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'Top Chef: Las Vegas' premiere: Seitan worship and vice versa

August 20, 2009 |  7:07 am

From the moment I heard "seitan," I figured Jennifer Zavala was toast. Seitan is a meat substitute made of fermented compressed soybean, and so it should come as no surprise to those who read my "Top Chef Masters" diatribe about The Many Dietary Restrictions of Zooey Deschanel that I immediately thought Jennifer was doomed.

Having watched every season of "Top Chef," it's safe to say that judges want their ingredients real, organic when possible...recognizable. No one wants to hear, "What is this?" when Tom Colicchio's got something in his mouth. Not to mention that all four are carnivores and we've all seen them go gaga for all manner of red meat. Why use seitan when you can use the real thing? As the night's elimination challenge winner and James Beard award nominee Kevin Gillespie put it: "Nobody likes that stuff. It's yuck!"

But fine. Maybe if Jennifer had done something tasty with the seitan, things might have been different. (It is possible too. For LA folk, M Cafe de Chaya makes a very good Carolina-Style Barbeque Seitan Sandwich.) Instead of thinking, "I knew it," I might instead be writing about her stroke of genius using seitan, a unique gamble that pulled her ahead of the pack. 

But in the end it was a close race for last place Wednesday night between Jennifer's misuse of seitan and Michigan chef Eve Oronoff, whose curry cream with shrimp, scallops and English peas possibly got worse comments than Jennifer's chile relleno. Gail called it unrefined, and Padma said it reminded her of a "vegan bar midnight special." That wasn't a compliment! Me? I think Eve's use of scallops and shrimp, however "sad" they were on her plate, saved her. Better an underwhelming shrimp than a yuck chunk of seitan. Laurine Wickett, who made the doughnut holes that Wolfgang Puck compared to golf balls, must be thanking her lucky stars she was put in the same group as Jennifer.

Speaking of being saved, anyone else want to see a stricter enforcement of rules next time? For the elimination challenge, contestants were asked to create a dish based on a vice of theirs. That means something bad, and most of the chefs went with hard, brown liquors. Ron Duprat, an executive chef from Haiti who spent 27 days at sea to get to the States, did not understand what a "vice" was. It was not a deliberate error, but how does that excuse the fact that he didn't follow the directions?

Sure, the judges enjoyed his fish, but something tells me that his explanation earned him some extra points. His dish was inspired by the memories of his dangerous voyage out of Haiti. Tom told him later, "We're happy you made it through to be here with us." Or maybe the judges are just very pro halibut, a fish that also earned raves for Jennifer Carroll and Michael Isabella also. Still, I say, not a vice!

Still getting to know the remaining 16 contestants, but I'll be rash and call out my top three picks to go all the way anyways: Gillespie; Carroll, who won the Quickfire with her clam ceviche; and Isabella. Will Vegas' signature excess -- not exploited too much in the premiere -- throw them a curve ball? I can only hope.

Who are your early picks? Did Jennifer deserve to go home over Eve? Should Ron have gotten a pass even though he didn't cook a dish based on one of his vices? Sound off, please.

And for another take on Wednesday's premiere, check out the review by Times TV critic Robert Lloyd (who also wrote about the debut of Food Network's "What Would Brian Boitano Make?")

-- Denise Martin