Paul Cheney / Bravo

Top Chef Puts Charleston In Charge

It's veterans versus newbies as the show kicks off a new season in South Carolina.

Meet The Chefs...Well, Most Of Them

Did you know Charleston, South Carolina qualifies as a "culinary hot spot"? Neither did I! But here we are in the aforementioned culinary hot spot of Charleston, South Carolina for the premiere of Season 14 of Top Chef. "Charleston's roots run deep," says Padma. "And recently it's experienced a culinary renaissance that has taken the food world by storm." Since no one is there to fact-check her, I guess we'll just have to believe what she says. Although, I have my doubts, unless the "food world" is a totally different world than the one I live in.

This season, the producers cross-bred regular Top Chef with All-Stars. As a result, we begin with eight new chefs and eight returning chefs. Up first are the eight newbies, who must compete against one another while the returning chefs watch secretly from the Stew Room. Among the new chefs are a chef named Annie who wears glasses; Jamie who has neck tattoos; an unidentified chef with five kids; and Jim Smith, a self-described Star Trek nerd who has the most Witness Protection-friendly name of all of the chefs.

Quickfire Challenge: The Newbies

Tom tasks the newbies with making as many dishes as they want from a mystery ingredient. They have an hour, and the mystery ingredient turns out not to be weird at all: it's chicken. Jim Smith, the Canadian Girlfriend of the bunch, can't wait to make chicken livers with some kind of strawberry sauce for dipping. So...I guess he's going home, because that sounds like barf. We meet Silva, who is Haitian and very calm and organized, two things both the returning chefs and Tom notice. We also meet the other Smith, BJ, who owns three restaurants that are, in his words, "fancy barbecue." He claims to have other tricks up his sleeve, though. We learn that the chef with five kids is named Gerald, and that Jamie is 75% tattooed. We find out this last stat after Padma salaciously asks, "Are you tattooed everywhere?" Keep it in your pants, Padma, the season's barely started! Newbie Silvia decides to make pasta -- fitting considering she's from Italy, even though she promised herself she wouldn't try to make pasta during a Quickfire Challenge. Chef Emily Hahn is from Charleston, seems twitchy, and happily offers that she has been fired from jobs because of her attitude. She then adds, "But attitude is everything." A second later, she flatly tells Tom and Padma, "Enough talking." Smooth! Looking forward to more of your brand of crazy, Emily!

Italian Silvia plates her fresh pasta first. Tom and Padma seem to like it okay, but Tom damns it with "could use a little more seasoning." Lack of a little salt has sent more than one chef home from this show. Then...no one else plates anything until the clock expires. Not. One. Other. Dish. Allegedly, Jim Smith realizes that he's only used the innards of his entire chicken, which might not sit well with Tom and Padma. I think the combo of livers and strawberries might be more damning, but what do I know? Tom and Padma aren't disgusted by the flavor of his dish, but they're both like, "Is that all there is?" The more devastating question Tom asks is for Annie: "Why exactly is this a panzanella?" Annie nervously replies, "Um, the bread salad underneath the chicken." Tom smiles and says, "I know what panzanella is. I'm asking you why you think this is panzanella?" Damn! Did it just get cold in this kitchen or what?

Overall, Tom enjoys everyone's food, but wishes there were more. Jim's disgusting chicken innards with strawberries wins the challenge. Even though Annie's non-panzanella panzanella qualifies her for bottom three, Five-Kid Gerald's uninspired chicken dish earns him a chance at possible elimination.

Quickfire Challenge: The Returning Chefs

Padma invites in the returning chefs, who are a mixture of familiar faces and chefs I'll just have to take the show's word were on previous seasons. Like Sam Talbot from Season 2. Sure, that guy was on. I guess. I do recognize Brooke Williamson, the runner-up from Season 10, and complicated Katsuji Tanabe from the Season 12. The others seem as familiar to me as someone I maybe saw at the grocery store? Italian Silvia adorably flushes because of her longstanding crush on Sam. Predictably, the newbie chef who's all "those returning chefs aren't all that" is Emily. "They all got eliminated," she says. "I'm not worried at all."

Padma introduces new Top Chef judge Graham Elliot, and lets him explain the challenge for the returning chefs. Unlike the newbies, the returning chefs have only thirty minutes to prepare their dish: a unique spin on the Charleston staple of shrimp and grits. This is the third Top Chef excursion for Casey Thompson, who was on Season 2 and All-Stars. She happily admits that she's either a competition whore or a TV whore: "I'm one of them." Brooke makes one of the more interesting versions of the dish, creating a Scotch Egg with ground shrimp instead of ground sausage. And Shirley Chung (Season 11) wows all three judges with her Asian-inspired version.

The judges commend Amanda (Season 7), Brooke, and Shirley, but Graham gives the win and immunity to Brooke and her delicious-looking Shrimp Scotch Egg. Angry John Tesar (Season 10), Complicated Katsuji, and Casey the Whore (hey, her description, not mine!) fill out the bottom three. The judges agree that John's dish was the low point. John pulls a classic dumb Top Chef move by then saying, "I like my dish. I stand behind it." Don't stand behind a failure, buddy. There's no percentage in it. Since everyone's had a long day of cooking already, the big showdown between John and Gerald gets pushed to the following day.

Let's Hang Out At The House!

As the chefs explore the Top Chef house, Sam compares it to the house in The Notebook. "The only thing that was missing was maybe Ryan Gosling," he says. Hmmm. Ooooookay. Emily makes another bid at Top Jerk (nailed it): "Not really interested in getting to know the veterans just yet." Sure thing, pal. You just keep us posted on that breaking news, mmmkay? While everyone else wines it up like real chefs do, Gerald mopes. He's pretty bummed to have his ass on the line already, but by the next morning, he's regained his focus and confidence and is ready to fight.

Sudden Death Quickfire

Don't let anyone tell you it's weird that the producers decided to hold the Sudden Death Quickfire, between a black man and a white man, on an old plantation. That's not a weird choice at all. Also: not of questionable taste. It's perfectly cool. Don't even think twice about it, because this plantation is also the home of one of the world's largest oyster festivals. Appropriately, the challenge will be an oyster roast, which I guess is a real thing. The chefs have only twenty minutes to do their thing, and I'm pretty certain it would take me the entirety of that time to shuck a single oyster. John decides to do a French version of an oyster soup, where Gerald literally roasts the oysters...AS THE JUDGES MENTIONED. We'll see if that makes a difference, though. Did you know that you could open an oyster and find tiny crabs inside? I did not know that. But that's what happens to Gerald's first batch of oysters. They're crawling with crabs, obviously the most promiscuous oysters in all of Charleston.

Ultimately, John's soup wins because of its better developed oyster flavor, and Gerald has to pack his knives and go.

Verdict

With the mix of new chefs and old, this season feels like it could be a winner. Especially with crazy Emily, complicated Katsuji, and angry John Tesar. Also, and not for nothing, no Richard Blais!

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