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Organic Brussels Sprouts from the Soundgarden

Hugh Acheson elaborates on the salads his group created in the season premiere.

By Hugh Acheson

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

And so we begin, in the kitchens of Tom, Emeril, Wolfgang, and some strange displaced Canadian with one eyebrow. Talk about wondering whether you have what it takes to be on a team. Aw well, those are my insecurities and I really only talk about that stuff on Twitter. Follow me and you will be privy to my most angst-ridden thoughts. 

You can see from the frenetic teasers at the beginning of this episode that we are about to judge a large group of people. About 21 if my math serves me right. The vista after this first culling will be Seattle and some of these fine chefs are not getting those tickets to eat salmon, drink coffee, wear flannel, listen to Mudhoney and whine about the loss of the Sonics. I for one, would enjoy doing that daily. No joke. You know, me, Detlef Schrempf and Gary Payton chatting about what went wrong over a nice cortado when Shawn Kemp interrupts us asking if we know where he can pawn a gold tooth. 

John Tesar’s reputation has resulted in some pretty bombastic articles about his exploits. Frankly, he’s known as an assh---. I don’t know John from Adam and I am hoping he’s just terribly misunderstood. There is a dire need for the formation of a self-help group for egomaniacal chefs though. Or maybe just a new rung of hell where they can do endless amounts of dishes for eternity. The dirties would be a never-ending stream of copper pots that have an inch of burnt caramel in the bottoms.  We have our villain though! That was quick. 

As is customary, someone says something flirtatious about Tom or Padma. This time it’s Lizzie about Tom. These crushes last an Usain minute and then the gravity of the situation sets in and they realize that they have signed up for a degustation menu of stress and anxiety. The amorous feelings quickly evaporate into fretful prep lists. 

So this is the challenge. It’s a proper culling. We, as the chef judges, are dividing the group up into fourths and having them pass a simple test in our kitchens. Tom is having them do a panoply of things from making pasta, to butchery, to working the line. Emeril is having them make a soup of their choice. Wolfgang is going all French on them and is having them make omelets. I am having them make a salad.  I like people to be strident and confident, but you have to be prepared for it to bite you in the backside, and the first episode may not be the place to pee on your territory. Micah comes out of the gate saying that he’s going to smash everyone in his path. Now he’s no standard chef… oh wait -- he is. He’s the chef at the Standard Hotel. 

The Craft L.A. kitchen is about 20 times as big as mine. I remind myself that it’s not size that counts, but how you use it. This makes me feel a bit better. Lizzie begins the walk of the Craft kitchen by making tortellinis, with good skills. Anthony is wandering through the kitchen but wondering whether anyone will notice that he’s there. Apparently he is not being very strident at all. It’s a fine line between showing up with gusto and not showing up at all. He’s given ducks and pulls out his paring knife. Tom thinks the knife choice is ridiculous. Anthony’s inner voice says, “It’s not size that counts but how you use it.” I have a strange déjà vu. For the record, and this is completely innuendo-free, I also butcher with a small paring knife, but it’s really sharp. Simple tools for clean, pristine results. 

John Tesar is “Yes, Chef” all the way and is making a good case for being “misunderstood.” He wants to show his new nice-guy side to the world. Micah is hacking the bass. Not the prettiest work ever. Micah went from being a dishwasher to being an executive chef in one week. No stops in between. This is not recommended. Maybe it was his stridency. 

Meanwhile, the chef from the Rocky Mountain butchery restaurant is flailing on, well, butchery. Jorel says he butchers blindfolded but doesn’t tell us that the blind results are horrible. I picture a hanging chicken, stuffed like a piñata, and Jorel swinging a dull machete at it, like a Richard Rodriguez scene that never made the cut. Love the moustache though. Very hipster. He would be loved in Seattle but yearn for Portland. Then he gets strike two on a salt-laden buerre montee. Jorel is on the fence. 

Emeril has his troop make soup. He seems to have gotten the beautiful chefs club. Josh is freaking out. Simple but complicated this soup challenge is. They rush the Table 10 stoves as Emeril wanders around making them really uncomfortable, but in the nicest way that a chef ever could. I will go on record right here and now: I like Emeril a lot. He’s just a sincerely honest man who has made our lives as chefs easier in every way. When I opened up my first restaurant in 2000 the path had been paved by years of Emeril. He, amongst others, had taught America about ingredients and techniques in a way that made it stick. He is an ebullient jester of food who instead of letting his ego run amok, has only become completely modest, compassionate, and more genuine as he ages. Now I get to pick his brain and learn about how he does all he does, and I am very thankful for that. OK, back to bombastic reviewing.

The soups begin to take shape: 

Jeffrey - Busy busy gazpacho. Winner winner chicken dinner

Josh - Roasted corn soup with mussels

Stephanie - Good job with lobster, cauliflower

Tina - Seafood and chorizo soup. Garlicky. Balanced.

Kristen - Pea soup with lemon, tendrils

Stephanie and Tina are cut. Never easy words to hear, but two chefs cannot fit into one blue jacket. Emeril was very impressed with Jeffrey, the winner, and Kristen and Josh push on through as well. Back to Tom’s kitchen where Lizzie is working into the service hour. John is doing fine and keeping his dark side hidden well. Tom will not let bad food out of the kitchen, and they all know that. It’s quality or you’re gone. John Tesar, reputation aside, can cook some halibut and gets a Blue Angel jacket. He is now in the Grunge club. 

On to Wolfgang’s omelet challenge. Carla looks a little crazy and may be on the wrong show. She seems to be wearing a touch of mascara and looks like she’s been crying a lot through life. It’s quickly very evident that she is really bats--t crazy and the most frenetic person in the world of food. Oh, this will be good. 

If Wolfgang wants steak, a very excited Eliza will put a whole ribeye plop down on that tender omelet for him. Steak and eggs is good, but an omelet seems like the wrong rendition of eggs for a good pairing. Eliza also hacks up her eggs but weirdly recycles the filling. So much for a delicate treatment. It really is very apparent that casting has found, as difficult as it seems, a group of chefs who all of whom suck at making a simple omelet.  

Tom seems to have got a pretty skilled grouping. Emeril too. Wolfie really has somehow amassed the insane posse of the socially and uovo-challenged. After a hard hour or so we see who has egg on their faces. 

Tyler: Leek, asparagus, and bacon omelet with a crispy potato salad. WP likes it.

Kuniko: Comme ci comme ca. I would hate to hear the line “Technique is almost there” directed at me. Her choice of chamomile and morels is pretty interesting

Daniel: Everything sounded very classic and then you gotta go add something sompletely out there. In this case, Oyster Nage? Who pairs oysters with an omelet? Wolfgang says that if he would eat it in the dark, perhaps it would be good. Aim high. 

Chrissy: Filipino risk-taking omelet with lobster and potatoes. Heritage speaks volumes in food, and Wolfgang likes it but it needs salt.

Eliza: Big boy meal omelet. Steak, fennel, tomatoes, asparagus, and a kitchen sink. 

Carla: Medi omelet with arugula salad. Wolfgang remarks “It looks like a woman with a lot of makeup on.” Wow, Wolfie, you are a ballsy one. Welcome to the table.

Daniel packs up his small whisk and non-stick pan. He ‘s not taking this well. Daniel, me brother…. The rest somehow make it through. Daniel caps it off by coining this immortal phrase, “It’s like, what the f---?” He also misses the Omelet 101 class by Wolfgang. 

My group arrives and they are an eclectic group as well. I truly believe that salads are crappy 90% of the time. They lack balance and complexity or worthy ingredients. If I see another wilty lettuce with overly sweet vinaigrette I will pull out my hair. They were given a ton of stuff to work with and 45 minutes to get it done.  

“I am a ferocious tiger,” says the one who will not proceed. Danyele is torn. She wants to talk to me but then again she doesn’t. She takes this frustration out on a tomato by dousing it with gasoline and walking out of the kitchen. 

THEY WERE SO MESSY. Like crazy messy. It’s so hard to work in a messy environment. The knight needs to tighten his blender cap. Danyele is like my sarcastic muse. 

Sheldon’s dish was really strong. Interesting and worldly and fun. Clean. 

The Bart Knight’s was crazy complex. But well-executed.

Brooke’s salad rocked. Totally perfect balance. Blue Angel jacket. 

Gina’s was subpar. Overcooked veg. Just not really good. I applaud her aplomb, but it just wasn’t very good. 

Danyele’s big flame Texas watermelon-tomato salad was actually good in spite of her trying to burn the place down.  

Bye-bye Gina. I wish you well. 

Back at Craft, Tesar has the blue coat already and then the other advancers are Micah and Lizzie. Jorel and Anthony fail to make the cut. 

It’s going to be a fun season in the Seattle world, home of the Space Needle. Keep on watching!

Follow me on Twitter @hughacheson!

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