Thursday, August 20, 2009

Top Chef Season 6 Las Vegas: Let the Games Begin!

Welcome to Sin City and the new Top Chef kitchen is already heating up fast! Season 6 of the popular Bravo TV series, "Top Chef" is finally here and the first episode premiered last night. This season promises to be very interesting as the collection of chef contestants include James Beard Award nominees like Michael Voltaggio (Best New Restaurant, also winner of a Michelin Star), Kevin "I turned down a scholarship from MIT" Gillespie (Rising Star Chef of the Year semi-finalist), Hector Santiago (Best Chef, Southeast nominee) and plenty of restaurant executive chefs.

Of course, the title Executive Chef is pretty subjective when it comes to experience and knowledge. Take for instance, Preeti Mistry, an executive chef working at Google's HQ in San Francisco. At the first Quickfire Challenge, the always exciting mise en place relay race, Ms. Mistry chose to open 15 clams when she didn't even know the difference between an oyster and a clam! Can you believe that? She even tried to open the clams like it was an oyster! Hello! You work in San Francisco where there is seafood aplenty! Why don't you know this?

Then there is Jesse Sandlin, a self-proclaimed, self-taught (read: not a culinary school student) executive chef of Abacrombie Fine Foods in Baltimore, MD, who in the challenge to win $10K, proudly declared that she hasn't cooked shrimp in decades! What the??!! So, what DOES Ms. Executive Chef cook then? And what's up with judge Colicchio choosing Eric Ripert's protégé Jennifer Carroll's extremely simple dish of clam ceviche to win $10K in that same challenge? She didn't even have to turn on the stove for that! Were her other 3 competitors (including Ms. Sandlin) that bad?

This season, there appears to be several changes to the challenges including the just-revealed prize money for particular challenges. Usually, you try to win challenges to get an edge over your opponents but there is an extra incentive this season. After winning the mise en place challenge, the 4-person Blue team got to compete among themselves to come up with a winning dish using the ingredient that they just mise en placed for $10K.

For the elimination challenge, and in keeping with the Sin City theme, the contestants were asked to create a dish based on their own personal vices. As usual, some were more successful than others. This first challenge was won by the Amish-looking Kevin with his arctic char dish, which I thought was not that impressive to begin with. Colicchio did mention that arctic char was his favorite fish so that might have tipped the scale (no pun intended) for Kevin. The loser and unfortunately the title of the being the first person eliminated from the show was hot tamale Jennifer Zavala, who tried to stand out from the rest by using--horrors!--seitan, the wheat gluten meat alternative to stuff her chilies rellenos. Yuck! Jennifer wanted the dish to represent her hot temper but unfortunately the seitan put a hose to that idea.

Note to self: Don't break out the seitan in the opening challenge of Top Chef!

Although the seitan rellenos was nasty, my pick for elimination was Eve with her badly cooked scallops and her unfocused interpretation of the personal vice theme. And what's with Puerto Rican Hector's interpretation of a smoked steak that he deep-fried....for Wolfgang Puck of all people! This coming from a James Beard nominee? Every season has a villain and this year's is Mike Isabella who is so obnoxious and cocky, he'll probably stay for the duration of the show so that the producers can create some drama (remember Stefan?). Another interesting side story to watch out for is the ultra-competitive intensity of the Voltaggio brothers, Mike and Bryan. Another one that might be interesting to watch is French poodle Mattin Noblia, who seems so out of place with his red scarf/neckerchief. I bet Mike makes him cry in an upcoming episode! As for frontrunners, it has to be Jennifer (Ripert's chef) and Kevin and I hope a Carla-like (season 5) underdog emerges from one of these other chefs.

There are some hits and misses so far this season but it is still early and let's hope that there is no repeat of a Hosea-like winner this year. Talk about a letdown.

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