Richard Blais vividly remembers the first few days as a cheftestant.
It happens relatively quickly. You get a phone call. Then, in a few hours, a list of things you can bring. Followed by a longer list of things you can’t. And then a few hundred papers to sign. You receive flight information and contact info for people you’ve never met. They will be “handling you,” whatever that means. In a few days, you’re off to be a contestant on Top Chef. At the time you don’t know it, but that Wired magazine with Brad Pitt on the cover and that pretty awful hot dog at the airport will be your last taste of freedom for a while.
Upon arrival, you will be stripped of your belongings. Your Red Sox cap, gone — it’s branded. (Why do you think you see so many home-printed t-shirts?) Cell phone, wallet, money, ID, notebook with recipes. Gone. Even that magazine. Confiscated, for six weeks, you can hope at least. At this point, I’m sure they are checking toothpaste tubes for illegally transported methyl cellulose. It’s serious.
There is a part to the first few days of being on Top Chef that's like prison, I expect. There’s bad food, blood being spilled, and alliances being made. For as long as you’re filming, you will never even go to the bathroom alone. You won’t need a shank of course, unless it's lamb.
You get to meet your fellow competitors now. At a house that I’m guessing is a good upgrade from where most of the cast usually resides. I remember our house in Chicago had a toilet seat warmer. That was nice. There will be a scramble for bunk beds (not sure why). And there’s so much chatter and name-dropping going on that the prison-like atmosphere becomes more summer camp-ish, or since there’s alcohol in abundance, maybe college.
I’ve worked for him, or her. I’ve got this nomination, or this award. I’ve been on that TV show. At my restaurant this, at my restaurant that. My style is this. I grow my own food, etc. etc. This casual social mixer seems harmless and fun. Hair starts to come down. Neckerchiefs start to loosen.
But in an hour’s time, half of the pack will have been virtually eliminated.
That is a bold statement but one I can make with certainty. Of course there is maybe one contestant each year who finishes way beyond everyone’s expectations. But the first true accomplishment during the competition is getting half-way through. The contestants can lay odds (see what I did there?) on who will be in the game very easily. All it takes is this first gathering.
It’s a wolf pack. And the strong are going to show their teeth before they even put on a jacket. Whether it’s by discussing their pedigree, boasting of their restaurant’s stars, or clearly defining their style in a sentence. It’s game time, way before the first set of challenges.
I wouldn’t be worried about the guy who gets rip roaring drunk on the first night. He won’t have the stamina for the grind. Nor would I be concerned about the two girls who consistently just say they are “happy to be here.” Thats a tail between the legs. The blond who just started cooking dinner for all of us, she has guts and she’ll do well. That guy’s knives are serious. And homeboy at the other bunk just unpacked an ingredient I’ve never heard of. They’ll be here for a bit. Guy deciding what colored scarf to wear tomorrow ... Adios!
The first episode is always hard to blog without recapping. My first swing through this blog was four pages long. But after rewatching the episode, I found it obvious, the body language, comments, and clues that we were shown, that reveal to the viewer who could go far this season.
So, who do you think will be unpacking their knives for a long stay with this season’s wolf pack in the dessert?
Special note: I know all three Atlanta-based contestants well. And Eli Kirshtein on a personal and professional level (he was the best man at my wedding, and my sous-chef for years) .
Keep up with me at www.richardblais.net or read about my most recent challenge in my column in Creative Loafing, “Knife’s Edge.” Follow me on Twitter @RichardBlais