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Checking In On Top Chef: New Orleans

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Emeril seems a bit excited for Top Chef to be in New Orleans. (All photos courtesy of Bravo TV)

Emeril seems a bit excited for Top Chef to be in New Orleans. (Photos courtesy of Bravo TV)

To begin, a programming note. It’s been two months since we’ve been Checking The Score, which is clearly far too long to recover from a Pirates season that was both exhilarating in the best ways and a reminder of what a time suck following a decent baseball team is. That hiatus is over – a preview for what should be a wildly unpredictable NBA season is on the way along with some NFL coverage, a plea to put baseball’s many unwritten rules and narratives out to pasture and a check-in on Showtime’s diverging dramas Homeland and Masters of Sex.

But first, now seems like a good time to check in on the best reality show on TV, Bravo’s Top Chef. Much in the way that mediocre pizza is still pretty damn good, a so-so season of Top Chef still laps any other reality competition and chews up any fellow TV food fare like Guy Fieri disgustingly getting down with a 15-inch tubed meat lasagna.

Padma confronts such tough decisions as "Do I flirt with Tom?"

Padma confronts such tough decisions as “Do I flirt with Tom?”

Is this season of Top Chef, the show’s 11th installment, more than mediocre? At four episodes in, it’s still a bit early to judge. There are still 14 contestants remaining – 15 if one counts the reigning champ of Last Chance Kitchen, which we’ll tackle later – so even putting a name with a face is no small feat at this point. Some of the cheftestants haven’t had much of a chance to let their personality shine through yet on camera, though that’s often a rather foreboding indicator that they’ll be permanently off camera sooner rather than later.

The early feel is that the top-end talent of other seasons – Chicago, Las Vegas, the All-Stars edition and even last year’s Seattle – isn’t quite there, but the location is doing them plenty of favors. There may be no more ideal setting for a season of Top Chef than New Orleans, where Emeril’s Cajun Belly has its own spot at Judges’ Table and there’s a different Creole classic and celebrated chef to lead the crew through the city’s culinary history each week.

I can’t promise a recap each and every week for the rest of the way – a Mediterranean cruise will interrupt that possibility – but CTS will be checking in regularly from now until a half-in-the-bag Padma announces the winner at the final Judges’ Table. To start, a far-too-premature power ranking of the remaining 15 cheftestants through four episodes featuring two Quickfires and five eliminations.


15. Bene

Oh, poor Bene, whose full name is Benedetto Bartolotta. Since you clearly can’t tell what Bene’s heritage is from his name alone, he’s Italian, which led to him creating a ginger tomato sauce for Episode 4’s elimination challenge of creating a team menu inspired by the Vietnamese influence in the New Orleans shrimping industry. To be fair, the idea belonged to the wonderfully obnoxious Travis, whose boyfriend is Vietnamese – by proxy making Travis the world’s foremost expert on Southeast Asian cuisine – but the execution was all Bene’s. My family has some Irish roots, but you wouldn’t see me tossing colcannon into a bowl of ramen with my signature Guinness soy sauce if tasked with making a Japanese dish. Fortunately, when Bene’s eliminated he can fall back on his nomination as one of the 10 sexiest chefs in New York City. Sadly, that sounds less impressive when one discovers the other nine nominees each work 15 hours a week at the Times Square Sbarro.

Top Chef - Season 11

14. Michael

Bene honestly seems like a pretty nice guy who’s just a bit out of his element in Creole country, whereas New Orleans chef Michael is a New York native who seems like a douchier version of Sideshow Bob on a weekly basis. Michael overcame cancer at age 26, which is awesome, but he hasn’t been able to get out of his own way on Top Chef, consistently acting like he’s Emeril’s brother in local expertise without being able to measure up on the plate. He’s the lone chef remaining who has yet to be either on the top of bottom at Judges’ Table, but his personality seems to be getting on the nerves of some of the other contestants. That would be fine if he’d worry more about the quality of his food and less about acting like a tour guide.


13. Patty

Patty very well could have gone home in either of the first two weeks, struggling to cook gator or produce a gumbo that measured up with some of the more creative dishes while also producing a tuna slider during Episode 2’s food truck challenge that seemed to make Tom Colicchio visibly angry. In Episode 4, she was given the gift of being grouped with the right team. The other four chefs in her group are arguably four of the best in the competition, and at Judges’ Table, each was singled out with good reason. To Patty’s credit, she managed to stand upright without falling for the duration of the segment.


12. Sara

It’s pretty cool that the real, live Rosie the Riveter earned a spot on Top Chef disguised as a former theater major from the University of Minnesota. And man, does Sara ever treat this show like it’s an audition for the almost certainly upcoming Bravo brainchild Hipster Wives. Her food hadn’t been half-bad until she took the heat for the Green team’s dreadful rice in Episode 4, a mistake that would have sent her packing if not for the presence of Bene’s Vietnamese marinara, Travis’ overconfidence and Janine’s overcooked shrimp. Speaking of experts on Vietnamese cuisine…


11. Travis

… Or, really, cuisine in general. Travis’ Bravo bio tells us that he’s traveled all over the world and cooked in places such as Alaska, Wales, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Vermont, Czech Republic, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam. So watch out when we get to the inevitable Top Chef: New Orleans “Make your own maple syrup” Quickfire, at which point Travis will tell us that he used to date a maple tree and was really good at extracting sap, which will be followed by a bedeviling smile and a cleverly inserted sound bite of that really obnoxious voice that says “ONLY ON BRAVO!”


10. Carlos

Carlos is the executive chef and owner of Mexique, which is a short El ride away from me and has received some rave reviews since opening in 2008. Clearly the man knows his way around a tomatillo. But he’s struggled in this environment, seeming extraordinarily out of his element while cooking anything but Mexican food. His overcooked and underseasoned trout nearly got him booted in Episode 3, while his fish head soup with pineapple in the Vietnamese challenge lacked acid, was too sweet, and according to guest judge Eddie Huang, “tasted like minestrone.” Maybe he was just trying to keep up with Bene’s Italian theme? The man can cook, but I’m not sure if his Mexican influences are a help or a hindrance at this point.


9. Louis

We got a moment with Louis on the phone talking to his wife in Episode 3, which is either a good indication that a chef will be sticking around for a while or one that means he might be a goner in that very episode. The latter was the case that day, when his trout was undersmoked and underseasoned in the Quickfire and his spice mixture in the elimination challenge – the basis for his entire team’s Commander’s Palace recreations – was so bad that it nearly got him sent home. At the same time, he comes off as reasonable and confident, so perhaps he’s getting his weak moments out of the way early? If only that was the case for…


8. Janine

The Aussie bombshell who was both, um, camera friendly and seemed to have the culinary chops to at least come close to matching her looks took the fall for the Green team’s dreadful performance in Episode 4. Has there been a crueler twist of fate on Top Chef than an Aussie Barbie failing to cook shrimp? But here’s where we delve into conspiracy theory territory. As you may recall from Top Chef: Seattle, Kristen Kish won four of the first 10 elimination challenges before being unceremoniously bounced and having to earn her way back in via Bravo’s ploy at drawing viewers to its website, Last Chance Kitchen. Guess what? It worked. I hadn’t been going there after each episode prior to that, content to at some point catch up later with whichever second-tier chef worked his or her way back into the competition through Top Chef’s show within the show. But the second Kristen got unfairly bounced for a mistake made by professional annoyance Josie, I was in for the duration. And she, of course, worked her way back into the competition before winning the whole damn thing.

So here we are, four episodes into this somewhat slow-starting season, with LCK coming off an Emmy win for Multiplatform Storytelling (yep, that’s a thing). What’s the best way to get viewers to check it out? Kick the eye candy to the sideshow, where she’ll no doubt have a lengthy run – she already dispatched Philadelphia bad boy Jason and the other three eliminated contestants – before getting a chance at redemption. Is it shady? Yes . Is it unsavory? Certainly? Will I be watching LCK as long as that Sheila is still around? Absolutely.


7. Brian

Brian has probably received the least amount of screen time of anyone thus far. If there was no photo associated with this name, would you have ANY idea who he is? But he seems to have a versatile touch, making a well-received shrimp and pork belly spring roll in Episode 4 after an excellent beef and pork curry empanada from Episode 2, and might just be able to fly under the radar for a while. Also, Bravo’s website lists his favorite fall dessert as a Nutella brioche bread pudding and drunken banana ice cream, which sounds like something I would eat until I got sick.


6. Shirley

Shirley can come across as a bit of a control freak, but that served her well in the Vietnamese challenge, where she took the reins and steered her admittedly talented team to a group and individual victory. She’s worked for Jose Andres, Thomas Keller, Mario Batali and Guy Savoy (read: not Fieri), so clearly a number of world-renowned chefs have seen a lot of potential in her. She won the Episode 3 Quickfire with a rice congee with shirred egg, soy sauce and sesame oil, but she’s more than just Chinese cuisine, having been trained in classic French and Italian styles. If you want a darkhorse pick to win – can we have a darkhorse after 4 weeks? – Shirley is it.


5. Stephanie

Stephanie is back for revenge after Emeril denied her a spot in Top Chef: Seattle last season because her cauliflower wasn’t “cauliflowery,” and she had to watch as her bud Kristen went on to win the title of Top Chef, a feature in Food & Wine Magazine, a showcase at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and $125,000 furnished by Healthy Choice. (Amazing how after watching seven seasons of this show, I could do Padma’s job.) Anyway, there’s something likeable about Stephanie aside from just her food, though that may also cost her in the end. Her self-confidence often turns into self-deprecation, something that I hope is just a personality quirk and doesn’t turn into a costly psychological misstep later in the season.


4. Nicholas

One of just two guys I can see having a shot at winning the competition, Nicholas comes across as more cocky than confident. It seemed evident from Episode 1 that he and Philly pal Jason were the Alpha males of this competition, but then something funny happened. Jason got booted in Episode 2 and for some reason decided to incorporate white chocolate into his dish in LCK, leading to Janine Down Undering his Abercrombie & Fitch ass back to South Street. Nicholas, meanwhile, has been more bossy than successful thus far, getting on the eliminated Bret and the nervy Carlos while seemingly forgetting to put out a quality product himself. There’s a chance this ranking is four of five spots too high, but if Nicholas’ food can ever match his ‘tude, he’s a threat to go far.


3. Nina

I’d draw a pretty big line in the sand between No. 4 and the top three, as I think the remaining chefs have established themselves as the pretty clear front-runners a quarter of the way through the competition. Aside from the fact that I’ve eaten at the restaurant where Nina serves as the chef de cuisine, Scott Conant’s Scarpetta in the Fontainebleu Hotel in Miami, she’s building a steady list of accolades this season. Nina won the first elimination challenge with her curried turtle meatball, finished in the winning group in each of the past two episodes and also owned a top-3 Quickfire finish in Episode 3. With a versatile palate and a wide array of Caribbean dishes at her disposal, Nina has looked comfortable in every setting thus far. Bonus points for grinding the turtle meat into a meatball in Episode 1 and for her father being the former Prime Minister of St. Lucia, which has to be a Top Chef first.

Top Chef - Season 11

2. Justin

The far less obnoxious of the two New Orleans chefs, Justin hasn’t tried to act like the competition is his to lose just because it’s practically taking place in his backyard. A finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef South in 2012, Justin seems comfortable cooking whatever’s available to him, undoubtedly a product of the commitment to local ingredients at his restaurant, La Petite Grocery. It was his dessert, a strawberry trio, that won the elimination challenge in Episode 3, but his most impressive dish so far may have been his beef pho in the Vietnamese challenge. He seems like the only chef in the competition who is capable of developing such a vast amount of flavors in a dish like that in a short period of time, and he’s definitely not afraid to push himself. It’s hard to see him being eliminated before the final three.


1. Carrie

This may be a bit of a personal favorite, but it’s hard to argue with Carrie’s results so far. Her poached frog legs with an oyster emulsion put her in the top three in Episode 1, she had one of the top gumbos in the Episode 2 Quickfire and she made the dough for Carlos’ empanadas later in that episode to earn a victory. Are we noticing a theme with the chefs at the top? They’re not limiting themselves to one type of cuisine as a crutch or consistently working with one overarching flavor profile. She’s from Iowa, so middle American, hearty, meat and potatoes is no issue. She’s the chef de cuisine at Aragona, a Spanish restaurant in Seattle. Her Bravo bio says she mostly enjoys cooking Mexican, Vietnamese and Caribbean cuisines at home. Carrie also attended pastry school, so dessert is no problem – as evidenced by her strawberry shortcake biscuit in Episode 3 and her lemon custard in Episode 4. She’s also kind of adorable, not in a Janine way, but more in a “oh yeah, she’s got strong Midwestern values and seems like a sweet gal!” kind of way. She wasn’t around to participate in Top Chef in her established hometown of Seattle, but so far she might just be the favorite to win in New Orleans.


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