Guess what’s cooking? A new season of “Top Chef,” that’s what. Sadly, our reality right now is that restaurants and bars are closing down because of our health crisis. But the Bravo reality show is here to serve you with a 17th season filled with All Stars that takes place in the City of Angels. The producers picked a good time to hand out their largest winning jackpot ever in the history of the show — $250,000. These finalists, fan-favorites and front-runners definitely want to win these hunger games this time around on a supersized season opener. Read on for our minute-by-minute takes on the season premiere episode, “It’s Like They Never Left.”
10:01 p.m. In the premiere episode’s first moments, we get to hear Season 6’s Bryan Voltaggio saying, “Up until now I’ve always been the runner-up. Now it’s time to be the winner.” That he lost to his brother Michael is even more incentive. Jennifer Carroll, who has been on the show three times previously, notes, “I have been part of the ‘Top Chef’ family for 10 years. I have definitely evolved.” Season 13’s Karen Akunowicz says, “ Since I’ve been here last I won a James Beard award, but the title of Top Chef is what I’m here for. Please and thank you.” Lisa Fernandes from Season 4 observes, “This is real,” while Season 1’s Lee Anne Wong simply says, “I’m back.” Copycat Brian Malarkey from Season 3 also proclaims, “I’m back,” while Melissa King of Season 12 states, “I am ready for it.”
10:03 p.m. Then we spy head judge Tom Colicchio, host Padma Lakshmi and judge Gail Simmons waiting in front of Griffith Observatory, a renowned Los Angeles landmark, as they await the arrival of the 15 veterans who are determined to never hear the words, “Please pack your knives and go.” Tom asks, “Which one of you said you would never do this again?” A whole lot of hands fly up. Then again, as Padma notes in the intro, these talented hash-slingers are playing for the largest cash prize ever given on the show — $250,000. He then tells them, “You are an elite group of chefs. There’s no denying that.” He tosses out that there are few James Beard nominees as well as winner Karen. Nini Nguyen, who lost during the dreaded Kitchen Wars challenge last season, is duly impressed by her rivals while admitting, “I don’t know what I got myself into.”
10:05 p.m. Stephanie Cmar still holds a grudge over how she was eliminated in Season 11 for a technicality when another chef on her team of three had immunity — even though his dish put them on the chopping block. She vows, “It won’t happen again.”
THE QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE
10:06 p.m. Padma says, “The first quickfire is one you have all seen before – the mise en place race. There will be three legs, each with a new ingredient.” Tom chimes in: “Everyone must turn three artichokes. If it is done to my satisfaction, you can move on. The fastest five chefs will become a team. You can head to the kitchen and start cooking immediately. For the second leg, you must prepare five California oranges. The fastest five chefs in this leg will become a team and head on to the kitchen. And for the third leg, you must crack 20 perfect California almonds.”
10:10 p.m. All the chefs start freaking out about cracking those nuts without a nutcracker. Jennifer prefers wishful thinking and hopes she won’t get to the almonds. Once the teams are formed, they must use their prep ingredients in two different dishes. Padma promises that winning will give their team a huge advantage in the elimination challenge.” Tom adds that once the last team hits the kitchen, a 15-minute clock will begin.
10:12 p.m. And they are off to their prep areas. They are turning their artichokes and while trying to get the choke out. Season 6’s fan favorite Kevin Gillespie says, “At this point in my career, we like to call this “PFTS” – people for that s**t. I got people for that.” Angelo Sosa (Season 7 and 8) asks for a check from Tom and it’s a no go. Bryan asks for a check and once again Tom rejects his efforts. Lee Anne notes there is a lot “premature checking” going on with the boys. Kevin is the first chef to get an OK and he is through.
10:13 p.m. Jamie Lynch (Season 14) hopes that the other chefs see him as a force to be reckoned with. But Melissa notes that he was infamous for giving up his immunity on his season. Today, though, he gets the all clear sign for his chokes. Joe Sasto (Season 15) and his famous twirly mustache also move on. Melissa is next to be checked and gets a thumbs up. Finally, Angelo and Bryan are on the way.
10:15 p.m. So the red team is made up of Kevin, Jamie , Joe , Melissa and Bryan V. They all are whisked away in a car. The other chefs must now prep five oranges each. Tom warns them not to cut too much off the ends. Nini is the first chef on the second team. Gregory is among the returnees who desperately wants to avoid shelling almonds. Alas, he doesn’t get his wish as Lisa, Stephanie, Karen and Brian M. finish their oranges and join Nini and head out. Brian, a bit of a wit, notes to the ladies, “They all have to crack their nuts.’’ Joining Gregory on the last team are Lee Anne, Eric Adjepong (Season 16), Angelo and Melissa.
10:16 p.m. The red team is in the kitchen and they don’t really know how much time they have. Kevin says he and Bryan are going to make grilled artichokes with a sumac marinade. Daredevil Joe is making fresh pasta. Melissa is making an artichoke puree. Apparently, Joe and Melissa are going to make a big tortellono with an artichoke miso filling. As Kevin says, “If Joe can make pasta that fast, good on you, man.”
10:17 p.m. The blue team arrives. Brian M. says they are making artichoke tempura with Asian citrus aioli and tempura orange. The other dish will be a Mediterranean carpaccio with raw artichoke hearts. Karen is making a mint chimichurri.
10:20 p.m. Finally the green team flies through the door. Lee Anne is peeved because she has no access to a fryer. She finally dumps her artichokes in, but the tempura is more like pancake dough. Somehow, they all finish on time. I guess that’s why they are All Stars.
10:22 p.m. Gail tastes the blue team’s crispy artichoke with mint aioli. She declares it “tart.” Next is the green team’s artichoke crudo with carrot and fennel gremolata. They also made an almond crusted fried artichoke with orange aioli. Padma asks, “Is this how you wanted the tempura cooked?” Lee Anne explains she only had a minute and a half in the fryer. Last is the red team, which had the most time. They made char-grilled artichoke bottom with sumac, yogurt and tahini. Padma looks at the tortellono with artichoke barigoule in a pancetta brodo and asks, “What is this?” Joe states the obvious: “We wanted to make pasta for you.” Her response: “That’s one rich brodo.” Is that good or bad?
10:25 p.m. Padma says it was a really great start and each team had something delicious – and no team was perfect. Tom adds there was “nothing bad” but he calls out the tempura that was really heavy and dense. As for the red team, Padma dings Joe’s attempt at pasta for being doughy, dry and chewy. The blue team’s efforts, however, were declared “fantastic.” Gail notes the fry on their tempura was “perfect, golden, a little caramel – and I’m really into that aioli, guys.” Tom also notes the red team’s roasted artichoke “ate together really, really well.”
10:27 p.m. Tom announces that the red team is the winner since they had their favorite dish – and Joe is relieved to be off the hook. It’s his first quickfire win ever and he says it feels awesome., though his team won in spite of his dish and not because of it.
THE ELIMINATION CHALLENGE
10:30 p.m. A long cart piled with fresh seafood is rolled into the kitchen. They are told they are to work in teams and make a seafood feast that they will cook and serve at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. Tom then tells them, “We want to see what you can do when you only have the bare necessities.” The twist? Fire will be their only source of heat. “No electricity, no appliances, just your knives and your talent.”
10:34 p.m. Brian M., who is based in Miami, says, “This is in my wheelhouse. I have a restaurant called Urban Wood. All wood fire. I don’t even like electricity. I was raised a cave boy.” Padma reveals the red team’s advantage: “Each of you will become your own team captain and will get to choose who you will work with in five teams of three to create three cohesive dishes served family style.” Given that many of the chefs don’t know one another except by reputation, this could be tricky. If that weren’t enough pressure, Padma says they will be cooking for very intimidating group of culinary superstars including Nancy Silverton, Marcus Samuelsson, Michael Cimarusti and Jeremiah Tower.
10:37 p.m. Bryan V. gets first choice of teammates and recruits Eric, because he is a strong competitor. Kevin chooses Jennifer, who he calls “the seafood queen.” Jamie picks Gregory while Joe recruits Lee Anne. Melissa wants Angelo and also picks Karen. Joe picks Brian M. Jamie goes with Stephanie. Kevin beckons Nini. And Bryan V. is left with poor Lisa — no one likes to be picked last for gym. They have a half-hour to pantry shop and menu plan in the “Top Chef” kitchen and will have two and a half hours to prep and cook before serving.
10:42 p.m. Brian M. just takes over the menu planning even though Joe is team captain. Jamie decides to describe his crew’s dishes as beachy-type food since their own styles aren’t that cohesive. Bryan V.’s team is going for an end of summer menu, very bright. Eric vows he is faster than anyone else when it comes to snatching their preferred seafood but Lisa shrugs it off. Joe, meanwhile, is a bit indecisive about what to put on his flatbread and grabs a bit of everything.
10:45 p.m. The 15 chefs check out their digs in the Hollywood Hills. Kevin wants to sleep on the pool table. Brian M. is not too keen about the bunk-bed arrangements. But Bryan V. gets a bit verklempt as he tips his champagne glass to his competitors who he says he has watched each season.
10:48 p.m. Bryan M. is on the treadmill at 5:30 a.m. Angelo confesses to the camera that he has been doing “a lot of self-work, a lot of self-development” since he was first on the show in Season 8. His son Jacob Elias is 11 years old. He has gone through heart-bypass surgery and has a chromosomal deficiency and he calls him “his inspiration.”
10:50 p.m. Lee Anne reveals the last time she was on the show , she was cooking over an open fire — except it was in four feet of snow in Colorado when she was four months pregnant. She ended up with altitude sickness and had to go home. We get to see her ”little beefcake” of a son.
10:54 p.m. The wind is swirling on the beach, where Nini confesses she has never cooked in an open pit. “But Kevin has a beard,” she notes. “He looks like he could make a fire.” The team’s leader is going to make a braised swordfish and wisely asks Jennifer aka the seafood queen her opinion on how to cook it. Stephanie, meanwhile, thinks she is an underdog as a private chef, “just because how different my career is compared to a lot of these chefs who own restaurants.”
10:55 p.m. Eric is making prawns, Lisa is doing shrimp ceviche while Bryan V. is breaking down a sable fish and making a broth from the bones and corn grits. Over at the green team overseen, Melissa is proud of their Zen vibe as she is cooks radicchio over embers.
10:58 p.m. Joe is making his flatbread with smoked clams, sea urchin and smoked garlic aioli, but Brian M. is worried because he knows the agony of trying to do too much with one dish from his own season. Gregory, who was a runner-up on his season, felt like he had something more to give. Nini wants to learn as much as she can from her more experienced competitors – and then cheekily use her newfound powers against them. Meanwhile, Lee Anne makes a big boo-boo and pours oil on the grate causing the flames to rise and burning her fish. I think she might be doomed.
11:02 p.m. The green team is up first. On the menu is Melissa’s grilled swordfish with a hot and sour sauce, ember-grilled radicchio and Fresno chiles. Karen has whipped up grilled scallops, gingered plums, nuoc cham and napa cabbage slaw. Angelo delivers a West Coast oyster with smoked bacon rice porridge. Both Melissa and Karen’s were well received but Angelo’s clams were thought to be lacking.
11:04 p.m. As for the red team, Lee Anne is trying to undo the damage her oil did to her fish. As for Joe’s flatbread, he might have gone overboard with his aioli. Brian M. serves sea urchins and spot prawns with hibiscus ponzu and burnt avocado. As for the flatbread, it is a vessel for clams, fried garlic, sea urchin, pickled peppers and miso parmesan aioli. Then there is the troublesome glazed halibut with sweet corn and cabbage, sea urchin and uni miso beurre blanc. Alas, the seasoned diners pick up on every flaw.
11:06 p.m. On the yellow team, Jamie decides to scald his cream with the embers. Gregory presents the diners with his charred salmon with grilled peaches and roasted chili dressing. He hears good things. Jamie is next with steamed mussels with ember-scalded cream and toasted bread and Stephanie follows with a brined prawn with charred tomato sauce and roasted corn dressing. Nancy Silverton raves, “This is the meal we expected and deserved.”
11:08 p.m. The blue team with Jennifer, Nini and Kevin seem fairly confident. Jennifer has whipped up spiced tuna loin over grilled kale with red pepper tahini sauce. Nini made a grilled scallop with carrots, tomatoes, charred Brussel sprouts and fennel salad. Kevin made an eye of swordfish braised in chorizo with coal-roasted onion, olives and peas with sourdough bread burned in the coals. Jennifer’s dish is lavished with praise. They like how Kevin’s dish looked but not so much the taste.
11:10 p.m. Lisa starts off the aqua team with charred shrimp and scallop ceviche with candied squash. Bryan V. made fresh corn porridge, sablefish and charred leeks. Eric did a Chesapeake boil and wanted to celebrate the prawn. Padma says that Eric’s dish had the best flavor but all managed to please their palates. Suzanne Goin disagrees with the other judges who are less effusive and says there was a sophistication to the dishes that they did not see before.
11:12 p.m. Tom really liked Jennifer’s dish and celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower concurred, saying, “I could certainly have your dish for lunch every day.” Tom also liked Melissa’s meal and how she handled her charred radicchio. However, Padma says that one team stood out and that team was … the yellow team! Guess Stephanie no longer has to feel like an underdog. The winner? Gregory. As for the losers, it’s the red team. Someone has to say bye-bye. Padma says, “Joe, pack your knives and go.” But as usual, he can get redemption in “Last Chance Kitchen.”
Coming up: A preview of future episodes reveals such upcoming guests as “American Idol” winner and “The Voice” coach Kelly Clarkson, TV and film director Jon Favreau (“Chef”) and action star and local taco maven Danny Trejo. Also the show will head to Italy — the first time that it has filmed in Europe — for its always-epic finale.
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