Piss and Vinegar

Top Chef host and James Beard Award-winning (!!!) chef Hugh Acheson sizes up the competition.


So the premise of the new show is pretty voyagetastic. I just made that word up. The quick and dirty premise is this: one city per show. They run around like highly caffeinated culinary explorers (“the Course”), get competitively drunk tasting the foods and beverage of the community (winner gets the “Exceptional Ingredient”), and then have to cook the dishes themselves at local landmarks (“the Takeover.”)  

The winner of the season gets a schmancy Infiniti JX Crossover and a big pile of traveler’s cheques, as the Euro was deemed too risky. The stakes get continually more lavish in food television. If memory serves, the prize for the first season of Top Chef was $378 and a 1983 Chevette. 

Curtis, the escapee from the penal colony of good-looking blond people, is heading this worldly tour with his cheftastic partner, Cat Cora. Cat is a television icon in chef shows and this is a new kind of gig for her, with fancier hair styles and heels, but Curtis got used to heels and highlights a number of years ago. Don’t let that blond bombshell fool you, Curtis can cook with the best of them. The cultural differences in some of the destinations will be a real factor in the series, but London is pretty tame. At the end of the day Nigella Lawson is prettier, smarter, and wealthier than most all of us, but at least we speak the same language. The Brits just happen to like their tea hot, pronounce aluminum weirdly, and like their footballs round.

Though the destination is easier for the cooks, the challenge is still, well, challenging. Cooking steak and kidney pie, without a recipe, for the first time ever is no easy task, as it’s not something often on the Boston Red Sox menu.

The actual contestants are an interesting and diverse group, who quickly become a whiny, bitchy lot, full of piss and vinegar. This is going to be fun. 

Remember Chaz? Chaz was momentarily on Top Chef: Texas but failed to make the first big cut when he failed to complete his risotto, if my memory serves. “Risottoed” is a verb on Top Chef. It means to lose. Everybody loses cooking it. Even with his early departure on TC, Chaz talked a pretty big game, so we’ll see what he can accomplish. 

We meet other contestants as well but it’s a blur. Some standouts are: Nookie, the sweaty baseball chef who keeps small people in his suitcase, Sai, the sexually liberated Thai chef (who, with pride, tells us people would much rather snog her than Paula Deen), Kevin, the Alpha dog who would lead you onto the third rail, and Gary Walker, the sorority chef who thinks Curtis is hot. Frankly, I am worried about our global reputation. I don’t want my passport at Heathrow judged by the guy who saw Cheven make an ass of himself on television. 

I think there was a missed opportunity to get Morrissey, Robert Smith, and the guy from Flock of Seagulls to judge this thing. Morrissey would have demanded a vegan steak and kidney pie, Robert would have glumly applied mascara to a frowning Curtis, and the guy from Flock of Seagulls would have worked on hair highlights with Cat. Instead we get the iconic, but very normal, Nigella Lawson, and the owners of the pubs. Rule number one: Never rename a pub. Never. Really bad luck.

The chefs have some issues. Their knowledge of Brit food is minimal and this becomes the sticking point very quickly. I won’t run an account of all the action (watch the show!) but let this one point be very clear: they need to pay attention to what they’re eating in “The Course” part of the show. If they don’t analyze and figure out the dishes then and there, without their beer goggles on, it’s going to be a short season for them. 

Brief rundown though: 

•Cheven is a going to be a magnet of controversy and reviled by most everyone in all countries.

•Cheven is also "up there on the culinary totem pole.” Self promotion not-withstanding this is just too open-ended to make fun of. 

•When in doubt, take a taxi. 

•Nookie, the self-described schemer, sweats a lot, and I forecast him being the Bill Buckner of this season (to the Google!).

•When looking for a pub called “the Camden Head,” do not try to find “the Hammerhead”, because the former is in London and the latter, I imagine, is a parrot-themed dive bar in Key West. 

•I love fish 'n' chips, but chips are not wispy little potato threads.

•The Red Team gets the Exceptional Ingredient and this gives them an edge, but not much of one. 

•Why are they subtitling Curtis? 

•“British Love/American Pride” is the worst name ever. 

•Clara gets thrown under the lorry and is the first chef gone. 

•This is going to be a fun show to watch.

If I had to do a dish I would have done a steak and kidney pie, something my mother punished us with on numerous occasions in my picky younger years. I would make little individual ones with seared hangar steak, finely diced lamb kidneys, wild ramps, poached leeks, beef consomme, and puff pastry. Makes me hungry. I’d eat that. I would fail at this show otherwise because I can’t cook well while drunk. 

British food has really stepped up in the past decade due to the people like Nigella, Fergus, the River Café, Hugh HF, and a host of others. There is a modern school of classics and all of these dishes can be aces if the chefs just think them through more. 

To conclude let us revel in the immortal lyrics of the Clash’s “London Calling” :

“London calling to the imitation zone/ Forget it, brother, an' go it alone”

Many of these chefs are already looking into going it alone, and that will prove to be a fatal flaw. I would be teaming up with people who are like-minded and creating a stronger me. It’s going to be a long ride. 


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Food Reigns

Hugh Acheson is happy to see that it was all about the food in the finale.

Finale time. This worldly traveling circus has come down to the Strategist Nookie, the Relentless Avery, and Bubbly Liz. Obviously when looking at the map in a culinary voyage around the world we can’t overlook… Uruguay? In a coastal wedgie between Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has never been on the cusp of culinary greatness, but their food has a fondness for beef, chicken cutlets, blood sausage, honeyed booze, and citrus fruits. This should be interesting, but before it all goes down, we have to go through the season's highs and lows. Though I vowed never to look at the Demon Chef ever again, there he is, dreamily hitting on Avery. Creepiest man on the planet. 

They get on the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, across the Rio de la Plata. This is a geography lesson to you and me. I went to the handy Google maps. In the sleepy little town of Sacramento the chefs find their challenge. They must purvey at three shops and create a typical Uruguayan dish. They have two hours and a map. There is a produce store, a dry goods shop, and a butcher. No baker or candlestick maker, but you get the idea. 

Avery has some funny things she says; funny like Yogi Berra. She says “conversate”, which is kind of yokel way of sounding all smart (it’s a backformation), and then later in the show she says “time restraint.” It’s constraint. Silly Avery. But she’s a good shopper and a fine chef. 

The cheftestants shop through the sleepy little town that would be an awesome location for a modern western movie, and meet up with their regional experts on the local cuisine, Cat and Curtis. I think something must have fallen through at the last minute because I don’t think that Cat and Curtis know anything about Uruguayan food at all; I certainly didn’t until about 20 minutes ago. Evidently they love arugula down there, cause all three of the chefs make some sort of protein salad thing. And the main drag in town is named after FDR. Facts come in handy. You can use that in a trivia night sometime.They cook in a small kitchen but Liz has not purchased salt. Nookie won’t lend her any. Neither would Avery we later learn. Really? That’s crappy. I don’t roll like that. Liz, you can borrow salt from me anytime, no matter what’s on the line. 

The dishes they make are pretty basic. Nookie has chorizo from the butcher, arugula, and some onion condiment. That’s his dish. He is done way before time expires and the judges pretty much call his simple bluff, and tell him he could have done something with a bit more complexity. At this stage I would recommend pushing the parameters beyond something as simple as a PBJ sandwich. Liz makes a grilled steak with sausage, caramelized onions, and arugula. She actually cooked something and it would be a winner, but the lack of salt is an albatross around her neck. She’s kicking herself. Avery makes up a bunch of new words and cooks chicken with citrus and the ubiquitous arugula. She nails it and wins this thing. 

Now the pressure is on. Avery and Nookie have had a longstanding pact that seems pretty tight, but now she’s put in an interesting position: choose the perceived weaker opponent or follow the code of the dark side. She ditches the Nookie. Cue that Limp Bizkit song (I swore to myself that I would only mention that song in the last blog post.) 

“I can't believe that I could be deceived (but you were) 

By my so-called girl but in reality 

Had a hidden agenda 

She put my tender heart in a blender 

And still I surrendered”

Ah, the immortal words of Fred Durst, more apropos than ever. So that’s out of the way, let me be clear about something vital to our relationship… I hate that band. And off to L.A. we go. Avery and Liz will both be on home turf for this final battle. At least they are less likely to get lost while driving to Wolfgang Puck’s Red 7 restaurant. Two Infinitis and beyond!

So along the way they shop and find some discarded contestants. Avery gets Nick and Jenna. Liz gets Chaz and John. They have three hours to cook and they get surprised by their close family and friends in the kitchen. Liz’s boyfriend is dapper. Small, but dapper. Avery’s kids are cute as can be. Nookie tries to manipulate them for no apparent reason except that’s how he lives. It’s his oxygen. Did he just say that “lepers don’t change their spots”? That sounds like an Avery-ism.

Chefs galore come in to be guest eaters and voters. I know of many of them, but only really know Ben Ford. Ben is awesome. Josiah Citrin is the lauded chef of Melisse and is a badass. Many more chefs looking stylish come forward. Then we have Wolfgang Puck, one of the most iconic figures in food of our era. He’s also got an awesome personality that shines on camera. Good choice, people. 

The cooking goes pretty well and Avery bangs out a Thai salad with shrimp and coconut, then a steak with chimichurri, and then a nice-looking pannacotta thing. The judges seem to be shining to her food, though WP seems to want the salad to have a bit more oomph. Avery’s aunt drops a line from Procol Harum’s Lighter Shade of Pale. I did not see that coming. 

Liz puts up a beef salad with crisp rice, a "braised" chicken, and a puddle of creamy stuff with some fried dough resting in it. Her salad is awesome, but the other two kind of fall flat. 

The votes pour in, and it’s close, but Avery pulls it out and wins a car and the money. Liz is devastated, but she should be very proud. She made it to the final. As for Avery, she was a favorite from the beginning. She had confidence and was smart about things while she cooked great food. The latter is the more important facet for me. So food did reign supreme which was a treat.  The chefs are dizzy and probably need a little down time. I know I do. To the victor the spoils!

Follow me on the Twitter! @hughacheson

I will be blogging Top Chef Masters Season 4, which premieres next Wednesday on Bravo!

Rock on and thanks for reading.


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