Amar Santana of Broadway and soon-to-open Vaca more than merely survived the initial challenges of his first “Top Chef” outings last week—he distinguished himself as one to watch, for his fellow cheftestants and for viewers without an O.C. bias. Amar’s definitely got the chops, but this was no mean feat—I got the feeling that host chef Tom Colicchio wanted us to know that the caliber of cooking would be high this season when he asked how many of the 17 cheftestants were executive chefs (a whopping 14 are executive chefs or chef-owners). Several are James Beard nominees as well. Colicchio said the show “has produced such amazing talent—a lot of our chefs have gone on to own multiple restaurants, won awards…. This is probably the strongest group we’ve ever brought in, but you have a lot to live up to.” Noted, gauntlet thrown down, etc. On to the cooking.
Season 13 has a California road trip theme, and in the first episode’s mise en place race, the ingredients to prep were meant to represent our state: artichokes to trim, asparagus to peel, chickens to break down, oranges to supreme, and eggs to separate. Amar dispatched 40 eggs without blinking (or breaking a yolk). Next, his sherry-glazed pork belly meatball with celeriac purée in the quickfire wowed, but he was edged out of first place, and, worse, immunity in the next elimination challenge, by a crudo dish from Jeremy Ford, chef de cuisine at a Jean-Georges restaurant in Miami. I like raw fish as much as the next person who likes raw fish, but Amar’s dish had way more make to it—as in actual cooking. He was clearly robbed. Maybe Padma agrees. She tweeted during the show’s airing:
Porkaholic Amar proves that not all meatballs are created equal. That dish was so yummy!! I wanted more
— Padma Lakshmi (@PadmaLakshmi) December 3, 2015
Amar’s take on the first eps: “Everything in the show is new to me. I haven’t seen any of it until the viewers have as well, so it’s really exciting. The first two episodes really showcase who I am as a chef and as a person and that’s all I want people to know. I am very happy so far.”
The second half of the premiere made excellent use of multi-culti Los Angeles, sending teams to four distinct neighborhoods where, with the mentorship of a local chef, they created a one-night-only pop-up. Amar was assigned to the Persian team, a serendipitous slot for an Orange County chef—we know from Persian food here, don’t we? At Taste of Tehran in Westwood, the team picked chef-owner Saghar Fanisalek’s brain about traditional flavor profiles, and the respectful research paid off big time when they won. Amar’s incredible-sounding vadouvan-spiced grilled carrots with cilantro pesto impressed all the judges, but the surprise of a fantastic dessert from team member Marjorie Meek-Bradley (dessert as a category usually spells doom on “Top Chef”) meant he didn’t get the top spot AGAIN. Grrrr. The vegan team—others were Korean and Mexican—committed some shocking crimes against innocent vegetables and were rightly castigated by the judges, including guest Ludo Lefebvre.
Onward. Next, beautiful Santa Barbara, of which Amar says, “It was my first time in Santa Barbara even though I’ve lived in O.C. for 8 years,” gleefully adding, “We’ll be using one of my favorite ingredients of all time!” I suppose it could be a reality TV red herring, but I’m betting on the uni shown in the photo and in the preview video.
So set up your TV tray or set the DVR and practice your GO AMAR: “Top Chef” season 13 episode 3 is on Bravo tonight at 10 p.m.
(You can read my earlier Amar Santana “Top Chef” post here.)
UPDATE: The ingredient was indeed uni, and Amar escaped elimination and abides. Roll on, ep 4!