The Return of Top Chef: Season Premiere Recap

Season seven of Top Chef launched last night and it was great to see a very buxom Padma Lakshmi and no-nonsense Tom Colicchio return to the airwaves. This version of Top Chef is set in Washington D.C., and the puns about cooking in our nation's capital endured all night. Yeah, we get it, hail to the chef. Of particular interest to Short Order is the fact that local chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo (of Talula and Water Club fame) is competing in this summer's contest. But we'll get to her later.

At the onset, we were introduced to several of the character-driven chefs. There was Tracey Bloom from Atlanta, who is a dead-ringer for Rosie O'Donnell; Tiffany Derry, who worked at IHOP before becoming an executive chef in Dallas; and Lynne Gigliotti, the blunt food instructor at the Culinary Institute of America who proclaimed that she didn't have tattoos or crazy hair. John Somerville, however, took the Top Chef all-time record for the wildest mane with his unappetizing grey dreadlocks, which I feared were going to fall into his food. Speaking of sartorial style, Arnold Myint admitted to hiring a wardrobe specialist prior to the show and getting a facial.

The real stars of Top Chef 7, we would soon find out during the first Quickfire Challenge, are Kenny Gilbert and Angelo Sosa. These are our frontrunners and the tension between the two is already palpable. For this Dial NutriSkin Quickfire Challenge (which was inexplicably a high stakes challenge for $20,000 even though the show is no longer set in Las Vegas where the cash prize seemed more appropriate), the cheftestants had to slog through a mise en place competition in four legs. The heats included peeling ten potatoes, brunoising ten cups of onions, breaking down four chickens into eight parts and, finally, cooking a meal with the available ingredients.

Kenny and Angelo totally kicked ass in each leg of the skills challenge. Our girl Andrea? Not so much. While she barely made it through the first potato peeling round (she nabbed the last of the 12 spots), she just couldn't cut those onions fast enough. In her postmortem, Curto-Randazzo said, "I was one of Food & Wine magazine's Top Ten best new chefs in America, but I can't dice up onions. I was pissed." Meanwhile, it was Angelo versus Kenny for the Quickfire win and Angelo took home the cash with his roasted chicken wing and thigh with curry onion jam and potato noodles.

Padma, in her signature vest, announced that the Elimination Challenge would require the cheftestants to cook a dish that represented where they were from. They would be competing in teams, thereby allowing the strongest chef in the group to faceoff against the weakest one.

The rampant product placement began in earnest from here. There was the requisite shopping excursion to Whole Foods, followed by the perfectly outfitted GE Top Chef kitchen. The Top Chef kitchen may have been too high-tech for Arnold, though, who remarked, "I haven't touched some of these tools. I have a mom and pop restaurant in Nashville." Even crazy-eyes John didn't seem to understand how to work the GE ovens. At that moment, I knew he was going home first.

As the chefs started their first Elimination Challenge, I was so happy to hear the perky, twangy, motivational music Top Chef is known for. From the editing, it seemed like John, Jacqueline Lombard, Rosie O'Donnell (oops, Kelley) and Timothy Dean were not going to fare well in this exercise. Kenny, Angelo and Kevin Sbraga, on the other hand, were in command of this challenge. They comprised the top four (along with Alex Reznik), with Angelo winning for his arctic char with pickled shallots, chilled tapioca and smoked bacon froth. "They are going to be chasing me all season," the cocky Connecticut chef predicted. Perhaps.

On the bottom, it was Stephen Hopcraft, John, Jacqueline and Timothy. Ultimately, John was sent home for his soggy, non-maple-tasting dessert. "I guess I was just being stupid," he told judges Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons. You think? Don't these people know by now that preparing dessert (unless it is part of the challenge) is the kiss of death on Top Chef?

As for Andrea, her Miami-Italian style dish (pork with chorizo potato gnocchi, calabaza and orange gremolata) was deemed "well-seasoned," "tasty," but "not reminiscent of Miami."

I have to say that after the excellent level of cooking that occurred on Top Chef Masters, which just ended last Wednesday, the skills of some of these cheftestants is woefully amateurish in comparison. But that is the beauty of Top Chef; seeing the spectacular mistakes (John, why oh why use puff pastry you've never worked with before?), the in-fighting, the trashtalking and the potential for romance (shomance, bromance or otherwise). I'm also looking forward to Eric Ripert's insightful judging style, especially when it comes to fish.

In the preview for the upcoming episodes, we did get an Andrea sighting, who seemed to be imitating Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, when she said: "There's no crying in the kitchen. I fire people for that." Oh, and was that Nancy Pelosi? I can't even go there. Until next week.

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