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'Top Chef': Chicken Pi-Whatta?

March 13, 2008 |  8:59 am

Already, there is a clear distinction between the chefs and the technicians. This time on “Top Chef,” mere knife-wielders were immediately weeded out from chefs with real culinary know-how. Chicago folks mean business. After a too-easy Quickfire challenge -- competitors were asked to create the toppings for a Chicago staple, the deep-dish pizza -- the real test began. The pizza winners paired up with the first challenge’s “least favorites” and went head-to-head in a battle of the classics. The chefs were asked to take a stab at dishes from the culinary canon: steak au poivre, chicken piccata, shrimp scampi, lasagna, crab cakes, duck a l'orange and the dreaded souffle. And talk about an efficient way to rank the starting 12, always a tough job for these reality competition shows. I liken the challenge to the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts -- no excuses, no explanations, no nonsense. (We can take digs at their personal quirks later -- e.g. at least two contestants are big fans of a curse word that begins with mother -- after we’ve gotten to know them better.)

Running with the leaders in the fourth-season pack are shock-and-awe crew Richard, who impressed the judges (and us) with his crab cake but more so with the ras al hanout-infused smoke that preceded it, and Dale, this season’s resident Marcel, a big talker with what looks like skills to match. (Though, if you ask us, his deconstructed steak au poivre looked as though someone’s pet got to it before the judges. Abstract doesn‘t mean messy, dude.)

Ah, but the judges were most dazzled by the artistes behind simple fare, deftly handled. Nikki’s lasagna, made with her own fresh pasta, and Antonia’s shrimp scampi, hers fancied up a bit with lobster, tomatoes and squash blossoms, received raves for strong flavor but also for their reverence toward the original. Ditto Stephanie’s take on duck a l’orange, given some Asian flare with spring rolls on the side, which remained true to the classic’s orange flavor and crisp skin.

Downright bewildering on the other hand were the competitors who didn’t seem to be familiar with the classics at all! Thirty-year-old sous chef Andrew didn't know how to make mayo. Ryan, who actually claimed he’d been cooking in restaurants since he was 11, turned in a chicken piccata that looked more like something from KFC than the flattened chicken cutlets dressed with lemon, capers and butter that distinguish the original. Zoi and Erik were stuck with souffle, a dessert requiring exacting preparation and cooking time, but both muddled the idea of a light, inflated cake with a soft center; Erik used mashed potatoes as a base and weighted the whole thing down with fried tortilla strips.

And then there was Nimma. Even to the casual viewer, it must have been obvious very early on that the 26-year-old line cook from Atlanta would be packing her knives. She first turned in an unseasoned pizza and then sealed her fate with a poor rendition of shrimp scampi -- an undemanding order dubbed “Shrimp 101” by guest judge Anthony Bourdain -- which she puzzlingly served with a cauliflower flan-turned-scramble.

Last season, the first elimination challenge involved cooking two dishes with exotic proteins such as snake, geoduck and alligator, which let show-offs like Hung boast their far-reaching foodie knowledge. This time around, it was a test of the basics -- essential to making, and more important, understanding, what makes great food. “You have to know the classics to appreciate the newer dishes,” head judge Tom Colicchio told those up for elimination. “How do you come here and compete and not know what a piccata is?” Preach it, Tom.

Only two quibbles with the premiere:

One: A competing couple? No fair! Zoi and Jen out their relationship to the group immediately and we can’t help but wonder why the producers are allowing them to compete. Especially when several challenges are likely to involve teamwork.

And two: Where is Ted Allen? We love Bourdain, of course, and Rocco’s OK, but Ted’s from Chicago! What gives? (At least we can read his thoughts on the premiere here.)

-- Denise Martin