When I heard Top Chef: Seattle would be starting with 21 contestants, I wanted to down some Pepto in advance. Last season proved bigger wasn't always better in Texas when we started with 29 chefs and two un-ending episodes of qualifying rounds. Usually I hate when reality competitions load up their first episodes with contestants we never get a chance to care about (ANTM is a notable exception!) but this premiere was refreshing and left me optimistic about the rest of the season. The secret ingredient is some strong casting. There are definitely some stars this time around who came forward, in addition to highly credentialed chefs. Plus, new judge Wolfgang Puck was on fire serving up his one-liners. (I wasn't a huge fan of his borderline sexist jokes, though. Okay fine, I laughed a little bit).
This qualifying round split up the contestants into four groups spread around the country, each group visiting a judge for a chance to compete in Seattle. Here's my ridiculously thorough account of how each one did.
Location: Los Angeles
Judge: Tom Colicchio
For the first group in the preliminary rounds, paragon of dignified balding Tom Colicchio didn't eliminate based on a finished product. Instead, he hovered over his chefs as they worked in his kitchen, looking out for any false flicks of the knife or anyone dropping a slab of fish on the floor and putting it back on the plate (done it, proud of it).
Whether it was his credentials, his actual skill, or his practically guaranteed spot as one of the top Top Chef troublemakers of all time, John Tesar got his chef's jacket almost immediately. Even though he's been dubbed The Most Hated Chef in Dallas by a local magazine, and has a "self medicating" past and a reputation for being a hothead, he played by Tom's rules for now. Let's hope he's a Spike-like villain rather than a Sara/Heather-grade a-hole. (Sorry for even bringing them up).
Another chef who earned Tom's stamp of approval for her totellini-stuffing skills was Lizzie Binder -- and Tom didn't even hear her call him "beautiful"! I'm liking her already, but I don't understand her logic when she said, "If I win Top Chef, my kids can do whatever they want to." Either way, another great showing for mom-strength!
Micah Fields came to the kitchen with some excellent credentials: executive chef at the Standard Hotel. The only time I ever get to set foot inside the Standard is when I'm invited to an especially swanky book party, so props to Micah for so much success at age 28. He actually had a tough, sweaty time fileting some black bass, but overall, he out-shined other chefs with his confidence around the kitchen and willingness to jump in and help.
Which brings us to the stragglers. Anthony Gray, who looked a little sad from the beginning, immediately set off Tom's warning alarms when he tried to break down duck carcasses with a paring knife. Anthony passed it off as his own chef-quirk, but it sort of looked like he was genuinely flustered. I understand wanting to be violent to ducks, though — I've hated them ever since a duck chased me around the parking lot at Stone Mountain when I was five, and since last month when a goose made me flip over in a kayak. He won some points back with Tom with his excellently banged-out Hamachi, but Tom wasn't in a forgiving mood. Too little, too late.
We also lost a hilarious ironic mustache. His 'stache gave Jorel Pierce a bit too much confidence at first, saying he could butcher chickens with his eyes closed. Unfortunately, he didn't ask Tom how he wanted the chickens before he started hacking away, and he never forgave him for that.
NEXT: Sexy besties battle it out in Los Angeles for Emeril