“Top Chef” is doing something unprecedented for its 20th season. For the first time it’s bringing together 16 chefs representing 11 different versions of the show from around the globe for a World All-Stars competition. And for the first time the show is setting an entire season abroad, with the main competition taking place in London and the finale set for Paris. So what happened in the season 20 premiere episode, “London Calling,” when the cheftestants got their first taste of the competition? Read on to find out.
The 16 competitors playing for the $250,000 grand prize are Samuel Albert (France), Ali Ghzawi (Middle East and North Africa), Sara Bradley (Kentucky), Charbel Hayek (Middle East and North Africa), Victoire Gouloubi (Italy), Dale MacKay (Canada), Sylwia Stachyra (Poland), Luciana Berry (Brazil), May Phattanant Thongthong (Thailand), Begoña Rodrigo (Spain), Buddha Lo (Houston), Tom Goetter (Germany), Gabriel Rodriguez (Mexico), Dawn Burrell (Portland), Amar Santana (California), and Nicole Gomes (Canada).
“‘When I got called for this opportunity, I couldn’t refuse it,” said Buddha, the reigning “Top Chef” champ from season 19’s Houston edition of the show. “‘Top Chef’ season 20 is like the ‘Top Chef’ culinary Olympics.” And this premiere episode had the challenging task of introducing us to all 16 competitors and showcasing their personalities in a crowded and hectic first week of challenges.
“You represent some of the best of the best,” host Padma Lakshmi told them upon greeting them for the first time. And there was no time to waste, so she immediately introduced them to their first task.
Padma told them that they would have a mere three minutes to raid the “Top Chef” kitchen pantry for just five ingredients — to do what with? They’d find out later. So after a soothing double-decker bus tour through the city the chaos began. But there was one twist to the challenge that the chefs noticed right away: there was no protein in the pantry. Would this be a vegetarian challenge? Tom grabbed some red cabbage. Gabri went for the chiles. Buddha’s strategy was to choose ingredients that would be the most versatile.
But just as the chefs were getting used to the idea of a vegetable challenge, Padma introduced another twist. All of a sudden judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons rolled out a table covered in seafood. And then one more twist: the chefs would have to pair off in teams of two according to what pantry ingredients they’d selected. They’d have to make dishes using at least one seafood item from the table and the ingredients they’d collected at the start of the challenge — nothing else.
After surveying each other’s goods, the chefs formed the following teams: Samuel and Tom, Sara and Dale, Dawn and Charbel, Buddha and Sylwia, Victoire and Nicole, Luciana and Gabri, Begoña and May, and Amar and Ali.
Samuel thought his team’s French-German combo would make for a compatible partnership, though on Samuel’s show they had an hour to make their dishes as opposed to the half-hour they were given for this Quickfire. Similarly, Gabri and Luciana shared similar flavor profiles from Mexico and Brazil, respectively. Sylwia thought Buddha was a little “snobby” during his season but “so far he’s really nice and like a professional guy.” And Nicole trusted “Top Chef: Italy” alum Victoire to make risotto but started to regret it when she sampled a bit of her essentially-raw finished product.
After all was said and done, Nicole and Victoire indeed had one of the worst dishes, deemed “too al dente” by Padma. Charbel and Dawn made mackerel that “left something to be desired,” and their under-seasoned zucchini was also a problem. And Samuel and Tom‘s gritty cabbage emulsion got in the way of their “beautifully” cooked salmon. Better luck next time.
Getting good news were Luciana and Gabri, whose “raw scallop was spectacular.” Sylwia and Buddha‘s pan-fried turbot had a great “old-school approach.” And Sara and Dale made a “fantastic” langoustine with a sauce that was “so rich in flavor.” It didn’t surprise me when Sarah and Dale were announced as the winners of the Quickfire; during the tasting of their dish Tom Colicchio seemed almost giddy. Their reward: immunity in the first Elimination Challenge. That would be a crucial advantage especially as the chefs get acclimated to the competition, but Dale didn’t just want immunity. He also wanted to win the Elimination Challenge to make a statement.
On to the main event, and this time it really would be a vegetable challenge. Padma told them, “We want you to create a vegetable-forward dish where the protein is used more like a seasoning or an accent.” This was an individual challenge for which they’d have 250 pounds to shop and two hours tomorrow to prep and cook at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The guest judge for this challenge would be Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett.
Begoña, for one, was thrilled to undertake a vegetable challenge, but Samuel was immediately thrown out of his comfort zone by the fact that they would have to shop for their own food — “Top Chef: France” works differently. Gabri also had difficulty finding the right ingredients for his Mextlapique, a dish of grilled fish and condiments wrapped in a corn husk. And Dawn was very much on the struggle bus just trying to figure out what to make. The last time she was so creatively blocked was in the season 18 finale where she lost the competition. Charbel seemed more confident, though; he’d planned to play it safe in the early challenges, but knew he’d have to take risks right away after seeing the caliber of the competition during the Quickfire.
Cooking the following day at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Dawn decided to mash up her veggies into a West Indian-style patty, which sounded worrisome. Samuel also seemed fairly overwhelmed trying to show us myriad cooking techniques on his one dish. Tom was more focused, going all-in on carrot while Charbel was laser-focused on onion for his dish. Begoña prepared pumpkin in a spaghetti-like form. And then there was Gabri, who zipped around the kitchen so fast and furiously that he accidentally spilled water into Dawn’s pot, and boy was Dawn pissed. But somehow she was able to get herself together enough to salvage her dish and finish on time.
Meal service began with Sara’s cover crops with pot liquor, Sylwia’s beetroot with goat cheese, Amar’s glazed and pickled vegetables and seared scallop, and Tom’s carrot extravaganza. Of those, Amar had the best cooked vegetables, though he made the scallop the centerpiece of his dish instead of an accent. Sylwia also had perfectly cooked vegetables. Tom’s carrots were a little sweet, then a little bitter, but in a good way. And Sara’s presentation wasn’t particularly appetizing.
Next up were Ali’s sea bass with cauliflower, Charbel’s roasted onion with onion puree, Dale’s roasted and pureed eggplant, and Buddha’s eggplant with shrimp and shitake. Ali and Dale both inspired what would be a common complaint among the judges: their proteins seemed like afterthoughts that didn’t add anything to their dishes. Meanwhile, Buddha’s flavors were subtle. Charbel was the biggest hit of this group, using a simple ingredient but executing it perfectly.
The third course consisted of Begoña’s pumpkin noodles, May’s garden salad with sea bass, Samuel’s tiger prawn carpaccio, and Dawn’s onion and squash patty. Begoña’s dish was “amazing,” and May’s was “vibrant,” but the other two chefs ran into trouble. Dawn made too much of a pastry dish when the challenge was to highlight the flavors of vegetables. And Samuel failed Seafood 101 by forgetting to devein his prawns, leaving the judges with little slimy entrails on their plates. No bueno.
The final four were Gabri’s Mextlapique, Nicole’s “summer bass” with garden vegetables, Victoire’s cassava with cocoa butter, and Luciana’s cassava prepared three ways. Yet again, the judges found the proteins to be entirely superfluous on Nicole, Victoire, and Luciana’s dishes despite their strong vegetable elements. Gabri’s charred dish, on the other hand, left a burnt taste in the mouth. And he cursed out loud when he realized he forgot the chicken emulsion to tie it all together. A fatal mistake?
The first chefs called before the tribunal were Begoña, Charbel, and Tom, who could breathe a sigh of relief when they learned that they had the judges’ three favorite dishes. Tom was praised for showing the versatility of a humble vegetable. Charbel was credited for his confidence in serving an onion as his first dish of the season, and his decision to put soubise between the layers of onion was especially impressive. And Begoña had the most beautiful plate with “such intense flavor.” Gail said, “The more I ate, the more I loved every bite.” At this point I figured Begoña had won the challenge, but the judges announced Charbel as the victor. As the old saying goes, never underestimate a confident man with an onion.
Then it was time for the bad news. Samuel, Gabri, and Dawn were the three poorest chefs of the challenge. Dawn seemed pretty safe, though; while the judges thought she failed to truly highlight the vegetables in her dish, it was a better dish overall than her two competitors’; Tom Colicchio called it the right dish for the wrong challenge. So it was down to Samuel and Gabri. Gabri’s vegetables were too charred and not flavorful, while Samuel prepared good veggies but committed a cardinal sin by not cleaning his prawns properly. It turned out that that basic, fundamental error was the deciding factor. Serving the judges seafood intestines resulted in Samuel’s elimination.
“I did a mistake to forget the intestine, and I completely accept the consequences,” said Samuel in his exit interview. But he’ll have an opportunity to fight his way back into the competition on “Last Chance Kitchen.” “If I have to start this competition by the bottom to finish on the top at the end, if it’s the way, it’s the way.”
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