The Texas-based ninth season of Bravo’s hit Top Chef kicked off last night, and, as promised, everything’s bigger and cowboy boot-ier than any of us may be prepared to stand. Well, it’s not actually bigger—it just starts out that way, with 29 hopefuls competing over three qualifying rounds for one of 16 spots. It’s not actually all that Texas-y, come to think of it, except for five or so minutes right at the top of the show when they introduced the contestants outside of the Alamo.
The huge crowd of chefs looked a little confused when they met Padma in front of the historic fort; "What? Too many contestants? Oh, Texas. Everything’s bigger!” Then Chris Jones, one of six Chicago chefs who made it through last night, makes the adorable assumption that maybe they’re working in teams. Not so, my friend. This is clear to Chef Stone. Chef Tyler Stone. (Emphasis his.) He knows he’s good, and we’re all probably apt to be very jealous of his talent, because he is the Doogie Howser of the chefs, having graduated from culinary school at 13 and a half, and at 22 still dealing in “and-a-halfs.”
So, the first group walks into the Top Chef kitchen (which as far as anyone can tell is located in the basement of the Alamo). There’s Tom Colicchio, and standing next to him is Emeril Lagasse, looking very serious and not at all like he ever did toothpaste commercials or had a failed sitcom and like he has every right to be there. Before he could get out his first “BAM!” Tom asks the contestants to introduce themselves, an opportunity not lost on Chef Stone. Chef Tyler Stone. He lets us know he has cooked for “many celebrities and politicians and media personalities on a national level.” Many. On a national level. The camera cuts back to Colicchio, who is smirking. Uh oh, Tyler, slow it down.
The introductions continue on down the line, and there are some heavy-hitters in this mostly Chicago-based group. My money is on the Pink Team, consisting of the aforementioned Chris Jones, chef de cuisine at Moto, who’s wearing eyeglasses on his face and sunglasses on his head (and between them, of course, a pink hachimaki), and his sous chef Richie Farina (who’s wearing no glasses at all but a pink bandana in the hachimaki style, which is how a cowboy would do it. We are in Texas, after all). Both headbands are holding back messes of black hair—these guys look fun. Chris Jones adorably thought they’d be working in teams because they kind of already are one, and I would love to sit between these two at a bar drinking whiskey until four in the morning after Saturday night service.
Group one is given the primal cuts of a pig and told to make a feast using just one cut, so a few of the chefs will have to butcher the larger cuts. Most chefs just call out what they want and take it, except for Grayson Schmitz, currently unemployed, who holds a tag that reads ‘tenderloin’ and looks for everyone’s approval on what she’s chosen, even though it’s the only tag left. She wants the tenderloin because “it cooks up faster,” which is everything you want in a meat to prepare in the first challenge in a cooking competition. Everyone knows that “well done” is at least a temperature and at best a double entendre. I don’t have high hopes for Grayson.
The good news for Grayson is that her tenderloin is tucked up in Tyler’s pork chop. Tyler admits that he lacks the basic skill of butchering, because everyone that he cooks for has lots of money, so he just charges them extra to have someone else do his work. BUT this person cuts exactly to his specifications so it’s going to be okay, especially considering that he wrote his own cookbook. In three and a half weeks! “Most people wouldn’t even know where to begin,” he says. I’d start just like you did, Tyler, by finding a self-publishing service on the Internet. “So I know I can slice and dice better than most of these people.” Sure you can, kid.
We leave Tyler the Savant Butcher and head over to Colin’s station. He’s a vegan chef that hasn’t worked with “pig” in ten years. His restaurant has an adjoining yoga studio. Goodbye, Chef Colin. Luckily, Chris Jones of the Pink Team is right next to him and offers to help. Even his knife roll is pink! I love this guy, even though he wears sunglasses on his head and glasses on his face. He’s got decent knife skills, and his hair is awesome.
Tom and Emeril are making the rounds and everything is going just fine for everyone except Grayson, who goes looking for her tenderloin and keeps getting handed random chunks of meat by Tyler, who, for some reason, has grabbed a saw (not kidding) and is just hacking away at this piece of meat. You have to respect your product. You offered to cut this piece of meat for someone else in the kitchen and had no idea what you’re doing. You are a weasel, and you are doing all of this wrong. Tom doesn’t see a tenderloin. Tom sees a weasel.
Tom tells the weasel to pack his knives and go.
BAM! Do not finish cooking your chops, do not ask Tom for a chance. Just pack your knives and go. All of the other chefs are horrified, but, of course, Tyler isn't phased. He’s not phased because he knows where he’s headed. He’s headed “straight to the top.” You’re not going to the top, you’re going away. And I’m thrilled—we’ve already endured two seasons of Marcel.
After the drama dies down, Grayson is stuffing ten ounces of duxelles into her three ounces of tenderloin, and everyone else is finishing up their dishes, including the captain of the Pink Team, Chris Jones, who is making a caramel apple stuffed with pork belly. I’m in love with this person. Vegan Chef is spilling soup all over his plates, which ruins the very fancy spoon-pushes of whatever the hell he made. Not surprisingly, once he's at Judges’ Table, Emeril lets him know pretty much immediately that he didn’t earn his chef coat. BAM! Vegan Chef bows and says “much love to ‘y’all,” which is “namaste,” but in Texan. Thank you for translating.
Most chefs make it through, which is weird, because there are still 19 other chefs waiting for their chance to cook for these culinary powerhouses. Even the ones who don’t get chef coats, like Grayson, make it through, into the dry storage room (which is being called “the bubble” this episode because everything is bigger in Texas).
The second group comes in and there is another Tyler. But really not Tyler, his name is Ty-lör. Ty-lör Boring. He has a great mustache and his first name has a hyphen and an umlaut, so his last name literally has to be “Boring.” He cooks in the Village, obviously. This group also features Dakota Weiss, who’s got tattoos and managed to squeeze both vanilla and cocoa into a savory rabbit dish, some guy named Chuy and the memorable Janine Falvo. When she walked into the Top Chef kitchen, located in the basement of the Alamo, Janine said this totally bizarre thing about how it’s so “breathtaking” and “intimidating” to see Tom, Gail, and Padma standing before her, “… like when you go to a wax museum and then all of a sudden they’re right in front of you.”
The star of the second group, however, is Keith Rhodes. He’s everything that Issac Hayes never knew he was always basing his character in South Park on. He’s Southern and he’s got soul and a great beard and is so jolly. This group has to agree on a protein and each make a dish that features it. Keith cooks at a seafood restaurant, and starts listing all the types of fish that he cooks like he's just rattlin' off ways to cook shrimp. I hope this guy makes it all the way.
They choose rabbit, and the second group’s round is jammed into six minutes because of all of the time Iron Chef Tyler Stone took up in the first half of the hour. I think Janine works with small animals in addition to cooking, because she explains all about the giant “rabbit orgies” and why there’s so many of them. I’m sure the other intricacies of rabbit reproduction she explained were just edited out. I don’t know how well she can cook, but she’s making for some great television. The judges don’t seem to know how well she can cook either, because she ends up on the bubble.
At Judges' Table, Keith says something about being too big to pass out and Tom says something adorable like, “It’s alright, buddy, we’ve got this here XXL chef coat for you.” Watch out, Pink Team. Tom and Keith are eclipsing you with their cutesy repartee. Dakota gets through and so does Ty-lör, along with Chris Crary (whom I’ve not mentioned because he said he wanted to stay on the show because he wants to look at Padma because she’s hot). He made a confit leg of rabbit, which I don’t even understand because they only had an hour.
At show’s end, eleven of the sixteen spots are filled. Next week, the remaining five chef coats will be handed out to any one of the third group’s nine contestants—including Austin’s own Paul Qui of East Side Kings and Uchiko and Andrew Curran of 24 Diner—and whoever is left standing after the disappointing first “Top Chef twist” of “the bubble” finally bursts. Keep your fingers crossed for Janine. I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about large animal husbandry.
Bonnie Stewart will be recapping Top Chef: Texas every Thursday on CultureMap Austin.