Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

'Top Chef' 11 Premiere: Swamp Things

Is Jason really as cocky as he seems?

Well, hello my little beignets! Welcome to Top Chef Season 11 in New Orleans. I'm Monica, Senior Producer at Bravo Digital and your recapper for the season.

I couldn't be happier that Season 11 is in New Orleans. There are very few cities that I truly felt sad leaving, but New Orleans is one of them. It's honestly another world down there and one of the few cities in the United States that has its own distinct cuisine, completely unshared by any other city.

So, after probably the best season of Top Chef Masters yet, I hope you're ready to dive into a new season of Top Chef with 19 -- yes, 19 -- cheftestants. The chefs enter their beautiful home and share a little bit about themselves, and instantly, a reluctant villain emerges -- Jason. Full disclosure: Jason's restaurant ELA is actually the only restaurant I've dined in among all the chefs' restaurants. It was a recommendation for brunch, and the brunch was quite tasty, so I'll be interested to see how Jason does. He already has a bit of a hometown rivalry with Nicholas, who is just adorable. OK, that's enough of that. 

Some familiar faces include Stephanie Cmar, Kristen Kish's former roommate, who didn't quite make it to the Season 10 kitchen. Bene Bartolotta, who recently competed in Battle of the Sous Chefs for Top Chef Master Odette Fada. There's also Michael and Justin who both -- surprise! -- won Padma's Picks. If you haven't watch the prequel series yet, watch it HERE.

Shirley worked for Thomas Keller. Carlos has a Michelin star. Aaron works for Top Chef Master and all-around adorable chef Takashi Yagihashi. He was also maybe in a mildly successful punk band? We see a photo of Janine with Season 5's Jeff McInnis. And if you haven't heard, they're opening a restaurant together in NYC! Can't wait to try that one. After some pleasantries and s--t-talking, s--- got real, and then s--- got really really really really real. Thanks, Stephanie!

Padma and Tom walk in and present the chefs with their first challenge, not a Quickfire challenge mind you, but an Elimination Challenge. They're not effing around. The challenge is to create a dish using one of three New Orleans delicacies… in a swamp. The three options are turtle, alligator, and frog. I actually had alligator cheesecake at Jacques Imo's (a must-visit!) and fried alligator on a stick at the Creole Tomato festival in New Orleans, but I somehow drew the line at turtle soup at Brennan's. The only turtle I ate in New Orleans was filled with chocolate and caramel!

And with proteins in hand from local utters, the chefs get to the Top Chef kitchen. The pride the chefs feel putting on their coats for the first time is palpable. Aaron doesn't have a plan for his pasta, but he's not worried. Well, that's good because I am.

Hold up -- Nina's father was the prime minister of St. Lucia. Whaaat?! I just want her to say "diplomatic immunity" a la Lethal Weapon just once. Just once!

Aaand pause for a Janine ogling break. Get it together, guys! Seriously! Bret's mouth is watering, and it ain't over the gumbo he's cooking. Bret, your heart and sauces will only get broken.

Unpause.

Wait, pause.

Jason cut himself! Nothing brings a chef's confidence down to Earth like cutting yourself in front of Tom Colicchio. Whoops!

Unpause.

Carrie is nervous. Like, so nervous she's running away from Tom. Hope those nerves don't get the best of her because I kind of want to be friends with her. Is it just me or does she jsut seem like the nicest person?


Patty, who works for David Burke at Fishtail,  hasn't made enough food. Sooo, I'm worried for Patty and Aaron. 

And then there's Ramon who has to water down his dash so as not to make people sick. Not a good sign, either, and not surprisingly -- spoiler alert! -- Ramon, Aaron, and Patty ultimately comprise our bottom three. 

After the first day of prep, the chefs are chilling at home and the Mayor of New Orleans (not really), Emeril Lagasse, brings them beignets. I mean, even if you get kicked off in the fist episode, you were just served beignets by Emeril Lagasse, so I'm thinking everyone's going home happy. Emeril offers some sage advice to Travis about his tough alligator.: "You gotta do something about that." Travis responds, "Where were you yesterday?" Travis, if you didn't know you had to something about the toughness, not even Emeril Lagasse can help you.

Full of beignets, the chefs head to the swamp to set up their own kitchens! Man, we're so cruel sometimes. 

Checking back in on Patty who has come to the conclusion she needs to start from scratch. Oy. We see her ripping apart her rillettes. 

Jason, on the other hand, is done. And just when you think, "Yeah maybe he's a douchebag, he tells Nick, "I'm going to go pick some shrubberies." Maybe I'm too eager to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I think he has fun with arrogance and he's not so bad. I look forward to once again defending the cockiest cheftestant of the season. 

But sorry, Jason, you're not the hottest chef at the swamp because Curtis Stone is guest judging! Hi, Curtis! He joins "Swamp Queen" Padma, Tom, and Emeril.After a "really delicious" comment from Tom regarding Nina's food, which is a win in itself, we see who starts getting the beads, and yeah, Nina's kiling it. "Rockabilly" Sara offers an "unapologettically hot" dish. It doesn't hurt that Curtis and Padma love spicy food. 

Time for Judges' Table! But there's a twist! The chefs can hear the judges deliberating. Being critiqued like that in front of your competitors adds a really interesting element to the competition. Let me know what you think about it in the Comments section below.

Tops are Sara, who "blew Padma's socks away," Nina, and Carrie. Nina wins. Now, usually the first Qickfire winner either wins the whole thing or fares pretty well in the competition, but we didn't have a Quickfire Challenge, so it will be fun to see how far Nina goes and if the tradition holds up.

The bottom three were a sad sight if only for the fact that Patty cried. Tom even tried consoling her! (I think.) That never happens! There's no crying in fine dining! Quick: who remembers which cheftestant said that? Answer in the Comments below! Dry those eyes, Patty -- you're safe. As is Aaron who was at the root of a little tiff between Curtis and Tom, who disagreed on the very concept of making homemade pasta at a swamp.

top-chef-1101-tom.gif

In the end, Ramon is the first chef to go home. Apparently the judges don't take too kindly to almost being made sick.

Phew! We made it! I'm shvitzing already!

Tell me: Who's your front-runner to win it all?

Until next week, Have a Nosh!

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Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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