Thank goodness for Bravo. The network has saved us from the abyss of summer TV reruns with a new season of “Top Chef,” which premiered its sixth installment Wednesday night. Tom, Padma, and the new crop of chefs head to Las Vegas this time around, and I'll be with you for their Sin City journey.
For me, Las Vegas calls to mind gambling, showgirls, and those endless $70 buffets since when I went to Vegas (as a minor), all I could do was watch Cirque de Soleil and eat. (Why did my parents even take me with them?) Gargantuan buffets aside, I consider myself a foodie, a restaurant explorer, and a lover of all things sweet. It's no surprise that I love Top Chef, but watching it on an empty stomach is hazardous, so I recommend accompanying snacks to prevent yourself from licking the TV screen. Now that you've met me, let's meet the contestants!
The Dish: Executive chef, the Woodfire Grill in Atlanta
Strong sauce: With a 2009 James Beard nomination already under his belt, Kevin seems to be as thoughtful about cooking as he is talented. His well-planned arctic char impressed the judges enough to take home the first win.
Weak sauce: He's got some time-management issues.
The Dish: Executive chef, Latitudes Beach Café in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Strong sauce: His laid back approach (''keep it real, keep it simple and let's have fun'') could serve him well when the pressure is on.
Weak sauce: He pulled out the sympathy card — that he took a treacherous 27-day boat ride from Haiti to America — too quickly. Save it for when you really need it, not the first episode!
The Dish: Chef/owner, Eve in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Strong sauce: We didn't sense much that was positive, though her revelation that she's the only chef from Michigan was cute.
Weak sauce: In a pot full of big city chefs, this small-town girl may not have the chops (or attitude) needed to win.
The Dish: Chef/Owner, Iluna Basque in San Francisco
Strong sauce: The France native opened his restaurant when he was just 23 and has talent and proven success on his side. We also give him brownie points for his adorable Pamplona-inspired getup.
Weak sauce: Mattin makes a fine lobster and a mean buffalo rib eye, but the lack of personality in his cooking could cut his Vegas vacation short.
The Dish: Executive chef, Eno in Atlanta
Strong sauce: The self-proclaimed ''fat kid'' has a passion for eating, not just cooking, which could set him apart from the artsy-fartsy chefs.
Weak sauce: But at the same time, he doesn't edit his dishes. He'll have to refrain from making his meals a mélange of too many things, as he mistakenly did in the elimination challenge.
The Dish: Sous chef, Trestle on Tenth in New York
Strong sauce: The only chef from New York?? You better believe it. Duking it out in America's culinary capital on a daily basis gives Ash the upper hand compared to his smaller-city counterparts.
Weak sauce: We didn't see much on Ash in the premiere, but let's hope his dishes don't come with a side of New York pomp.
The Dish: Executive chef, Abacrombie Fine Foods in Baltimore
Strong sauce: She works well under pressure, as evidenced by her nearly flawless shrimp and grits in the quickfire challenge.
Weak sauce: Jesse never went to culinary school, which could later make her stand out -- and not in a good way.
The Dish: Chef de cuisine, 10 Arts by Eric Ripert in Philadelphia
Strong sauce: Her talent has gotten her a job with world renowned chef Ripert and overflowing praise from the episode's guest judge, Wolfgang Puck.
Weak sauce: We sensed a tinge of attitude when we first met her, but then Jennifer herself says, ''I can be a freakin' bitch in the kitchen.'' Told you so.
Bryan The Dish: Executive chef/owner, Volt in Frederick, Md.
Strong sauce: He knows when he's wrong (as he acknowledged with his crusted rib eye in the quickfire challenge) and as a recent James Beard nominee, that ability to self-edit must've served him well. Some added motivation? Competing against younger brother Michael.
Weak sauce: Well, weak sauce. Bryan has a penchant for purées — bland ones at that — so he'll have to pull back and let the other elements on his plate speak for themselves.
The Dish: Chef de cuisine at The Dining Room, Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa in L.A.
Strong sauce: His rack of lamb-plastic surgery connection proves he's got a sense of humor, which is key to setting yourself apart from the 16 other chefs.
Weak sauce: With his troublemaker personality, Mike's drive to beat his brother could make him the loser in this sibling rivalry.
The Dish: Executive Chef, Zaytinya in Washington D.C.
Strong Sauce: Mike has confidence with the cooking skills to back it up (see Stefan, season 5).
Weak sauce: But he should make sure that confidence isn't just arrogance because trash talking won't get him too far (again, see Stefan).
The Dish: Executive chef, Branzino in Seattle
Strong sauce: In a kitchen full of decorated chefs, Ashley brings a breath of fresh air with her ego-free, wide-eyed approach.
Weak sauce: She can cook, but she'd better pep up that personality if she wants to win.
The Dish: Executive chef, Google, Bon Appetit Management Company in San Francisco
Strong sauce: She may be Indian, but unlike Radhika (season 5), she isn't a one-trick Indian-spice pony. Kudos for branching out!
Weak sauce: After an embarrassing performance at the quickfire and an unmemorable elimination challenge dish, Preeti isn't off to a good start. Points also deducted for Le Cordon Bleu-trained chefs who think clams and oysters are the same thing.
The Dish: Chef/owner Left Coast Catering in San Francisco
Strong sauce: We don't know much, but we do know she can crisp some bacon.
Weak sauce: She admits to being intimidated by the competition. Oh, and it's never a good thing when Wolfgang Puck calls your donuts golf balls and then hurls one across the room.
The Dish: Chef/Owner, Pura Vida in Atlanta
Strong sauce: His Puerto Rican upbringing adds new flavor and dimension to the kitchen.
Weak sauce: He assumes a negative review means the judges don't understand his Latin American style.
The Dish: Chef/owner, Crave in Seattle
Strong sauce: She chose immunity over cooking in the quickfire and cooked a hardly-worth-mentioning pork tenderloin in the elimination challenge. Will the judges even remember her?
Weak sauce: The self-taught cook plays it too safe for Top Chef caliber challenges.
(And last night's eliminated chef…)
Jennifer Z. The Dish: Executive chef, El Camin Real in Philadelphia
Strong sauce: Jennifer wanted to win it for her 3-year-old son and that drive could've helped her, if it weren't for…
Weak sauce: Her temper and stubbornness. Though adamant about making her chile relleno, she should've known that seitan stuffing was a risky move.
The chefs descended upon Las Vegas excited, nervous and curious to see what sort of action they're in for. Padma told them that because it's Vegas, there will be plenty of ''twists and turns.'' How's that for Vegas style?
The Stardust showgirls kicked off the quickfire challenge, and even though they don't serve a direct purpose, I suppose it was a way to get the contestants excited about their new home. Once that little jig was over, Padma and Tom described the quickfire, which was a mise en place relay race. That fancy French term basically means setting up, and this race had four teams of four shuck 15 clams, peel 30 prawns, clean five lobsters and butcher two chops of prime rib. The odd person out was Robin, who didn't have to play since she picked the immunity poker chip when everyone drew from a hat. As for the challenge, the ingredients weren't pretty and neither were the results. In one corner you had Jennifer Z., struggling to open the clams as she bled profusely and on the other, Preeti, just plain struggling. Her team should've known not to put her on that task when she asked if clams were just like oysters. But hey, maybe that's just me.
With those two teams clearly not in the running, it was neck and neck between the blue team (Bryan, Jennifer C., Jesse, Mattin) and the black team (Mike I., Eli, Ashley, Hector). Thanks to Bryan's speedy rib eye chopping, the blue team won despite (or perhaps because of) the annoying sideline cheering courtesy of Mike I. Between his calling Robin an ''old lady'' and implying that women shouldn't be able to shuck clams better than men, I think I'm going to really dislike this guy.
The blue team's win wasn't the end of the story, though. To spice things up, each member of the blue team then competed against each other by cooking a dish made out of the ingredient they prepped. The prize would be $15,000, a Top Chef first and a ''High Stakes Quickfire'' as Padma called it. As much as we would've liked to see some screw-ups, all four dishes were relatively successful, but in the end, Jennifer C.'s clam ceviche nabbed the money. This Philadelphia chef clearly knows what she's doing and, if I may so boldly speak, seems a likely candidate for winner.
But I'm not going to get ahead of myself; it's just episode 1! For their first elimination challenge, the chefs had to create a meal based on their vices, since Vegas is all about bad behavior, get it? I feel like we're going to have one too many corny tie-ins this season. Most of the chefs chose alcohol as their bad habit (i.e. beer powder garnish) but we got some clever interpretations like Mike V.'s rack of lamb to symbolize plastic surgery and procrastinator Ash's intentional half spread of parsley coulis (because he didn't have time to spread it all the way around -- har har).
By far, though, Kevin's arctic char with turnip salsa verde took the cake for creativity and taste. Also representing procrastination, his meal quickly cooked foods that are traditionally made slowly, and vice versa. It was playful, tasty and to the point, and the judges, including guest judge Wolfgang Puck, took notice and crowned Kevin the winner. They also took notice, for the wrong reasons, of Jennifer Z.'s seitan-stuffed chile relleno, which, according to the judges, was a clunky, flavorless dish that was ultimately the wrong choice for the self-taught cook. I disagree with Tom & Co. on this one. I think seitan was an appropriately ballsy move. The real letdown of the episode was Eve's overcooked shrimp and all-wrong curry cream sauce, which, beyond being risk-averse, seemed to lack a distinct connection to the vice theme.
Alas, I'm not a judge but I am going to be a spectator for what looks like a juicy season-Eli accusing Robin of using her cancer to win pity, Mattin going giddy over a renowned French chef (TV Watchers, please clue me in on who this is!), Mike I. going postal...and Penn & Teller?