Normally on every reality TV show, judges will laud the talents of the new contestants, calling them “the best competitors they ever had” or “the toughest bunch yet.”
The seventh season of “Top Chef” ... not so much.
While there are a few stand out chefs in “Top Chef: Washington D.C.,” the season opener provided few dishes to make your stomach say wow. If looks have anything to say about how a dish tastes — and normally it does — the first effort out of the kitchen looked (and probably tasted) like the gunk at the bottom of your kitchen sink.
Before getting into any specifics, the show started to hint it was going to turn into bloodbath when Amanda Baumgarten sliced her palm open while peeling potatoes during the Quickfire Challenge. The first competition of the show had the chefs peeling 10 potatoes, brunoise cutting (or chopping very finely) 10 cups of onions and breaking down four chickens. The four fastest were then asked to create a dish with the ingredients, the best of which won $20,000.
Instead of stopping when she hurt herself, Baumgarten disgustingly continued to peel potatoes. When blood-borne pathogens hit the stove, most chefs would get out of the kitchen. Not on “Top Chef,” where contestants’ blood, sweat and tears literally go into the cooking.
To the credit of the chefs who moved on to the final round —Timothy Dean, Kevin Sbraga, Kenny Gilbert and Angelo Sosa — their plates looked edible. The winning Quickfire dish — Sosa’s potato noodles, roasted chicken wing and onion jam — set the table at a high standard that few chefs were able to meet. At the very least, it left self-described “alpha male” Gilbert, who won every speed challenge, fuming. His dish — a duo of chicken with Moroccan spice, potato puree and onion confit — went head to head with Sosa’s, but he was out maneuvered by Sosa’s “ninja”-like skills. (Yes, Sosa called himself a Japanese assassin.)
In the Elimination Challenge, the contestants were asked to create dishes that represented where they came from. The group was then split into four, and the top four Quickfire chefs chose the contestants they wanted to compete against. Gilbert was quick to choose Tracey Bloom, which angered the feminist chef of the bunch. But her dish of shrimp, cream and grits won only the disapproval of head judge Tom Colicchio, who described the shrimp “as bland as can be.” It drew an odd resemblance to yesterday’s dinner — if it came up and out of your mouth.
Baumgarten then outdid herself again by comparing her slimy, gooey fish to something famed chef Wolfgang Puck would serve. (Note to contestants: Never compare your dishes to those from a Michelin star-winning chef. Chances are you’ll lose, and, of course she did. Case in point: It will prompt comments from the judges such as, “I always thought Wolfgang seasoned his food better than this,” which Colicchio uttered.)
Guest judge Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin compared Stephen Hopcraft’s ode to Ohio, a potato-crusted piece of rib eye, to a chicken nugget. If that didn’t rub salt in the chef’s wounds, another guest who tasted the dish said there was something in Hopcraft’s offering that made him not want to serve it to his kids. Jacqueline Lombard’s low-fat duo of chicken liver was apparently too grainy to enjoy, but that wasn’t surprising since she forgot the recipe even though she claimed she had made it hundreds of times.
But it was John Somerville, the crazy-eyed and unruly haired cook who looked like he may have had one too many hits of acid in his youth, who took the cake for the worst dish. Not only did his maple mousse recipe not taste like maple syrup, he didn’t even make his own dough.
Any amateur chef — or anyone who had any inkling of how to turn on an oven — can buy premade pasty dough and reheat it. Somerville used premade pastries. Maybe that was better for everyone though: He even burned the macadamia nuts instead of toasting them.
Sosa wowed again, though this round he had more competition. Alex Reznik’s deconstructed borscht made Russian food actually seem appetizing. But unless the chefs step up to the plate, Sosa’s dream of being the first contestant to win all the challenges might become a reality.