The first episode of Top Chef 4 has our latest batch of cheftestants arriving in Chicago, the town that will be the home for this season. Tonight, we’ll have our first chance to see the chefs in action and see how well they withstand the pressure of competition.

We get a few glimpses into the chef’s backgrounds: Ryan comments that he started cooking in his dad’s kitchen when he was 11 and two other chefs were fired because he “outcooked” them at 11 years old. Zoi notes that she brings a softer side to the competition. New Zealander Mark says he came to the States with only $200 and a backpack, and wants to use the winnings to start a restaurant.

The chefs all convene at Pizzeria Uno (let the product placement begin!) where they dutifully comment about how great it is to be in a Chicago institution (right, an institution that’s been franchised across the country). Richard, who, like Marcel Vigneron of Top Chef 2, likes to use modern techniques that are sometimes called molecular gastronomy, thinks that Chicago is a great blend of high and low, street food and fine dining.

We get a few more snippets of personalities. Big tattooed Erik says he can be very vocal about getting things done right, while Stephanie worries that her weakness is nerves.

As the chefs convene and get to know each other, Jennifer and Zoi make an announcement: the two are a couple. Hmmm. I am concerned that the Top Chef 4 producers are including a couple to try to amp up the soap opera aspect of things, but hope that the show will ultimately try to stay focused on the cooking. Spike thinks it’s “bullsh*t” that a couple has been included, but doesn’t seem worried.

Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio arrive to welcome the chefs, and then it’s straight into a Quickfire. Padma shows them their kitchen, and the lockers into which they can put the $200 worth of personal ingredients they have brought with them. They can use those and the ingredients in the Top Chef kitchen to create a deep dish pizza that also shows their signature style.

Dale decides to put some Asian flair with his, Valerie is going for a meat-and-potatoes style. Manuel decides to do classic Italian, and Nikki is also going classic with a white pie, but since she is used to the New York thinner style crust, she’s not sure how to use the crust. Mark brought marmite, a yeast extract flavoring that’s popular in New Zealand and Australia. Antonia is using prosciutto and arugula. Richard is making a pizza that has a nod to his current life in Atlanta, in that it uses peaches and sweet tea. Andrew encounters some early difficulties; when Richard uses an extra deep dish pan, Andrew finds himself without one, and has to use a cast-iron pan instead.

The pizzas come out of the oven, and we have a lot of fugly-time pizzas happening, some that are falling apart, some that seem to be a big puff of dough with a tiny dollop of topping in the middle. The chefs put them into delivery boxes and insulated bags and head out to a fancy Chicago townhome to deliver them to…

…Rocco DiSpirito! He will be the judge for the Quickfire with Padma. The chefs serve their pizzas. Stephanie’s “smells funky” Rocco thinks, while Nimma’s is missing salt.

Rocco announces the best and the worst. In the worst group, it’s Lisa, Nimma, Valerie, Manuel, Andrew, Stephanie, Nikki and Zoi. Um, sound familiar? Swap out Mark for Manuel and you have my list of predictions for the bottom eight on Top Chef 4! Check me out!

Mark, however, happily defied my expectations and made it into the top-rated group in this Quickfire, along with Richard, Jennifer, Spike, Dale, Erik, Ryan and Antonia. Richard gets called out for presenting a dish that at first, Rocco couldn’t imagine would be good but that defied his expectations.

The chefs learn that this isn’t just the site of their Quickfire, it will be the home they live in while here in Chicago, and they happily retire for the evening. The chefs spend some time getting to know one another, but Nimma and Dale keep separate from the group, the usual “it’s a competition” “not there to make friends” type of thing.

The next day, it’s time for the elimination challenge. The top-rated chefs draw numbered knives. They get to pick a bottom-rated chef to compete against in the elimination challenge. Each of them will create their own version of a classic dish, and the lower-rated chef gets to pick which one from a list. The winner of each pair can go on to be the possible winner of the challenge, and the loser could be sent home.

Richard picks first, picking Andrew, who is happy to go against the guy who took his pan. They are doing crab cakes. Mark picks Stephanie, who picks duck a la orange. Jennifer picks Nikki, who picks lasagna, Antonia picks Nimma, who picks shrimp scampi. Spike picks Lisa, who picks eggs Benedict. Dale picks Manuel, who chooses steak au poivre. Ryan picks Valerie, who selects chicken piccata, and Erik picks Zoi and both are stuck with the technically difficult soufflé.

The chefs shop and head back to the kitchen. Andrew is chagrinned to find there is no mayonnaise in the pantry, and he didn’t buy any. Richard did, and momentarily the competition gets hold of him and he doesn’t share. He rethinks this, and offers his mayo to Andrew, but Andrew has already made his own. Stephanie is keeping it simple with her duck a la orange and is concerned when she sees how intricate Mark’s is. Antonia decides she’s going to focus on her sauce, while Nimma is continuing to speak too softly for me to really know or care what she is saying. I think her cauliflower flan didn’t set so she decides to make it a cauliflower “scramble.” Something about this annoys me. Right before they serve, Richard does some fancy thing with a smoker and some spice, and stretches plastic wrap over the top of the dish to trap in the spicy smoke.

The judges for this challenge are Rocco, Padma, Tom and Anthony Bourdain. Each pair serves. Both Andrew and Richard do well, but Richard is the winner. Mark’s deconstructed duck a la orange confuses the judges and they declare Stephanie the winner. Jennifer and Nikki both have tasty dishes, but Nikki’s homemade pasta wins out over Jennifers undercooked rutabaga. Antonia gets a big “mmm” from the judges, while Nimma’s is declared salty and she loses their battle. Spike and Lisa give the judges a touch decision, but Lisa is declared the winner. Dale’s dish wins over Manuel’s. The judges have issues with both Ryan’s and Valerie’s dishes – neither are true chicken piccata – but Ryan loses. Erik and Zoi’s soufflés are both failures as soufflés, but Erik’s is worse, so he loses.

The top four are Antonia, Nikki, Stephanie and Richard, with Stephanie being called the winner for this challenge. Ryan, Erik, Nimma and Mark are the bottom four, and Nimma is sent home. We have our first fallen cheftestant on Top Chef 4, but she’ll soon have others to join her!

– Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist
(Image courtesy of Bravo)


Staff Columnist, BuddyTV