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Welcome back! Thanks for tuning in for the launch of Season 6.
Did you know that Vegas, with its skyscape of neon, is said to be the only spot on earth so brightly lit as to be visible in outer space? It’s a great choice of backdrop for Season 6, not only because it is so iconic, with the large hotels, the glitz, and all that neon, but also because of the city’s rapid rise in prominence as a food town. Most every major chef – including French chefs – now has a presence there, and, with apologies to San Francisco for saying so, I think that behind New York, Vegas probably now has the best dining offerings in the country. Casino owners realized that visitors wanted more, that gamblers were coming from all over the world and were demanding more in the way of incentives to stay there, were asking for more sophisticated offerings in the way of perks and amenities. And visitors have responded to the rise in fine dining options: as of last year or the year before, food revenue in Las Vegas has surpassed gambling for overall revenue. So I think it’s safe to say that when you think Vegas and food, you no longer think “all-you-can-eat-buffet-for-$14.95.”
Vegas is also more than just casinos, shows and dining. While spending a month in Vegas gave me a chance to spend time at my restaurant and the MGM Grand, I was excited that shooting Season 6 afforded us chances to spend time off the Strip at cool locations like Nellis Air Force Base, as you’ll see in episodes to come.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, Episode 1: I loved that the Quickfire Challenge was higher-stakes than it’s been in seasons past, putting more emphasis on the cheftestants’ performances. In the past, folks could choose to stay middle-of-the-road, take no risks, and coast through the challenge. Not so, now …
The Quickfire started off with a relay race. I was surprised that Preeti didn’t simply say, “I’ve never opened a clam before. Don’t make me do this.” My guess is that it being the first challenge of the season, all the chefs were posturing for one another and for us, and no one wanted to admit to any shortcomings. But Preeti’s unwillingness to expose a weakness ultimately hurt her and her team. She took them all out of the running by not speaking up. She spent the entire race trying to shuck those clams; it was horrible.
By contrast, it was terrific having Wolfgang Puck as the guest judge for the Elimination Challenge. He is great to work with, so funny, and so apt (yet always good-spirited: at their worst, his barbs were never intended to be mean). You could see that he was cracking me up continuously. The first time that I ever met him, I attended a dinner he was at, along with a bunch of folks from Food & Wine magazine. I was not yet a chef at a place of my own – I was the sous-chef at the Quilted Giraffe at the time – and I was very nervous about just sitting at dinner with him, so I can well imagine how our cheftestants must have felt cooking for him. Especially as doing the first challenge is always difficult.
I think the chefs rose to the challenge exceptionally well (to create a dish based on their biggest vice), whether they wound up in the top four or not. Because all 17 chefs were competing in the first challenge, it was the lengthiest one of the season. This is why the chefs were divided into teams – it was more manageable and also easier for the viewer to absorb than simply watching a roster of 17 chefs presenting dishes one after the other. But it’s important to note that this means that the four “winners” in each team might not have been the four strongest dishes of the evening overall. A second-place dish in a team with four very strong dishes might have been better than the winning dish in another team. It was just the luck of the draw. Please keep this in mind as you start to reach your own conclusions about this new group of chefs – we certainly are. Just as the chefs themselves are eyeing each other to see where they all fall in the pecking order, the first Elimination Challenge gives us judges a chance to see who has skills, who has ideas, and how well they deal with the timing issue, with the Top Chef kitchen, which invariably is quite different from their own professional kitchen at home.
A word about Jen’s seitan dish: This first challenge is a time to put your best foot forward. Doing something “different” is fine, as long as by “different” you mean “more exceptional,” i.e., you can execute something that’s truly different and special. The bottom line is: it still has to be good. In Jen’s dish, it wasn’t the seitan that did her in, underwhelmed by that protein as we were. The dish was poorly done: the breading was falling off because it wasn’t breaded properly, whatever was thrown on the side of it was just a mess, and she garnished the plate with undressed radishes, “just for color” – they had no purpose. The winning dish that Kevin made, by contrast, was smartly realized and perfectly executed. Kevin right away struck me as someone very bright. In fact, he was on his way to MIT on scholarship when he decided to be a chef and changed course. He is very thoughtful – look at his rationale for his dish. That level of thinking set him apart from the onset. And then, as I said, he was able to execute his concept to perfection. The fish was perfectly seasoned, cooked, and balanced. It deserved the win. Jen Carroll’s dish worked beautifully, too. She worked under Eric Ripert, so we figured she’d be able to do fish well, and she didn’t disappoint.
What’s neat about this season is that the cooks come from very different backgrounds, styles, and approaches, but they’re all very, very good. The talent is deep and strong, and they are all serious – they all came ready to cook. In my opinion, this is probably our strongest collective group of chefs to date. They’ve even downplayed some of their strengths, and yet those skills are there and will emerge as the season progresses. Some are wildly creative, others are more grounded, but this season will show that perfectly executed, well seasoned, well thought-out food will always win the day. As we saw in the Quickfire Challenge, in which Jen worried about her presentation yet won the challenge, this is a season in which viewers will see certain dishes and think “wow!” but another, less glitzy dish will not look as good, but will taste sublime and win the day … another reason that Vegas is the perfect backdrop for what’s to come. Get ready for a great season, not only from the cheftestants, but from the guest chefs as well. The talent that has graced us with their participation this season shows that not only is Top Chef recognized as great entertainment, but it has been embraced by our industry as something very worthwhile.
One final word: Recently an article written about the lack of time that people are spending cooking hinted at Top Chef as being part of the reason. With the feedback I’ve received from viewers, including countless nine- and ten-year old boys and girls who watch devotedly and are now in the kitchen cooking away, I have to believe it’s quite the opposite. Your thoughts?