The first episode of every new season of Top Chef is chaotic. Montages of cheftestants pulling wheelie bags through airports and meeting their roommates takes up precious time. Plus, there are so many new faces to learn before the half-dozen or so standouts rise up in the second or third episode.
But this season, things move fast. No quick-fire, just the elimination round, Tom Colicchio says as he and Padma Lakshmi toss beads to the cheftestants.
The beads represent the proteins that each chef will use for their elimination dishes. And, being it's New Orleans, the proteins represent Louisiana's finest residents: frogs, alligators, turtles, and drunk frat-boy tourists. OK, no one is really cooking a drunk tourist, but wouldn't that be awesome?
Though most cheftestants confess they've never worked with most of these proteins, Tom notes, "Frog tastes like gator, gator tastes like turtle, turtle tastes like chicken. They all taste like chicken!" And clearly, they all know how to cook chicken, so this challenge should be really easy, right?
But as lead judge and mentor, Tom Colicchio says in his Top Chef blog post:
So many of our contestants had never cooked with these proteins, and they can seem daunting to the uninitiated. Not that our chefs shouldn't have expected to encounter them at some point during their sojourns in New Orleans -- how could we not have expected them to cook with something like alligator, with the whole season set in this town? So personally, I'd have studied up a bit in advance of coming. But that's just me.
Ah, Tom, that's why you're the mentor and not a contestant.
The chefs are told they must make one dish to serve 100 people for a party the next day deep in the bayou -- or, in other words, the swamp. The party guests will give beads to their favorite chef, and the one with the most beads wins!
As the chefs shop and prep for the next day, we learn a little about them. Sara, who looks exactly like Rosie the Riveter, wants to emerge from behind the shadows of her boss, Wolfgang Puck. Stephanie, who was eliminated early in season ten by Emeril, faces him again. Miami's own Nina says she's competing for her home country of St. Lucia, and Bret is caught admiring Janine's Daisy Dukes.
The next day, the cheftestants drive to the middle of a swamp and what looks like a campground in disarray. They must assemble their cooking equipment and tables, which takes valuable time away from their prep. As the judges and guests arrive on a pontoon boat called the Swamp Queen, the chefs (of course) have just gotten their acts together.
From all the turtle croquettes and alligator confits that are being made, a few stand out. Nina's spicy curried turtle meatballs with chutney are a favorite, as are Carrie's chilled frogs' legs and Sara's General Tso's gator. In fact, Nina has garnered so many beads that someone calls her "Mrs. T."
At the judges' table, the three above-named chefs are the three judges' favorites, and Nina is crowned "Queen of the Swamp." Miami scores!
The others -- Aaron's pasta, Patty's alligator, and Ramon's dashi -- are on the block. Ramon's knives are sent packing for his bland dish. As Emeril says, "How do you ice dashi? It's not a cocktail."
In conclusion, all Miami chefs are safe, with Nina notching a win for Miami. Next week, look for roving jazz bands, Bourbon Street drinking, dumpster diving in the French Quarter, and more alligators.
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Watch the chefs head to Bourbon Street and compare it to Calle Ocho here: