Welcome to season 11 of Top Chef! I’ve got some big hopes for this season, primarily because it’s based in New Orleans, the Big Easy, one of the country’s best eatin’ towns and an overall amazing city. So let’s git rollin’!
We began by meeting the chefs: Aaron Cuschieri, Benedetto Bartolotta, Bret Pelaggi, Brian Huskey, Carlos Gaytan, Carrie Mashaney, Janine Booth, Jason Cichonski, Justin Devillier, Louis Maldonado, Michael Sichel, Nicholas Elmi, Nina Compton, Patricia Vega, Ramon Bojorquez, Sara Johannes, Shirley Chung, Stephanie Cmar, and Travis Masar, names that will most likely take on a bit more meaning in the weeks to come.
Tom and Padma made their grand entrance, and Tom implored them to tap into the spirit of New Orleans before Padma told them that they’d be heading right into the Elimination Challenge. The chefs were tasked to create a dish based on a Louisiana delicacy (turtle, alligator, and frogs) in the Top Chef Kitchen, then would have two hours the next day to finish it up, in a swamp, making sure there were enough portions for more than 100 people. The two New Orleans chefs who won the Web series "Padma’s Picks," including the executive chef at Galatoire’s (Sichel), were granted immunity.
They went shopping, then headed back to the kitchen with two hours to cook. The kitchen was a mess: People cut themselves, people added their food to other people’s pots, people tripped, people tried to figure out how to cook turtle. Surprisingly, they all seemed to get along and not freak out too much, most likely because they were in shock. Tom walked in and chatted with some of the chefs, and seemed a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of contestants. Don’t worry, Tom, the herd will thin down soon enough.
Emeril Lagasse made his first appearance of the season the following morning, handing out beignets and chatting up the chefs. A charming fellow, that Emeril.
They headed over to the challenge site, which was more of a campsite, where they were confronted by piles of some-assembly-required materials, from tables to grills. They cooked, the alarm went off, and pontoon boats full of guests, and judges, pulled up.
Here’s what 13 of the chefs served:
Bene: Turtle croquette with cauliflower purée and shiitake mushrooms
Nina: Curried turtle meatball, chayote slaw, and chutney with raisins
Janine: Bacon and alligator confit with tomato jam and lemon frisée
Aaron: Pickled eggplant with turtle confit and turtle ragù with tagliatelle pasta
Shirley: Turtle soup with goji berry and Chinese broth
Carrie: Poached frog legs with oyster emulsion and cold zucchini salad
Carlos: Alligator rillettes with fennel and pickled red onion relish
Michael: Fried alligator with sauce piquant and slaw
Sara: Deep-fried alligator with smoked chiles, sweet-and-sour sauce, and pickled vegetables
Ramon: Braised turtle with Thai dashi
Patty: Cajun style alligator with yucca purée
Jason: Frog leg croquette with roasted eggplant, fennel salad, and pickled cherry purée
Stephanie: Frog leg butter confit with spinach and watercress purée
After service the cheftestants headed back to the stew room, where they were able to watch the judges deliberate on TV. Aaron’s pasta was a least favorite, and Patty’s alligator wasn't treated well. Carlos’ rillettes' toast was soggy, and Ramon’s dashi had no flavor. Bene’s croquette was also tasteless.
Carrie, Nina, and Sara were called into the judges’ room, where they were told that their dishes were on top. I’m not certain, but I believe this is the first time that a premiere episode of Top Chef had only women’s dishes on top. Nina, a native of St. Lucia whose father used to be the island nation’s prime minister, won. She was tasked with sending back Patty, Aaron, and Ramon to the judges' table.
Aaron shouldn’t have decided to make pasta, which was mushy and poorly conceived. Emeril thought Ramon’s dashi, which he added ice to in order to cool it down, was "completely bland" and watery, and he admitted that it was a total failure. Patty, a home cook who attempted to serve a roulade, ended up with tough chunks of alligator meat, and was in tears during judging.
In the end, Ramon the fighter was the first to be kicked off, thanks to a dashi that he head-scratchingly decided to water down with ice.
This season looks like it’s primed to be a good one. It started with a no-frills elimination challenge, which was a breath of fresh air after convoluted previous ones, which involved everything from competing for a slot in the show to mass eliminations.
And that was definitely a glimpse of Dr. John we got in the season preview.