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Space Needles, Geoducks, and Carla

Hugh Acheson prepares for a surprising season.

By Hugh Acheson


How to Watch

Watch Top Chef on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

I remember vividly getting off work early to go home and watch the first episode ever of Top Chef. I was excited to see a competition based on what I did everyday. I was exhilarated to see young chefs battle it out with food to see who would be the best chef overall. The episode took place at Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lys, with Gail and a much younger Tom and the beautiful, but briefly-tenured Katie Lee. We saw the tension, the pressure, the fails and the attempts. We were hooked, and I still am. 

But sometimes I hear this on the street, or from friends and fans: “These chefs just aren’t that good.” Sometimes you may be right, but that’s a red herring; it’s supposed to be about who’s the best in the group, not who is the best chef in the galaxy. 

What I do know is that this is a great season that we’re just getting into, full of really good food, interesting social dynamics, and it fulfills what I think Top Chef strives for. If you say that these chefs are not good enough, you are kind of missing the point. Granted their omelet skills left me wondering about the state of food in America, but that was only a quarter of our lot and we have some culling still to do, on a weekly basis actually.  

Last season we were very lucky to have a very gifted group who could really cook in the highest rung of the culinary world in America. I would say half of them are really going to be players in the restaurant world in the next decade, like really important culinary superstars. Paul ended up winning and I can’t think of a more just recipient of the title. He earned it over the course of a season doing what he does best: not strategizing, not creating drama, not finding faults and weaknesses with others -- he just cooked in the way he knows how. He rocked it. We were lucky to see him cook. In a similar vein, the past has shown us the Voltaggios, Stephanie Izard, Harold Dieterle, and Kevin Sbraga, gifted chefs all of them. Some seasons have had nobody ascending to be the next Paul Bocuse, but still we get great food entertainment. We get the purity of the competition and anxieties of putting all of what you know on the table. I think this season will surprise us all. Though we don’t see stars out of the gate, they will show you they know a lot about cooking. Trust me, we will find some great chefs, but sometimes there’s a lot of shucking before you find the lustre of a pearl. May they all go to omelet camp though. That aside they cook some damn fine vittles on this episode.  

Alas we have landed in Seattle where Micah continues to talk trash (introducing me to the “waterfall look,” which I now give to my dog a lot), Eliza continues to be nervously elated, and we have a trio of lost wanderers from Top Chefs of yore as Quickfire judges. Josie, CJ, and Stefan… wow they picked the three that would get under anyone’s skin. You Devilish Elves… Maybe not CJ, but the other two are like shampoo in my eye, and not that no-tears stuff.

The challenge is laid out and teams are formed. PLEASE DON’T INTERRUPT PADMA. Tesar looks like he has been yelled at by his beautiful grandmother and is saddened. The Seattle sea vittles are abundant and awesome. Many grab geoduck, which is a very large clam, that sadly looks like a very large penis. If that is really unappealing to you, you should get over it as the stuff is really tasty when made right, but it can suck too. When it sucks it’s tough as leather. Kristen explains much of this and America squeals when she says “really big penis,” like the third grader America is. That said, even I am blushing now; Penis penis penis. There, the fear is gone. There is sadly not enough geoduck for everyone. Tesar scoops up the last one right in front of Lizzie and Eliza, like a reverse wingman move.

Please remember that though Carla is a woman, she also likes to look good while cooking food, and this involves a lot of flammable makeup. She wants to be James Beard with a nice a--. OMG. This woman is so awesome. Her team is not communicating in any language anyone has ever actually spoken, more like a hybrid language that one would see used between my dad and a Moroccan car rental place in Marrakech. Confusion ensues when two communicators really don’t speak the same language. Lizzie needs to come up with some tougher words than wishing she could tell Carla to “be quiet.” I would have been far more, well, direct. Carla yells that, “She can’t be running around like a stupid.” Too late. Tesar does seem to revel in his hated status. It’s like his Boy Scout badge of courage. He should have just gone out for the cooking badge… there is one. Opinionated off topic-alert: I would recommend that the Scouts maybe get the “We’re OK with gay” badges working too. Popular sentiment is a shifting thing, and if you don’t adjust you will be walking the dinosaur. There truly is a Nuclear Science badge, but that’s got to be crazy hard to obtain. No joke. Google never lies. 

“Go Broncooooos.” Tyler is a strange one, but he’s a keeper. 

Simple wins the day. The team of Kuniko, Tesar, and Sheldon win the Quickfire, and Tesar gets immunity with a knife grab. The world is flipped and the well-worn veterans of seasons past join the competition for the season… WHAT?

This move is not welcomed by any of the chefs. Tyler thinks this is just great… great like not great. Micah wants to f--- them up. Micah. Micah. Chill pill.  

Stefan, who looks like a shiny geoduck held upright in a Cialis trance, says that because, a) he drives a Porsche GT3 and b) he owns eight restaurants, he doesn’t need to do this. SO WHY DO THIS? Because he has an ego the size of Nebraska. I gotta admit he was a force to be reckoned with in his season. I remember being like, “This guy's a prick, but he can cook.” I just want you to be less self-aspirational Stefon. 

CJ just returned from a stage at Noma, Copenhagen. People list Noma on their resumes these days like it was Mock Trial Club in high school. It makes you look more promising to an employer, or at least to an employer really into edible lichen. 

They purvey from the pantry. Then they go home.

Temp home tour. Olive 8 downtown. Nice view. I stayed downstairs but never saw the chefs… they didn’t even know I was there. Emeril is not so easy to hide. That guy gets recognized from like a 1000 yards by busloads of tourists. The chefs talk relationships and bond in that way that only chefs can bond. They drink. They revel. Stefan looks at himself in the mirror a lot and goes through his self-affirmation reps. Josie gives herself the moniker of “Global Soul Chef.” Um huh. 

Onto cooking at the needle. Teams are the same with the new team made up of the returning vets. 

They all cook fish with varying success, except for those wily vets who cook quail because of their worldly TC knowledge. Tom Douglas is the guest chef and he’s like the dynasty chef of Seattle, owning half of the restaurants in the rain-soaked region. Kuniko meanwhile is burning the chile oil (“Chile oil, this chile oil?”) and playing coy with her lack of language comprehension. 

Oddly enough, Carla’s team nails the salmon and fairs pretty well. Kuniko, Tesar and 420 Sheldon cook up a stellar dish too with the poached cod being a beauty. Carla celebrates by going back to the kitchen and cutting herself while packing her knife bag. I do this too. Rarely do I cut myself while actually using a knife, but when sharpening them or storing them, that’s when I draw blood. Dorky, I know. 

Too much focus on Jeffrey Jew -- bad omen. Stefan talks about breasts a lot. There is a lot of innuendo whenever he talks. He sounds like a produce clerk with a tracking ankle bracelet: “Carrots? I show you a big carrot!” 

Stefan’s Reruns team fare pretty badly. That’s a killed quail. Different from “killer quail” by only one letter. The Jeffrey team has an overcooked halibut problem, and so we are already wondering about the bottom feeders. Cue teasers, and Josh has lost his mushrooms. Also, Tom almost moved to Seattle to create PreCraft back in the day. Good no-move on that one TC. Don’t mess with good Fortuna. Stay away from the time machine. 

Danyele, Eliza, and Josh cook cod after figuring out what it is. They make good apples. How 'bout hem apples. Rest of plate, not so good. 

Kristen, Tyler, and Micah. They cook nice salmon. Better sauce. Carla hears this and carves new eyebrows in her forehead. Not connected ones though… my influence is not very strong. 

The winners are Tesar’s group, and they’ve had an awesome Qui-like day. Kuniko takes the win with her fish poached in chile oil. 

Jeffrey goes home cause you can’t overcook fish in Seattle. I liked him. Confident without being cocky. Hey Micah, you listening? “Hey, I am No. 1 in something,” Jeffrey says while exiting. Good man. Nice guy. May he succeed in this world. 


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