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Piss and Vinegar

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

By Hugh Acheson

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.

Cursed Before You Start?

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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