Hugh Acheson, Padma Laksmi, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons -- (Photo by Matthias ClamerBravo).jpg
Matthias Clamer/Bravo

While it's hard to top the thrill of great barbecue followed by a trip to the Blue Bell Creamery, Katharine Shilcutt - my

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Top Chef: Seattle Takes the Space Needle

Hugh Acheson, Padma Laksmi, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons -- (Photo by Matthias ClamerBravo).jpg
Matthias Clamer/Bravo

While it's hard to top the thrill of great barbecue followed by a trip to the Blue Bell Creamery, Katharine Shilcutt - my counterpart at our sister paper, the Houston Press - pretty much made my recent Texas trip by telling me I was blogging Top Chef all wrong. Shilcutt, who wrote the weekly recaps for last season's Top Chef: Texas, advised me to skip the painstaking note-taking process and blog while watching the show. (She also suggested adding a few drinks to the process.) So tonight I'm blogging in real time: Think of the following as a set of pasted-together tweets. Here we go.

Accompanied by former contestants Josie, CJ and Stephan (I'm sure they all have last names, but if you care, you probably know them already), Padma welcomes the contestants to Seattle. Finally. The chefs are supposed to divide themselves into five groups of three and tackle shellfish in 20 minutes. The lone Hawaiian contestant says it's "right up his alley," which means he ought to be facing embarrassment shortly.

While the show's moving quickly, the producers still take time to remind viewers that Dallas' John Tesar is the season's designated jerk. First, he says he wants to work with a contestant from Japan because she probably has great knife skills. Then, Padma puts her practiced hushing to use, reminding Tesar she hasn't finished talking.

A team of three female chefs - including Carla, who says she wants to have a James Beard and a great ass - is devolving into a morass of miscommunication. Lizzie says she wants to tell Carla to be quiet (keep an eye on Padma, kid.) "Come on, we got to plate, guys!," Carla shrieks.

The other teams aren't faring much better: Everyone wanted geoducks, but a bunch of teams got stuck with razor clams and crawfish instead. Danyele worries time will run out before her team produces anything to show the judges. Tyler, who chefs at John Elway's steakhouse, sneaks in a "Go Broncos!," lest he be sent home before he can hoist the team colors.

First dish up is crawfish with pickled red chili and cream. "A little old school," the judges pronounce. They move on to an oven- roasted crawfish with fennel and herb salad. Lizzie, who helped make the dish, doesn't like it - "working with Carla is crazy, and you can see that in the dish" - but the judges differ: "Two thumbs up."

The lucky geoducks who scored the giant clam go next, presenting a fried and sashmi of geoduck with radish bok choy salad. The judges are disappointed the sashimi isn't sliced thinner, but like the dual approach. The next team does better by its geoduck, prepared as a sashimi with ponzu, apple and cucumber. "A hair more salt" than needed, deems Padma, but the judges are impressed.

And here come the razor clams, made into a corn chowder that the judges describe as watered-down and under-seasoned. The judges decide it was the worst dish, a designation which has no bearing on the contestants' standing, but whips their pride before the first official challenge.

Top honors go to the apple geoduck, created by Tesar, Kuniko, the purported Japanese knife wizard and Sheldon, the Hawaiian contestant (So much for my comeuppance theory.) For their trouble, the team members get to draw knives for immunity. Tesar, who's quickly becoming this season's most important chef, is safe.

Then, surprise! Padma announces the former contestants are becoming Season 10 contestants, trading their judges' outfits for Top Chef blue coats. The three will compete as a team for this episode, which Padma reveals will be set at SkyCity. Each team has 47 minutes (the amount of time it takes the restaurant to revolve) to prepare one dish with local ingredients. And it has to impress Tom Douglas.

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The chefs shop the Top Chef pantry before heading home to their new pad at Olive 8, where it's time to bond. Jeffrey reveals he's engaged to a man, and Josie says she's become the "global soul chef" since being kicked off Season 2.

The contestants arrive at a completely empty Seattle Center to ascend the Needle. Sheldon sets to work making dashi, explaining "no one wants to go home this early in the competition." Sure sounds like foreshadowing, but I've been burned by Sheldon in the quickfire, so I'll withhold judgment here.

The returning veterans are making quail, an animal that would probably have been far better suited to last season than this one. Suffice to say it's not a renowned Tommy D specialty.

And speaking of Douglas, the judges - Padma, Tom, Gail and Emeril - have joined him in the dining room to talk singing scallops.

Back in the kitchen, Kuniko's burnt the chili oil. "I can't stop thinking, and I lose my focus," she explains.

Kuniko is the first to introduce a dish to the judges. Her team has readied poached lingcod with spot prawn shabu shabu. The dish looks delicate. Carla's team's created a poached salmon with fava beans and baby fennel. Carla then returns to the kitchen, reaches into her knife bag and slices her hand, while the judges taste the dishes side-by-side.

"First thing to put in my mouth in Seattle? Not bad," Gail says of the spot prawns, although Tom C. wishes the morels had been cooked slightly longer. Now Tom D.'s asked to weigh in on salmon cooking: "Right on the money," he says, pointing to the fish's translucence. The judges are getting a little giddy about the season's prospects.

Back in the kitchen, Josie fears her team will be axed for its cherry emulsion. A member of the competing team suspects their halibut is overcooked. She's also afraid of heights.

As it turns out, cherry is the least of the returning competitors' problems. The judges decide the quail is overcooked, the spot prawns are overcooked and the broth is bitter. "Wow, you guys are tough!," Tom D. exclaims. The other team's fears were more accurate: Padma calls her halibut a "hockey puck."

The next team offers a crispy seared salmon with spot prawn butter sauce and sea beans, facing down a pea roasted cod with garlic scape pistou. Tom D. likes the translucence of the cod, but the salmon's the bigger hit.

"They all did very similar dishes," Gail concludes.

But Tesar's team picks up the win, prompting Tom C. to ask Kuniko whether she'd previously poached fish in chili oil. "I work in a French brasserie, so I don't do such things," she says. Tom C. suggests perhaps she should. She's named the episode's winner.

As for the worst dish, the judges are deciding between the veteran contestants and the team with the acrophobic. The veterans are slow to realize why they're on the chopping block, as Tesar phrases it. Tom C. finally tells them the bird was overcooked: "But the quail was so small," Stephan protests.

"Conceptually, they were both good dishes," Tom C. says in the judges' room. But they suffered from cooking problems. The halibut was overcooked, and Gail calls the quail "dark and murky," and has little tolerance for Stephan's excuses.

Padma delivers the verdict: Jeffrey's gone. Overcooking fish won't fly in Seattle.

Next week: Thanksgiving.

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