One thing became perfectly clear during the Season Three premiere of Bravo's Top Chef last night: Head judge and the W's Craft-man Tom Colicchio has a man-crush on Abacus' Chef de Cuisine Tre Wilcox. After Wilcox fumbled the first "Quickfire Challenge," during which the 15 contestants had a few minutes to prepare an amuse bouche using picked-over appetizers, he spoke of suffering from "a little depression." He looked stunned, actually, standing over his plate of forgettable, inedible fare. Not a good first impression -- certainly not as good as Shinsei's Casey Thompson, who's been featured in the ubiquitous Top Chef promos floating to the top of a hot tub in her itsy-bitsy bikini.
When it got 'round to the "Elimination Challenge," Wilcox wound up preparing a surf 'n' turf using ostrich and abalone -- not exactly the fare to which he's accustomed at Kent Rathbun's eatery. (Thompson got alligator and razor clams.) As he was making his dish, Colicchio went over to Wilcox and struck up a conversation -- a little longer than his usual chit-chat with the chefs during the first two seasons. He told Wilcox he didn't strike him as a guy who's used to losing. "You're very right, sir," Wilcox said. "It's a good observation."
Tom Colicchio judges Tre Wilcox, left, and the simply named Hung during Top Chef's first Elimination Challenge.
"So," Colicchio asked Wilcox, "a little redemption today?"
"Totally," said Wilcox.
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"Cool," Colicchio said, then added, "Take care, man" -- the last word, almost whispered. Colicchio's never been so chummy with the so-called "cheftestants," certainly not during the first episode of a season. It's love at first bite.
Colicchio loved Wilcox's dish -- Roasted Ostrich Filet with Heirloom Tomatoe Risotto and Abalone Sauce -- calling it "perfect" before handing it over to guest judge Anthony Bourdain, who was wowed by Hung's geoduck and black chicken dish. Wilcox wound up winning the first episode -- and, as host Padma Lakshmi reminded, the first chefs to win the Elimination Challenge during seasons one and two also won the entire competition. "No pressure," said Food & Wine's Gail Simmons.
It's an oddball bunch this season, consisting mostly of pros who make their living working stoves at big-name eateries in major cities. But they're also a bit of a freakshow parade -- the gigantor who introduced himself by admitting he had a false testicle, the Mississippi boy who talked freely of his dad who owned a restaurant before killing himself and round mound of fury who works at Café des Artistes and likely never reads much Alexander Woolcott in his spare time.
Casey Thompson wasn't much heard from this episode, but those ads make it look like she becomes a major player at some point. She's crying in the promos -- and, ya know, hot-tubbing with a beer behind her head. What is this, anyway -- Real World: Miami? Not such a bad idea, come to think of it. Think of the knives. --Robert Wilonsky