Top Chef - Season Three, Premiere Episode

Originally aired on Wednesday, 06/13/2007

Episode Rating:  ***(3 stars out of 5)

Episode Overview: Top Chef kicks off its third season in its new location: Miami

Episode Highlights:

  • The chefs arrive in Miami to meet with host Padma Lakshmi, judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, and a very special - and very intimidating - first guest chef.
  • The chefs are thrown into their first Quickfire Challenge and the competition is under way.
  • Some chefs quickly find themselves in over their heads as the Elimination Challenge puts their technique, taste, and time management skills to the test.

The newest batch of Top Chef  “cheftestants” converges on Miami, and while there are still too many individuals to get a strong sense of any one chef, we get some glimpses:

  • Sara M. is a cheese-maker, and says she doesn’t like to follow the rules.

  • Clay is a sous chef from Mississippi, currently residing in Santa Barbara. He didn’t go to culinary school, but is proud to bring the flavors of the South to Top Chef.

  • Joey is an executive chef from NYC, and looks and sounds the part.

  • Dale, one of two mohawks featured on this season, is from Chicago and is trying to start his own restaurant.

  • Tre is from Dallas. He has a tattoo on his arm that says, “GOTTA HAVE PASSION,” and speaks with infectious enthusiasm about the joy he takes in watching people eat his food.
  • There’s another Sara (Sara N.), this one an executive chef residing in New York.

  • Then there’s Hung, who proudly proclaims himself to be a “CPA – Certified Professional A**hole.”  He is clearly relishing the possibility of playing the villain. Didn’t Marcel Vigneron say the two of them are friends in the All-Star episode? Figures.

  • Micah is a caterer who believes cooking is first and foremost an art form.

  • Sandee is one of the local Miami chefs, and the second mohawk hairdo. She is also only relatively recently a professional chef, having started it as a second career a few years back.

  • Lia is a chef in NYC as well.

  • CJ is private chef, and also incredibly tall. That is not his only unusual physical trait, although it’s certainly the more obvious one. He is in remission from cancer, and, as he puts it, he has “a false testicle and is ready to cook.”

  • Howie is a bald Miami native, currently executive chef as his own restaurant.

  • Casey is an executive chef in Dallas, TX.

  • Camille is an owner/chef of a restaurant in Brooklyn.

  • Brian is an executive chef in San Diego.

The chefs all arrive at their destination: the opulent former home of Gianni Versace, which has been prepared as a meet and greet party for them. They mingle, drink champagne, and nosh, but are soon greeted by Padma and Tom. Padma announces that their Top Chef Quickfire Challenge will begin immediately. They will use the food left on the buffet tables as ingredient for a small amuse bouche (generally a small bite or two of food meant to “amuse” and interest the palate as opposed to an actual full course) that will serve as an introduction to their culinary style.

The chefs spend a frantic ten minutes putting their dishes together, a task made much more difficult by their only utensils: plastic dinnerware.

Tom and Padma make the rounds and then Tom announces his picks for worst and best. For worst, Tre, Dale and Clay. Tre’s oyster dish used champagne, which Tom says would have need to be used in a vinaigrette rather than straight – not acidic enough. Dale’s beef dish used too assertive of a cheese. Clay’s dish wasn’t truly an amuse bouche; he plated his fruit gazpacho inside a hollowed-out Granny Smith. It was far too large to be considered an amuse bouche.

For the best, Tom picks Sara M., Hung and Micah, with Michah’s Tuscan-inspired “sushi” taking the top place. Micah is happy, but says immunity won’t change her efforts in the elimination challenge.

The chefs now head to their extremely envy-inducing penthouse at the Fountainbleu. Forget the prizes, anyone would want to stay in the competition just to have a chance to ogle the view or take advantage of the hot tub on the apartment’s giant deck.

As the chefs mingle at the apartment, Clay jokes around quite a bit about his Quickfire loss. He seems unable to let it go, but when he mentions his dad, too, was a chef, and committed suicide, it seems clear why there might be even more than cash and pride at stake for this Southern chef.

Not everyone is into the socializing though. Howie wants to stay focused, and Hung says he learns about people from how they act in the kitchen, not small talk.

The next day, we all have a chance to see how the chefs act in the kitchen. The Elimination Challenge is a twist on the old classic of “Surf and Turf.” There are several selections of land- and sea-based proteins available to the chefs, some selections more traditional while others, like snake or kangaroo, are a little less common.

They draw knives to see the order of protein selection (there are only two servings of each type). The first to pick generally go safe, leaving the more unusual proteins for the last few chefs.

After the proteins are selected, the chefs all head out to do some additional shopping. At the store, Micah tries to calm down Clay, and Joey is aggravated by what he perceives to be as condescension on her part.

Half of the chefs cook first, and the two hour prep is not nearly long enough for at least one chef: at the end of the period, while his sea urchin risotto is plated and his fried frog legs are completed. He doesn’t get them on the plate in time.

The chefs serve their food to the judges, and special guest judge, Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain is known for his adventurous take on food, so the chefs will not only have to make a tasty dish, but will also have to do that without playing it safe.

Gail Simmons likes Sandee’s crab jambalaya with fried frog legs on top. Tom really enjoys how CJ combined his ostrich and crab into a single dish. Howie’s incomplete dish does not please the judges, but they concede his risotto was tasty. Clay’s, although complete, is not so tasty; his boar is tough and the flavor is bad.

The next group is more successful. Hung’s raw geoduck and black chicken cooked sous vide impresses the judges, and his fellow competitor Tre. Gail only has one small quibble with it, and that it that it’s lacking in color. Tre’s dish is also a hit with the judges, even though they feel he played it more conservatively. Dale, who, as the last to pick his proteins, was left with alligator and a seafood he had never cooked before, wasn’t able to pull it off. Brian, who went for a thematic pairing of snake and eels, seems to have shot himself in the foot with an overambitious plan, and his fried results don’t impress the judges much.

After the judges deliberate, Tre and Hung are brought back as the top two, and Tre is picked as the winner. He gets a stack of Bourdain’s books as a prize. Brian, Dale, Clay and Howie are in the bottom, but it’s ultimately Clay who is cut loose. While the others made key mistakes and bad choices, Clay seems to be lacking in the basic fundamental technique needed.

And with that, we have our first cut! Tune in next week to see who gets chopped next. 

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)