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'Top Chef': Separating the cooks from the chefs

November 13, 2008 |  7:35 am

ApplesLike Bravo's “Project Runway,” there is just no way to fake your way through “Top Chef.” Can’t sew? Nina Garcia will run you off the runway. Can’t brunoise an apple? Start packing those knives.

Contestants on these shows either know what they’re doing, or they should not be contestants at all.

Now there's no question that the 17 initial competitors in this, the fifth season of “Top Chef,” are capable of pulling together incredible meals. (I have, at least, that much faith in the producers.) But cooking well and cooking well under pressure (as in a restaurant-style setting) are different talents. What I’d appreciate, as a longtime fan and loyal viewer of the show, is for the casting folks to do us all a favor and pick people who can handle a few curve balls.

The premiere episodes of the last few seasons of "Top Chef" have disappointed in this very regard; they've been suspense-free. I’m still scratching my head over how the audition tapes of Lauren and Patrick made it past the recycle pile. Neither were characters who popped (not that Lauren had any time to pop; she was cut in the first 15 minutes). The idea should be to get personalities with skills, as is the case with Stefan, the night’s winner in both the "Quickfire" and "Elimination" challenges, a puffed-up chef from Finland eager to take down his Stateside competition while debating the difference between vinaigrette and dressing. I feel like I’ll be in the minority when I say this, but I like him already.

There are also no excuses -- certainly not after four seasons -- for going on  “Top Chef” and doing something that will immediately get you drop-kicked out of the competition. I’m not even talking about knowing how to come up with 2 cups of expertly diced apples. Although (again, poor Lauren) if you're slower than 16 other people doing it, you won't last long anyway.

I'm talking about what the judges prize most: execution, execution, execution. So, dear producers, why bother casting someone like Patrick? (Head judge Tom Colicchio even echoes this sentiment.) Have we forgotten adorable but inexperienced Candice from Season 1? She was also a still-in-school culinary student. She was booted, not because the flavors of her dishes tasted bad but because she attempted the impossible: a microwaveable quiche. Patrick gets dropped off in Chinatown and picks up some noodles he says he's never worked with, figuring he’ll boil them because that’s what you do to noodles. (I’ll stop short of going into the many different ways dried noodles are handled and just say that they don’t all get boiled.) That’s not only inexperience, that’s  lack of common sense.

It’s like watching clueless Nimma from last season. It’s like re-living crazy Clay all over again, except in Clay’s case, he was at least colorful. There’s little guessing involved when people who would never in a million years win “Top Chef” are included. Let that trend stop here.

The Elimination challenge was interesting enough: Pairs of contestants were sent to seven different ethnic neighborhoods to get inspiration (and ingredients) for their dishes. They were limited only by their imagination and know-how; the task was far less demanding than last season’s battle of the classics and definitely less intimidating than Season 3’s exercise in exotic proteins.

But let’s take a look at what the judges had to say about some of the losing dishes. Ariane’s farro? Undercooked. The lamb in Richard’s lamb sliders? Overcooked. Fabio’s pork? Needs salt. Carla’s slaw? Needs salt. Melissa’s steak sauce? Needs salt. Patrick’s noodles? Cooked incorrectly.

Some of these mistakes can be corrected simply by tasting the food before it goes to the judges, which,  again, is something that they complain about every season. But I'm willing to take into account first-time jitters and suspend further judgment until next week. I did appreciate seeing Fabio, in the season preview, telling his teammates to taste every *bleeping* thing on their plates. You tell 'em, Fabio!

It’s also too early to start rooting with 15 contestants remaining, but if I had to choose the standouts besides Stefan thus far, I’d stand behind Hosea, who is quiet but could be one of the more sophisticated players this season, having turned in a high-end preparation of a trio of fish. I’ll also be keeping my eye on Leah, who got kudos from Colicchio on her scallops in the Quickfire and for her Italian-style fish with (correctly cooked) farro risotto.

Less impressive was Radhika, who said that because she’s Indian people expect her only to make heavily spiced Indian food; she then proceeded to make an apple chutney in the first challenge! I’m also not (yet) fond of big talker Jeff, who cares more about his hair than the fact that he turned in one ugly plate of rice and beans.

What are your thoughts on the first episode? Did you like weeding out the weak first with a skills challenge? (I hope they still do the skills relay later on.) Should Ariane have gone home before Patrick? Are you annoyed by Stefan’s arrogance? Let's discuss in the comments below.

-- Denise Martin

Related:
Complete "Top Chef" coverage on Showtracker.

Photo credit: NBC Universal

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