Although Seattle wasn't spared John Tesar, a Dallas chef who's made a career out of being a jerk, the Top Chef judges last night eliminated many of the contestants who seemed unlikely to thrive in a city which prizes modesty, niceness and passive-aggression.
Three months after wrapping its local shoot, Top Chef: Seattle aired its much-anticipated first episode, a manic four-ring circus in which 21 aspiring (and perspiring) cheftestants showed off their kitchen skills. Judges Tom Colicchio, Hugh Acheson, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck each devised a challenge for the five or six contestants assigned to his restaurant, winnowing down the Seattle-bound group to 15 hopefuls.
While Acheson, Lagasse and Puck auditioned their crews with specific dish requests, Colicchio put his charges to work on the line at Craft, creating the most frenzied of the four tryouts. Colicchio's group included Tesar, who - perhaps realizing he had to quickly establish his bad boy credentials for a national audience - introduced himself by saying, "Anthony Bourdain says I'm the best chef he's ever worked with." Tesar was soon after granted an early dismissal, which his competitors hoped meant he'd been canned. Actually, he'd won his Top Chef competitor's coat without even finishing service. "You know your way around the kitchen," Colicchio allowed.
Tesar was the most confident chef in a group that also included the coat-claiming Lizzie Binder, thus far notable primarily for her lovely South African accent, and Jorel Pierce, who fatally oversalted a beurre fondue. Colicchio also axed the lovable Anthony Gray, an Atlantan with the teddy bear bearing of Jack Black's Bernie: "I have a lot of hunting in my family," he announced upon learning there was butchering on the agenda.
Micah Fields of Los Angeles didn't perfectly butcher his fish, but Colicchio issued him a coat, praising his demeanor. "I have a hunger, a thirst for blood," he promised, giving some idea of which ingredient he'd most like to see in a Quickfire.
Chefs in Lagasse's kitchen were required to make soup, a directive Lagasse twice defended: "Soup seems simple, but it needs depth," he said. The soup artists included Jeffrey Jew, a gay personal chef of Asian and Norwegian descent; two women who work in the same restaurant, live in the same apartment building and wear the same spoon tattoo, but want the world to know they aren't lovers; an artsy New Yorker and a guy who looks like a skinny Kevin Gillespie with a handlebar mustache.
Jew won a coat with his chilled watermelon and salmon belly soup, joining one half of the spoon duo, Kristen Kish, who made an English pea broth with scallops. Little Kevin Gillespie (properly known as Joshua Valentine) also claimed a ticket to Seattle with his roasted corn soup.
(I wish I could provide more in-depth descriptions of the dishes and the chefs who made them, but the show went very, very quickly. Apologies.)
Wolfgang Puck, a new judge this season, ordered his chefs to make omelets. Of the five chefs lined up in Cut's kitchen, Kuiko Yagi - the only chef wearing a black coat - stood out as Seattle material. Clutching her knife bag, she looked sad and pale. Then she made an omelet with chamomile tea and morels. I have no idea whether Yagi has the chops to go deep in the competition, but I'd wager she's the contestant who most seriously considered staying in town when her time was up. "I want to drink the coffee in Seattle," she told Puck when he asked why she wanted a coat. She also revealed that she wanted to impress her parents, who still aren't pleased about her choice to abandon a banking career in Tokyo.
Yagi triumphed over Daniel O'Brien, who'd been begging for comeuppance since announcing he had "the number one restaurant on Yelp after being open for 11 months" in Washington D.C., and especially after calling Yagi "Miz Origami." (I can't imagine what charming epithet he would have hurled at Jew.) O'Brien prepared a mushroom omelet that looked exactly like the scrambled eggs I make when I'm too lazy to clean the pan beforehand.
"It's like, what the fuck?" O'Brien said graciously after learning he was the only chef who didn't make it out of Puck's kitchen. "Now I'm pissed off." Although O'Brien was asked to pack his knives and go, he was briefly readmitted for Puck's impromptu omelet-making workshop, which sounded very much like an ad for his cookware. "Look, nothing sticks!," he exclaimed.
Among the chefs to graduate from Puck's kitchen were Carla Pellegrino, a Carla Bruni type with such a thick Brazilian accent that the show ran subtitles when she said, "I use to be married with the chef at Rao's", and Tyler Wiard, executive chef for John Elway's restaurant group. Wiard - responsible for the most bloody Mary-worthy omelet, a leek, bacon and asparagus concoction - didn't attend culinary school, but looks like he could bench press a few sous vide machines.
Finally, Hugh Acheson invited the chefs at Empire State South to wow him with salad. Sheldon Simeon, a red-capped Hawaiian, didn't have a great grasp of mainland seasons: "The Brussels sprout season ended about three months ago," Acheson scolded after tasting his Brussels sprout and blood orange salad. Bart Vandaele, a knight twice over in his native Belgium, put far too much on his plate. "That's a big salad you have!," Acheson marveled.
And Danyele McPherson picked up propane flavors when she grilled her tomatoes, a strategy that provoked the episode's only serious cattiness. "Danyele is flaring her tomatoes, which is culinary 101," hissed Gina Keatley, who obviously didn't feel her position as founder of Nourishing USA, a nutrition advocacy group, compelled her to be kind. "It's ridiculous and amateurish."
Keatley called her own grilled zucchini salad "very delicious," prompting a smirk from Acheson. "We're about to find out," he corrected her.
Acheson didn't like the salad, so Keatley was booted. "I'm a movement," she whined. But her movement was toward the door, while the cheftestants left standing readied for the trip to Seattle.
And what awaits in Seattle? According to the coming attractions, shellfish digging, grill cleaning, roller skating and huckleberry sauce-making. See you next week.