Top Chef is back for thirds, with Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Padma Lakshmi, and new alternating Judge Ted Allen deciding which chef is "top" and which is eliminated. At stake for the fifteen chefs competing this season is $100,000 provided by Glad to kickstart their culinary careers, a feature in Food & Wine magazine, a gourmet dream vacation in the Fench Alps courtesy of Evian, and a showcase at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, as well as the bragging rights to the title Top Chef.
This season is set in Miami. We are introduced to the chefs as they meet each other for the first time at a party held at Casa Casuarina, the former home of fashion designer Gianni Versace. The chefs are Sara Mair of Jamaica (Chef/Fromagier), Southerner Clay Bowen (Sous Chef, Santa Barbara University Club), Joey Paulino (Executive Chef, CafÃ© des Artistes), Dale Levitsky (Chef/Consultant, Cru CafÃ© & Wine Bar), Texan Tre Wilcox (Chef de Cuisine, Abacus), Sara Nguyen (Executive Chef), Hung Huynh (Executive Sous Chef, Guy Savoy), Micah Edelstein (Owner, The Wandering Chefs Caterers), Sandee Birdsong (Executive Chef, Tantra), Lia Bardeen (Executive Sous Chef, Jean-Georges), CJ Jacobson (Private Chef), Howie Kleinberg (Executive Chef, The Food Gang), Casey Thompson (Executive Chef, Shinsei), Brian Malarkey (Executive Chef, Oceanaire), and Camille Becerra (Executive Chef/Owner, Paloma).
As the contestants are introducing themselves to each other over an exquisite buffet, Tom and Padma walk in and welcome them officially to Top Chef in Miami. Then the two drop the bombshell- the party is over, and it's time for their first QuickFire Challenge!Consternation is seen on the faces of many of the competitors, but there is no time to bemoan their fates. Most of them are familiar with their ingredients, since they have been grazing on them for the last half hour. Their Challenge is to create an amuse-bouche out of the appetizers that are left on the tables. There is still more than enough to choose from, including fruits and veggies, meats, seafood and cheeses, as well as various sauces and liquors. They have ten minutes to create their dish and only have the plates and plastic utensils that were supplied for the buffet to work with.
The chefs get to work, and soon it's time for Tom and Padma to sample their creations. Howie combined poached shrimp with heirloom tomatoes & champagne vinaigrette, and Micah presents them with what she calls "Tuscan Sushi Revisited," consisting of Italian ham wrapped around a fig flavored with balsamic dressing. Dale used a tenderloin of roast beef with bleu cheese, radish and sea salt, while Clay's offering is a fruit gazpacho served in a hollowed out apple. Sara M. chose to do an oyster with pineapple and smoked salmon; Hung's dish is hamachi with creamy egg rice, grapes, chili sauce, olives, and pesto vinaigrette. Tre gives the judges hamachi as well, but his dish utilized avocado, strawberries and champagne.
When asked to name the best and worst dishes from the QuickFire, Tom begins with his three least favorites. He found Dale's bleu cheese too strong for his beef, and Clay's gazpacho couldn't really be considered an amuse-bouche, though it tasted all right. Tre was the third, because his use of straight champagne rather than using it in a vinaigrette wasn't acidic enough to compliment the hamachi. Then Tom moves on to his top three- Micah, Sara M., and Hung. He named Micah's dish as his favorite, because he felt it had balance and personality. It's an important win, giving her immunity in the first Elimination Challenge.
From there the chefs are sent to check out their new digs at the Fountainbleu Resort, where they will be sharing an enormous penthouse suite. Once there, they hang out and relax. Clay is very vocal about his QuickFire failure, and in an interview says that he is trying to win this for his father, who was also a chef, but took his own life when the stress of the job got to be too much for him. Clay fears that he's already in trouble, having been singled out for his lack of knowledge in the QuickFire.
The next morning they all wake up ready to face their next Challenge. When they arrive at the Top Chef Kitchen they see a table covered with a multitude of exotic proteins. Padma welcomes them to their new place of work, and tells them that the selection includes proteins from both land and sea, and that they will be expected to create a "Surf and Turf" pairing as an entreÃ©. Padma continues the briefing, telling them that there are only two portions of each type of protein, and they will have to draw knives to determine who gets to choose first.
After they pick their proteins, each chef is given $30 and thirty minutes to shop for additional ingredients. They are also told that they have unlimited access to everything in the Top Chef Pantry. They will have two hours to work before they must present their creations to the full panel of judges. Chefs who drew numbers 1-8 cook in the first group, and chefs 9-15 are in the second. Tom caps their brief by telling them that their Guest Judge will be Anthony Bourdain of the Travel Channel's No Reservations. Many of the chefs consider the shopping trip to the Fresh Market a challenge in itself since none of them are familiar with the large store's layout. While in the produce section Micah gives some words of encouragement to Clay, much to the annoyance of Joey.
Back at the Top Chef Kitchen, group one, consisting of Sandee, Joey, Sara N., Howie, Clay, Casey, Lia, and CJ start to prep. Most of the chefs move quickly, but Howie takes his time to make sure that everything is up to his high standards before he moves on to the next task. As time winds down Tom comes in to check on everyone's progress, beginning with Clay. Tom voices his concern that Clay's choice of boar chops and scorpionfish isn't as exotic as many of the other possibilities and that he might be criticized by Anthony Bourdain because of it. Clay acknowledges that might happen but is confident that his flavors will win even the toughest judges over. Tom moves on to Lia, who has wild boar chops and sea urchin. Tom suggests she butcher her chops more cleanly than they were done and she gets straight to it. He visits Howie who also has sea urchin, as well as frog legs. Time gets short, and all begin plating their food. Everyone finishes in time except Howie, who fails to get his frog legs on the plate before time expires. Now he must take his "Surf Without Turf" to the Judges' Table.
At the Judges' Table Padma introduces Gail Simmons and Anthony Bourdain to the competitors. Joey presents his dish first, a Seared Buffalo Ribeye, Grilled Scorpionfish with Mediterranean Salad and Potato Chips. Next is Sara N., who gives them Razor Clams with Sweet Corn Chowder and Buffalo Ribeye with Black Truffle Sauce. Clay prepared for the Judges Pan-Seared Wild Boar Chop & Cornbread Stuffing with Scorpionfish. Lia's offering is a Crusted Rack of Boar with Sesame Chili & Lentils, and a Sea Urchin Panna Cotta. Casey made a Chicken Fired Alligator Steak and Braised Greens with Razor Clams. CJ presents Ostrich Tartare with Horseradish and Spider Crabs with Anise and Tomato Broth. Sandee gives the Judges Cajun Fried Frog Legs and Spider Crab Jambalaya. Then at last it's Howie's turn, and he places before the Judges his Sea Urchin and Chanterelle Risotto, explaining that his frog legs didn't make it onto his plate in time.
The judges dig in to the various dishes. They like Lia's presentation and Sandee's frog legs. Tom appreciates that CJ combined his two proteins into a single dish. Howie's risotto is deemed to be quite good, but Anthony is flabbergasted that Howie failed to get his frog legs on his plate. Then they try Clay's offering, and everyone agrees that it's terrible- the boar is overcooked, tough, and badly seasoned.
It's group two's turn in the kitchen, and Brian, Dale, Hung, Tre, Micah, Camille, and Sara M. get to work. Brian and Dale seem somewhat daunted by their tasks but forge on ahead gamely, while Hung and Camille are visibly confident. Tom makes his second walk-through and visits Hung first. He listens with interest as Hung explains how he plans to make his black chicken edible. Next Tom moves on to Tre, and Tom challenges Tre to pick up his game after his weak showing in the QuickFire. With less than five minutes to go the chefs are plating their dishes. Brian fails to get one element of his creation on his plate, but he at least has both proteins represented.
The chefs present their dishes to the panel. Tre has prepared Roasted Ostrich Fillet with Heirloom Tomato Risotto and Abalone Sauce. Brian playfully names his dishes "The Hair of Medusa Eyes and Fries" with Lime Aoli, and Sea Eel, which was missing a Miso and Blood Orange Salad that he was unable get on his plate in time, and an "Electric Venom Soup" combining both the rattlesnake and eel with Asian flavors to compliment them. Next is Camille's Spicy Maple Abalone Fritter and Pan-Seared Kangaroo with Herb Sauce and Salad. Sara M. has created Braised Black Chicken and Geoduck Ceviche with Cucumber Ribbons. Hung has also chosen black chicken and geoduck as his proteins, but he presents Slow Cooked Black Chicken and Raw Geoduck with Fennel. Micah brought three dishes to the Table- Seared Kangaroo on Sweet Potato Pudding, Poached Egg Topped with Monkfish Liver, and Ostrich Carpachio with Monkfish Liver. Last of all is Dale, who chose to prepare a Mustard Seared Alligator Tail and Monkfish Liver Braised with Apple Hash.
The judges lift their forks for a second time, and Tom raves about Tre's dish. Anthony in turn gives kudos to Hung's. Gail is not so fortunate in the quality of the dish she samples, which is Dale's Alligator Tail. She finds it tough, and Tom has to agree. Then Anthony knocks Brian's dishes for being "bar food."
Preparing to call the night's best chefs before them, the judges agree that this season started very well, with great imagination and skill demonstrated by most of the competitors. Anthony reveals his two favorites, which also seem to be everyone else's, and Padma goes to get Tre and Hung. With the two chefs standing before them, Anthony says that both competitors were worthy of victory- Hung's only weakness was a lack of color on his plate, and Tre's was a little conservative. But only one can win the Challenge, and tonight the laurels are awarded to Tre. He is congratulated by all, and is given a bonus gift of personally signed copies of each of Anthony's many books, as well as an invitation to go drinking with the celebrity chef the next time they are both in New York.
But now the top two have the unpleasant duty of telling Howie, Brian, Clay, and Dale that it's their turn to go before the judges. Padma asks Brian why he thinks he's in the bottom four. He says that he got too complicated with his three different dishes, but Padma points out that his decision to deep-fry his snake and eel was taking the easy way out, since anything tastes good fried. He second guessed too much, and it got him in trouble. Then Padma asks the same question of Dale, and he says that his lack of knowledge about the texture of his proteins handicapped him, and his execution was thereby flawed. He tried to play it safe, and his strategy backfired. Next it's Howie's turned to be grilled by the judges, and his mistake is obvious to everyone- he only served half of his dish. Tom asks how he could have possibly failed to get his food on the plate on time, and Howie says that he decided to re-crisp his frog legs in the fryer and just ran out of time. Anthony Bourdain takes him to task, but Howie counters with a quotation from Anthony's own book to support his decision, and Anthony is forced to back off somewhat. Lastly Clay is asked about his performance, and Clay is completely bewildered by his placement in the bottom group. Tom points out the fact that Clay cooked his boar chops too early and cut them too thin, which made them incredibly tough. Clay says he stands behind his dish, but then acknowledges the faults that the judges found with it.
Padma sends them away so that they can make their final decision. Brian is criticized for his choice to fry his proteins, but everyone agrees they tasted fine- "There was not a single egregious food crime on that plate." Dale was in over his head with an unfamiliar meat, but made some good decisions along the way, and just as importantly, he seemed to learn from his mistakes, though in Tom's opinion "his taste level is a little bit suspect, here." Clay is praised for having a good concept but faulted heavily on his execution as well as his waffling in front of the judges. Howie left something off his plate, and there was no excuse for that.
Padma asks which is the greater crime- leaving something off the plate or serving something that never should have been put on it? They call the four back and sum up their failures. Clay's dish was nearly inedible, and despite claiming to stand behind it, he didn't. Howie should have gotten his frog legs on the plate, since this isn't a restaurant, where you don't serve food until it's completely ready, but a competition with a ticking clock. Brian is criticized for turning haute cuisine into bar food. Dale made a bad call on the preparation of his alligator tail. But in the end only one will be asked to pack his knives and go, and this week it is Clay. He quietly says goodbye to everyone, sad to be leaving so soon, but knowing inside that he will be the chef that would make his father proud.