Top Chef Season 19, Episode 1: It’s a Competition, But We Also Have Feelings

As Padma Lakshmi notes when the chefs first file into the Top Chef kitchen, Houston is the nation's 4th largest city (and ranks #1 in ethnic diversity, surpassing even Queens, New York). Guest judge and Season 18 finalist Chef Dawn Burrell echoed Lakshmi's welcome. As always, the crop of contestants is the créme de la créme of fine dining: James Beard Award nominees and winners, chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants. 10 of the 15 chefs are minorities (yahoo!).

Top Chef 19 Episode 1 Quickfire Challenge

Chefs will draw knives to be sorted into trios to cook one dish, per group, in 30 minutes. Team members will have 10 minutes each to contribute. The twist is the chefs aren't allowed to speak with their team members.

Teams:
Red: Jae, Leia, Stephanie
Blue: Ashleigh, Luke, Sam
Green: Damarr, Evelyn, Nick
Yellow: Buddha, Jo, Monique
Brown: Jackson, Robert, Sarah

It was an exceptionally strange experience to watch the chefs, during the first leg of the challenge, move slowly. Perhaps I'm being harsh--it is the first episode, after all. But having watched previous seasons as often as I have, chefs don't have the luxury of slowly gathering items. The Top Chef kitchen clock runs in real time. Chef Sam Kang, whose teammates noticed he was moving slowly during the first leg of the quickfire, clarified, "You can taste crazy in food." Fair enough.

TOP CHEF -- "Primal Instincts" Episode 1901 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish, Dawn Burrell, Padma Lakshmi --
(Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

Another disconcerting aspect of the Quickfire was the similarity in each dish's ingredients. Lakshmi did not specify chefs had to only use pork, scallops, corn, and peppers, yet almost all teams stuck to some combination of those ingredients. The Top Chef kitchen is a cornucopia, so hewing to the same components as everyone else isn't a great way to stand out.

Chefs did begin to distinguish themselves, however, during the Quickfire, and not always in a good way. A month before production began, Chef Jackson Kalb tested positive for Covid and lost his sense of taste and smell. He decided not to tell any of his fellow competitors, including the teammates with whom he's making the Quickfire dish. I don't understand how this ethical violation is permitted on a cooking show. He asks a producer, "Does that make me a dick?" Only if you don't have to work in teams, so I'm sure it'll be fi--OH WAIT.

Chef Luke Kolpin worked at Noma, the world's number one restaurant, for over eight years. When Lakshmi has him share this little factoid with the contestants, there is a ripple of unease in the crowd. That's like telling someone you were chef de cuisine at El Bulli. Would you care to guess, however, which chef was unable to get his team's dish plated during the third and final time slot? Yes, Mister Noma himself.

TOP CHEF -- "Primal Instincts" Episode 1901 -- Pictured: Ashleigh Shanti --
Pictured: Ashleigh Shanti (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

There were some positive standouts: Chef Jo Chan, who exudes a quiet, strong confidence, worked for Jonathan Waxman, and impressed the judges with her salsa verde. Chef Buddha Lo was born in Australia, and by age 17 he was working at the Michelin-starred Cordeillan-Bages restaurant in Pauillac, France. My early favorite this season is Chef Ashleigh Shanti, who specializes in Black Appalachian food, and is the only chef who also has a sommelier certification. Like Chef Chan, she is self-assured without needing to scream about it (looking at you, Mike Isabella). This season Top Chef has two Mexican-Salvadorean chefs: Robert Hernandez, a private chef who hails from San Francisco, and Evelyn Garcia, who has worked for many years with Season 1 winner Harold Dieterle.

Quickfire winners: Yellow team! Chefs Buddha Lo, Monique Feyebesse, and Jo Chan, for their Thai barbecued beef with salsa verde salad, charred scallions & fish sauce butter.
Quickfire losers: Blue team. Chefs Sam Kang, Luke Kolpin, and Ashleigh Shanti, because their dish didn't make its way onto the plate in time.

Top Chef 19 Episode 1

Elimination Challenge

The chefs, staying in the same groups from the Quickfire, must create three-course tasting menus featuring primal cuts of beef. Five options are available: chuck, rib, short loin, sirloin, and round. Each team must butcher their own meat, and each team will only have access to the cut of their team's choosing. Guest judges include chef Robert del Grande and Top Chef Season 10 winner Kristen Kish.

I find the prep and cook time footage for Elimination Challenges can be very illuminating; this is the part of each episode where being able to compete at all is on the line. Additionally, I tend to be suspicious of chefs who, when their teammates say they want their tasting menu to have a specific flavor profile, feel the need to passive-aggressively state they grew up eating something else. Stephanie Miller, a chef from Bismarck, North Dakota, was on her Quickfire team with Leia Gaccione and Jae Jung. As the trio planned their Elimination Challenge dishes, Jung and Gaccione said they were comfortable with Asian flavors, while Miller began to ruminate on how she grew up on a farm in the Midwest where her family ate steak multiple times a week for dinner, always served with a baked potato. My eyes rolled so hard they fell out the back of my head. Imagine having to learn something new, maybe even from your teammates! I'm sure they'd be happy to share any information they have! She didn't bother to ask. To add insult to injury, Miller had the nerve to say that adding braised bok choy to her dish "is enough to tie our dishes together." Wow, I assume you think plopping some cardamom pods into a soup makes it dal?

TOP CHEF -- "Primal Instincts" Episode 1901 -- Pictured: (l-r) Damarr Brown, Evelyn Garcia, Nick Wallace, Chris Williams, Gail Simmons --
Pictured: (l-r) Damarr Brown, Evelyn Garcia, Nick Wallace, Chris Williams, Gail Simmons (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

The irony is that after all that posturing, Miller FORGOT to put the bok choy on her plate. It's incredible that her dish, which made no sense to the judges--the entire red team landed in the bottom--wasn't as bad as Gaccione's top round steak summer rolls with peaches & tahini lime sauce. At judges' table, Chef Kish said to Gaccione what no chef wants to hear: there was so much gristle in my first bite "I had to spit it out." During deliberations, Kish noted that cooking and wrapping beef with a rice paper wrapper, or adding bok choy to a plate, doesn't make it Asian.

There was some good news, however. I was a little worried for Chef Hernandez, whose cooking montage was edited to imply he wouldn't plate in time. Luckily that was just a bit of reality show smoke and mirrors. Co-head judge, chef, and proud Italian-American Tom Colicchio warmly complimented Chef Hernandez, saying "Your gnocchi were really good." Lakshmi and Kish also praised the dish, which paired a Castelvetrano tapenade with parmesan cream, gnocchi, and braised pot roast. For her kitfo--an Ethiopian beef tartare--Chef Shanti won rave reviews; one guest said the dish "could go down in tartare history." Because he had immunity, Chef Buddha Lo took a big swing and didn't miss: guests and judges loved that he made a cake inspired by spotted dick, a classic English dessert, with miso caramel and beef fat ice cream. Colicchio let out a rare wide grin, saying, "He has immunity and decided to go for it." The ultimate compliment.

Winner: Chef Robert Hernandez.
Eliminated: "Leia, please pack your knives and go."

Quote Float:

Chef Sam Kang, on getting to hang out with fellow contestants at the house for the first time: "Yes, it's a competition, but we also have feelings."

Chef Lo: "I might be crazy, but in England there's a dessert called spotted dick."
Chef Feybesse: "How do you spell that?"

Days Since Last Risotto Attempt: 217
Days Since Last Successful Risotto Attempt: 5+ years

READ MORE: Top Chef Winners: Where These Cuisine Creators Landed After Stardom

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