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A New Season Already?!

Top Chef: Chicago's winner scopes out the newbies.

By Stephanie Izard

Hard to believe the new season is already here. Seems like we were just in Puerto Rico a few weeks ago. I had finally gotten past having crazy Top Chef nightmares with the red clock counting down or Padma suddenly appearing with a new challenge, and I am hoping the new season does not cause them to return. From the first episode it seems like there is a talented group of chefs and a lot of strong personalities so I am sure it will be a fun season to watch.

How to Watch

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

I have to say it seems a little harsh to give someone the boot after just a Quickfire. I cannot imagine, knowing what anticipation I felt before filming began, having to go home without even putting on the Top Chef coat. Though peeling apples may seem like a simple task, and I am sure it is during a normal day in the kitchen for the chefs, the nerves that the chefs were probably dealing with on the first day of filming made simple tasks suddenly challenging. I could sympathize with Richard when he cut himself in the first minute of competition, since the same thing happened to me. You just have to holler for a band-aid and keep on going. It would have been kind of fun to see what the actual time was for the chefs as Tom commented that they were going to be there for a while with 15 apples per person. Stefan cruised right through as one of the nine chefs who was safe and got to watch as the other eight chefs sweat through round two.

Along the same lines, I am sure the chefs have brunoised cases of apples, but the three sets of camera crews, Tom and Padma, and the other nine chefs looking on made the knife skill a bit more difficult I am sure. Even though Daniel was not the speediest apple peeler, he showed he could bang out some brunoise. So then we were left with the final four hoping to make it to the Top Chef kitchen. I was a little nervous at this point, seeing my fellow Chicago chef Radhika still competing to move on, but was happy to hear the final portion involved actual cooking. I understand viewers' frustration of not being able to taste the dishes, but would say from my living room the scallops looked tasty, with a nice touch of dried apples for some texture contrast. Radhika pretty much had me at pork, and the flavors sounded like they worked well. It came down to Patrick and Lauren, who both chose to do salads on what must have been a hot July day in New York. I think during our season we were convinced that bacon was the way to win the hearts of the judges, but I guess we were wrong. I have to admit a slight bias, having met Patrick while I was out in New York a few months ago (love you!), but I did not want to see anyone leave so quickly.

Then out came the knife block, which made its first of many appearances, to decide which chefs would face off in the first challenge. I like the first challenge in that it highlights the various neighborhoods and cultures found in New York and also gives the chefs a chance to cook head-to- head, which is always fun. I think the neighborhood that I would have been most nervous about was Little India, mainly because Padma seems to know a thing or two about Indian cuisine. All of the markets they found looked great and it would have been fun just to do the shopping to check out all of the different ingredients. I might have to do some exploring on my next trip and check out some of the places I have not been like Brighton Beach and Long Island City.

I was excited to see Jean-Georges make an early appearance. I was lucky enough to have my first cooking job in Chicago at Vong and love his food. Of course having JG show up was sure to make some of the chefs a little more nervous. All in all it seemed like the chefs did well for the first round. Jeff had some timing issues and was unable to get all of his ingredients on the plate, but in the end the judges picked his dish over Fabio's, so maybe it was for the best. It is a little tricky at first because you do not want to prepare your plate too early and have your food sitting, but you do not want the feeling of missing a component (as when my artichoke chips did not make it on my salad) and wondering if that was going to be the deciding factor to send you home. It was evident that some of the most important elements that the judges were looking for were properly cooked proteins (a technique Richard failed to execute by overcooking the lamb patties), proper seasoning (many chefs were told to use more salt), basic cooking techniques being executed properly (Ariane's farro and Patrick's noodles were not made properly), and contrasting textures (missing from Radhika's halibut, because of the rice being a bit "mushy.")

Stefan seems to be the early contender, having finished first in the Quickfire and also winning the first challenge. I remember being asked in my first interview if I thought winning the first challenge was a good indicator of my winning the whole show and saying, "Please don't say that, there is still a long way to go." Stefan does seem to have a lot of confidence and has proven his skills in the first episode, and though it is way too early to tell, I would put him in the final three. (It is fun to guess!)

Other strong showings were from Gene with his classic Indian dish. It was his first attempting cooking Indian cuisine, and that seemed to really impress Padma. Leah also impressed the judges - her snapper and faro that had an earthiness that Tom really enjoyed.

Ariane and Patrick both seemed to have some issues with their starches. Ariane ended up serving undercooked grains, which was shown to be unacceptable during our season when it cost Antonia a place in the final three. Patrick decided to try working with black rice noodles for the first time, and wound up with a result he knew was not right. I do give him props for trying something new, but with two hours to prepare the dish, maybe he should have tested them out early on and tried to adjust. In the end, Patrick was asked to pack his knives and Ariane was given a chance to redeem herself.

Patrick has a lot of passion for cooking and has great potential in the industry once he finishes school. I would say this was a fun experience for someone so young and new to the industry.

Looking forward to a great season. I can't wait to see what other chefs make a guest appearance this season and what other fun New York challenges are ahead.

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