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'Top Chef': How you know someone is going down

June 17, 2010 |  2:30 am

When a couple in a movie remarks, “We’ve never been so happy,” you know with nearly absolute certainty that in the very next minute something like a flaming meteor will smash through their roof and blow them to smithereens. There are similar portents of doom in “Top Chef”: If you hear the food show’s contestants using an ingredient or a cooking method for the first time, you can expect whatever they are making to turn out very, very badly.

So in the first episode of “Top Chef’s” seventh season Wednesday night, when a contestant holds up some frozen pastry dough in the grocery store and remarks, “I’ve never used this brand before, but the New York Times says it’s good,” it’s a clear harbinger that whatever it is he’s trying to assemble (and even when he’s done cooking, the answer isn’t completely clear) the dish is headed south in a hurry.

2“I want to give the judges a piece of who I am,” says John Somerville, who is the chef de cuisine at The Lark in West Bloomfield, MI. Asked like all of the 17 “Top Chef” contestants to present an elimination challenge dish that represents where they are from, Somerville decides to make a maple syrup mousse that (as far as the judges can tell) tastes very little of maple and a whole lot like sugar.

It’s no help, either, that he didn’t even make his own puff pastry dough, which (as judge Gail Simmons snappishly notes) represented a third of his dessert. That Somerville has two James Beard nominations and is considered among the better chefs in the Detroit area either says something troubling about Beard’s selection process or why eating at home might be a good idea in southeastern Michigan.

Although it’s not wholly surprising Somerville was the first contestant instructed to pack his knives and leave Washington, D.C., at least one other cook easily could have been dispatched.

Jacqueline Lombard, a caterer from Brooklyn, inexplicably decided to make a chicken liver terrine with so little fat that it would only cost you a handful of Weight Watchers points. “I decided to go light,” she says, an idea about as nonsensical as plating macaroni and cheese without the cheese. “Top Chef’s” judges, who, in addition to liking a fair amount of salt in their seasonings, have rarely complained about any serving being too rich, trashed Lombard’s concoction, which was both grainy and a ghastly color.  You’d be horrified to find it on the bottom of your shoe, let alone on a plate. That Lombard survived for another round might be a testament to looks: Somerville has a face for radio, while Lombard is a comely blond (she's the leggy one in the red dress above).

The opening episode set up what could be the season’s deciding contest: Angelo Sosa’s cooking versus Angelo Sosa’s cockiness. The chef/owner at New York’s Xie Xie not only won the $20,000-prize Quickfire challenge (roasted chicken wing and thigh with curry onion jam and potato noodles) but also the elimination contest (arctic char with pickled shallots, tapioca and smoked bacon froth).

As remarkable as that showing was, Sosa’s ego was even more impressive. He aspires to be “the first contestant to win every single challenge” of the show’s 29 knife fights. “Everything I do will be outstanding.” As for anyone who dares take him on, “There’s going to be blood on the stage,” Sosa says.

If there are in fact wounds ahead, the “Top Chef” producers can turn to their new sponsor, Dial Nutriskin, which has displaced Glad as the series’ most visible promotional partner. I can hear the waiters now: “Would you like some soap with that?”

-- John Horn

Photo of "Top Chef" contestants: David Geisbrecht / Bravo

Photo of John Somerville in "Top Chef": David Geisbrecht / Bravo