I think you should just leave now." Stone protested only to finally agree, "Fair enough."
In his exit interview, of course, he knew better than everyone else. "Tom and Emeril made a bad decision because they weren't able to taste the expertly cooked pork chop. But that's okay because I know where I'm going. I'm going to the top." That qualifies his exit as the most satisfying elimination of the night. Schmitz, who was screwed by Stone's abominable butchery, ended up on "the bubble," a new Top Chef invention meaning judges would like to see the contestant cook again before making a decision whether that person can continue with the competition.
In the episode's second round, cast self-introductions were an exercise in one-upsmanship. "I raise your 'rising chef award' to a James Beard nomination and an apprenticeship with [fillintheblank fabulous chef you've heard of]."
This is when Chris Crary of Whist Restaurant in the Viceroy Hotel in Las Angeles introduced himself as a "culinary artist," comparing himself to Michael Voltaggio and Richard Blais. If he tones down the pompousness, which he seemed to throughout the episode, he could potentially be the season's heartthrob, a good lookin' dude and a notably talented chef (judging by his first dish, rabbit leg confit and butter-seared rabbit tenderloin with polenta).
Round two brought a new challenge. Presented with a slew of proteins, the group had to agree on one. Rabbit won.
Nina Vicente of Spur Gastropub in Seattle was sweet and calm when Colicchio approached her in the kitchen. At ease behind her rabbit and brussle sprouts and with Colicchio commenting on her wealth of experience, it seemed all but certain she would receive a coveted chef's coat. Not so much. She got "in the zone," lost track of time, and her rabbit never made the plate in the night's most disappointing flub.
Her fatal mistake was followed by the night's most endearing contestant, Keith Rhodes of Catch Restaurants in North Carolina. Asked by Lakshmi what he was thinking as he stood at judge's table, the big teddy bear of a man responded, "I'm too big to pass out."
His dish marks City of Ate's third best dish of the night: Herb-seared rabbit tenderloin, chicken fried rabbit, and a yukon gold potato hash with braised rabbit confit. With nerves running high, a well-cooked and inventive rabbit trio is a lot to bite off, but it looked incredible and earned him entry into the competition.
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In second place is the dish of Heather Terhune of Sable Kitchen and Bar in Chicago. Barbeque baby back ribs made with maple, molasses, and ketchup served over grits with Maytag blue cheese, corn and bacon. YES. This is Top Chef Texas. This feeds my soul, which is pretty much what Colicchio said when he called the dish "soulful and satisfying."
And in first place: Nyesha Arrington of the Wilshire Restaurant in Los Angeles. Braise pork shoulder ravioli with roasted corn, tomato, and pepita salsa with lime zest. The dish was restrained, beautiful, and inviting. And, according to the judges, it tasted damn fine too. "Spot on," Lagasse said. "Your dish was beautiful," Lakshmi added.
Other notables: Five of the eleven contestants who were given chef's coats are from Chicago. Chuy Valencia of Chilam Bilam is one of them, and after receiving his chef's coat he said, "Booyeah bitches!" We're not sure whether to love him or hate him.
Next week, chefs "on the bubble" compete for the five remaining spots in the Top Chef house. Also, one chef cuts his finger pretty badly. Dun, dun, dunnnn. See you next week, same time, same place.