I'd like to personally welcome all of you easy chair culinary pundits to another season of "Top Chef." This show is the best food competition on TV; you can take your "Iron Chef" and shove it.

The kitchen is no place for theatrics, just nifty knife work, refined flavor profiles and the usual reality show drama. All of your favorite nitpickers (Tom, Ted, Gail and Padma) are back for this season's culinary sojourn in the windy city of Chicago. The new locale will assuredly provide us with more and different challenges spawned from the flavors of the second city, so let us tarry not any longer and dive right in.

I'm not going to bother telling you where these chefs have worked. You can go to the Bravo website if you want to read all about them. Everybody arrived at the airport, told us where they're from and listed their qualifications and why they think they're the most awesome chef ever. The first surprise of the season was our first dating contestant couple: Zoi and Jenn. Way to be progressive "Top Chef," but could you have painted a bigger bulls-eye on their backs?

We found everyone at Pizzeria Uno, which...come on. They couldn't have sent them somewhere more iconic? There's a Pizzeria Uno down the street from me in a strip mall, and it's the last thing I think about when I think of Chicago. Then Tom! Padma! The first Quickfire (which may or may not be taking place in the back of Pizzeria Uno), required our cheftestants to create their own deep dish pizzas. It was an excellent challenge with the essence of Chicago and freedom to do what they want. Bravo.....uh, Bravo.

Knives flew, onions were peeled, sausage was sliced, sauces were simmered and my stomach started to rumble. Nicci's white truffle pie looked interesting, but Mr. New Zealand's marmite (a New Zealand vegemite ingredient) pie might be a surprise as well. In the first drama of the season, Richard stole Andrew's deep dish (his pan, not pizza). We care buddy, but you found a cast iron pan that will work just as well, so quit your whining.


Judging took place at guest judge Rocco Dispirito's house, which was....underwhelming, at least to me. I'm not going to tell you about every pizza, just the ones that looked good to me. Richard made a peach pie, which looked solid. Stephanie put together a basic pie with tomato sauce and prosciutto...mmmm...prosciutto. Zoi had one with broccoli, pesto and lamb sausage. It's interesting, but it looked like crap. Dale brought us a pie with sausage, pickled kohlrabi (a vegetable root) with Sriracha and scallions....mmmmm, I love Sriracha! Spike pulled off a Greek pie that I would gobble down in a hot minute. Nici's white truffle pie doesn't taste as good as it looked, for shame. And the winner is...no one. According to Rocco, half of the cheftestants sucked and the other half didn't, and this factored into the elimination challenge.

It also turns out that the house where they found Rocco is also where they're living. Nice Digs. Chef hijinks! Drinking, smoking, cooking, smack talking. Andrew in particular distinguished himself as a quality smack talker. Loving him so far. Nimma went to bed early. She was all business and wasn't there to make friends, and so is Dale. But I don't think anyone is missing either of them.

Elimination Challenge! Knife drawing!

We were treated to a head-to-head competition of two people making the same classic dishes. This competition was ramped up straight away. Were these chefs able to put their own spin on these dishes? Cook to the death! Chefs were paired up ,and dishes were picked. The last two losers were stuck with a souffle and were not optimistic about their chances. Food shopping! Whole Foods! Lots of running and screaming! Dale had a new interpretation of Steak au Poivre. He's crazy! Is it just me or are these new cheftestants cursing up a blue streak? They're all potty mouths.

Time to cook! Chopping! Dicing! Sauteing! Simmering!

Everyone had their own special takes on these classic dishes; they're all geniuses it seems. And they were also so sure of themselves, except for Andrew. He couldn't find mayonnaise for his crabcakes. Richard, his nemesis and competition, had some mayo that he bought and he wasn't in a sharing mood, so Andrew had to make his own. These two looked like they might kill each other before the first judging. Someone take away their knives before there's bloodshed. More cooking. Some were confident, and some obviously weren't because their hands were shaking.


Anthony Bourdain and Rocco in the same room! What will happen? Nothing, I guess. With the amount of vitriol Bourdain sent in Rocco's direction there would at least be a back and forth with the two, but no such luck. They're all business. Here are the results:

-Mark and Stephanie took part in the battle of duck l'orange, and the victory goes to Stephanie. She redeemed herself from her pizza debacle, and the judges were enthused with her creative take on the dish.

-In the crabcake battle between Andrew and Richard the winner is Richard, who inventively smoked his crabcake with what looked like a crack pipe, so that's where his creative mind comes from.

-The lasagna battle pitted Jennifer against Nicci. Things didn't look good for Jennifer, and Nicci took it home. Padma absolutely loved her lasagna with freshly made pasta.

-Shrimp scampi war between Antonia and Nimma went to Antonia because Nimma dumped a pound of salt on her scampi. Lay off the salt chef! Take it easy. No contest here.

-Battle Eggs Benedict between Spike and Lisa went to Lisa. Rocco even went so far to say it's some of the best benedict he's had.

-Dale and Manuel's steak au poivre competition went to Dale and his candyland plate. The dude is crazy; keep an eye on this guy. Manuel was a bit overconfident and over sauced his meat. He gets taken down a notch.

-Chicken Piccata pitted Ryan vs. Valerie, and they both were a mess. Neither one of them actually made a piccata. Valerie won by default, and the judges were pissed.

-Last but not least, battle souffle had Erik against Zoi and Bourdain was perplexed. Neither souffle was really a souffle, but Zoi won. The judges were again annoyed at having to choke down this gruel.

So who got knifed? The smart money was on Nimma to go, but first the judges picked a winner. Judges gushed about Richard, Antonia, Nicci and Stephanie. Stephanie pulled out the win with her spirited interpretation of duck a l'orange. Good Job! These four seem to be really on the ball so keep an eye on them.


Ryan, Nimma, Mark and Erik. Erik's soufle got dinged for his construction and using potatoes as his base and cheating with cheese. He got it from all sides but he didn't fight it because he knew he sucked. None of that standing-behind-his-dish stuff, which is refreshing. Nimma, on the other hand, attempted to defend her indefensible dish before surrendering in the face of the onslaught of the judges. Mark's deconstructed duck pissed off the judges and he got ripped for overcooking the duck as well. Finally, Ryan's non piccata got outed for...not being piccata and being more like a milanese. The dude kept talking though, and Tom really took him to task for biting off more than he could chew. All four got ripped for not knowing how to make their classic dishes well.

And the cheftestant going home was...Nimma, who vows she will continue cooking and has God-given talent. Well, lay off the salt girl! Good thing you didn't try and make friends, less people to say goodbye to you. She zipped right out of there.

It was a pretty good first episode, but these chefs are crazy. They can't stop cursing and they seem like they hate each other, except for the couple. Andrew seems like he will be fun....Phatness! And there does seem like there is some real skill here, which is a welcome sight. Season four really raised the bar in regard to overall skill. Keep it up!

Story by Larry Grodsky
Starpulse contributing writer