On last night’s Season 14 “Top Chef” premiere set in Charleston, the knowledge that half the cheftestants were returning veterans—a cohort that includes Shirley Chung from right here in O.C., a formidable, and favorite, competitor in Season 11—should have given us a hint that there were other shakeups to the show’s now-familiar formula.
Still, I was surprised when it became clear that only the eight first-timers would participate in the season’s inaugural Quickfire challenge. Rookie, by the way, isn’t an accurate descriptor for the actual and work experience of most of the new group, who own restaurants and have trained under big-name chefs, including two who cite Michael Mina as a former employer. One new face, Jim Smith, has the curious title of executive chef of the state of Alabama, and cops to major “Star Trek” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fandom, while hastening to add he’s a big food nerd, too. He’d better be, right?
A Quickfire win would confer immunity in the next elimination challenge, always a big deal, but losing didn’t spell the absolute end, yet: the loser would face a later loser in a sudden-death cookoff. On “Top Chef,” the path to really, truly O-U-T is convoluted—indeed, “Last Chance Kitchen” is back, too, making the round-robin even more crazy.
Presented with a whole chicken, the chefs were charged with making as many, or as few, dishes that they could conceive of and execute in one hour. Several chefs, disappointingly, presented only a single plate, including the winner—only his wasn’t disappointing: The aforementioned Alabaman, Jim Smith, Southern-fried the chicken heart, liver, and kidneys, and served them with bitter lettuces, aioli, and strawberry vinaigrette. It looked and sounded delicious, and the judges loved the flavors. Padma called the dish bold, which it was, both in relative minimalism and in showcasing often-overlooked tidbits. Still, all those chickens, unused… I’d love to see a “Top Chef” challenge rewarding nose-to-tail use of an animal.
So it wasn’t a surprise, by now, that Shirley and her fellow returnees would be cooking as a discrete group, and the choice of regional staple shrimp and grits as their dish was predictable. This is so not a complaint—whether made New Age or trad, shrimp and grits is one of my favorite dishes, so this was good news to me. What was surprising: It was another Quickfire! Mirroring the rookies’, the veterans’ contest would have the prize of immunity, as well as send its loser to sudden-death. Chung’s “Bowl of Hug,” a chawanmushi-type custard take on shrimp and grits, seemed like a winner to me, and as one of the top three, came close—but no immunity. No matter: Orange County’s own is off to a very strong start. The win went to Brooke Williamson, for her sophisticated, shrimp-encased Scotch egg. The loser was swaggering, but talented, chef John Tesar, but he easily bested Gerald Sombright in the sudden-death cookoff, and not entirely because of the truffle Tesar produced from his bag of tricks. We’ll see how Sombright does on “Last Chance Kitchen,” the other other sub-elimination.
(You can read all my “Top Chef”-related coverage here.)