'Top Chef' Colorado Recap: Episode 1 — 'It'll Take More Than Pot Luck'
We meet the 15 new cheftestants as they plunge into Padma’s potluck quickfire before getting to the meat of the competition.
Top Chef is back for a fifteenth season, taking a whole new slate of contestants to the state of Colorado. This season we’ll see fifteen chefs battle it out in cities across Colorado and our season premiere finds us in Denver.
As the doors to the Top Chef Kitchen open, we meet an ambitious Pakastani chef who cooks street food, a former contestant on Bravo’s Best New Restaurant and a Brooklyn chef looking to introduce the world to what he calls “Amish Soul Food.”
They get 40 seconds to acclimate before Padma announces the first quickfire challenge of the season: instead of listing their resumes, the chefs will introduce themselves to each other and the judges by preparing a dish that represents them for a potluck to be held right in the Top Chef Kitchen. Oh, and they have 45 minutes to do it.
Unlike the past few seasons, every single one of these chefs is new to Top Chef but that doesn’t mean they’re not recognizable. This group is populated by Chopped champions, James Beard semifinalists, and Best New Restaurant competitors. It’s refreshing to have an entirely new cast of chefs who will have to adjust to the game itself while fulfilling the challenges.
Even though they’re new to the competition, these chefs have seen the show and know just how fast those 45 minutes are going to go—everyone beelines for the proteins. Tanya Hollard, the chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California snags the chicken wings, a relief for Los Angeles Chef Bruce Kalman who was worried about getting relegated to a simple protein.
Across the kitchen, we meet an impressively mustachioed Joe Sasto, chef de cuisine at Cal Mare, who is making fresh pasta. The other chefs are skeptical, but the former pasta maestro at Michelin-starred Quince is confident in his ability to deliver properly executed pasta in 45 minutes.
Time is called and the cheftestants gather around the table for their potluck. The first dish the judges and contestants taste is Rogelio Garcia’s comforting stew with chorizo, candied beans and jalapenos with a radish garnish. Padma remarks that the Commissary’s Executive chef prepared a dish that is “delicious and tells me a lot about you.”
As the chefs continue to taste each other’s food, some risks pay off while others fall flat. The simplicity of Bay Area chef Tu David Phu’s corn salpicon, a traditional Vietnamese chopped salad, won him admiration from Tom and Gail who called it “bright and herbaceous.” Mustache Joe’s fresh pasta with pork sugo and roasted cherry tomatoes intimidated his competitors and impressed Graham. We get our first look at what Christopher Scott means by “Amish soul food” with a rustic Amish-style dumpling prepared with broccoli rabe and wild mushrooms which lands him an honorable mention from the judges in the top.
On the other side of success, Tyler’s burnt chorizo for his east-meets-west potato salad and local Colorado chef Carrie Baird’s muddled summer bruschetta with blueberry jam, cheddar cheese and salad dressed in a tomato vinaigrette fail to impress. Bar Crudo’s Melissa Perfit also drew criticism from fellow chefs for the inconsistently cooked the potato in her pancetta and potato chowder.
The quickfire wraps up as the chefs vote for their favorite and least favorite dish: Joe Sasto’s pasta, Joe Flamm’s whole-snapper roasted in the wood-fired oven with a fennel and orange herb salad and Tu’s corn salpicon are the chef’s favorites. Melissa’s chowder and Carrie’s bruschetta end up on the bottom. Ultimately, Tu’s simplicity of flavor and deft hand with seasoning win him immunity.
With the help of a couple puns about meat, Padma announces the first elimination challenge; the chefs must prepare a modern take on a Colorado classic, meat and potatoes, for an event in Larimer Square. In the car on the way to Whole Foods Alaskan chef Laura Cole reveals that she’s never been to a Whole Foods because they don’t have them in Alaska! That didn’t stop her from participating in the customary tussle at the Whole Foods meat counter. Back at the kitchen, the chefs get to work on their dishes. Tu’s immunity frees him up to give a helping hand to a scattered and anxious Bruce.
The next day as the chefs set up their booths in the square, Tu helps another competitor, Mustache Joe Sasto, by giving him his pot. To adjust, he uses induction burners to heat his traditional Vietnamese stew but is concerned that this method might scorch the broth. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens, and even though Gail and Graham love the cook on the potatoes and carrots in his Bo Kho Beef Stew, Gail can’t look past the bitterness caused by the scorch.
The judges make their way through the stations and the wide variety of takes on meat and potatoes. Both Joes—in a “Joe-down-show-down”—and Mexican chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins prepare beef tartare, the best of which is 1920’s-train-conductor-look-alike Joe Sasto’s tartare with potato and fermented shiitake, dried jack cheese, seaweed, and “crumble rumble,” a combination of fried onion, yeast, and potato flake. Fatima Ali prepares a deconstructed take on a samosa which looks like a Pakastani nacho—braised chicken, tamarind beet and plum sauce, pickled chilies with peas and potatoes on fried chicken skin—that Padma loves and describes as having a lot of “chatpata,” an Indian flavor profile similar to umami. Bruce recovers from his first-day stumbles with a rustic potato leek dumpling with braised pork shoulder and crispy chicharron that Tom loves, but not enough to put him in the top three.
Tyler, Carrie, and Melissa are eager to redeem themselves from a poor showing in the quickfire but do so to varying degrees of success. Carrie’s braised beef short rib with a lemon goat cheese dip, russet thyme potato chip, and pickled shallots offered a modern take with lackluster execution. Melissa’s silky Yukon potato puree with braised pork shoulder and fennel salad redeemed her potato cookery skills but the flavor of the meat fell flat because the braise was underseasoned. Tyler impressed the judges with his sweet potato puree topped with crispy creamer potatoes, smoked pork gravy, and charred onion top aioli.
Last season Top Chef played with the format of judges panel and it looks like they will be doing something similar this season. Instead of calling the top and bottom chefs in to face the judges for critiques while the other chefs sit in the stew room, this season the judges have the other chefs stand off to the side (somewhat awkwardly), listening to the judges talk about the other dishes. The psychological component of not knowing what the judges are saying or who is on the bottom or top has led to some of Top Chef’s best drama and most iconic moments. Hopefully, like last season, as the group of chefs whittles down they will resume the traditional judging structure.
Fatima’s samosa, Tyler’s crispy potatoes and Chris Scott’s potato waffle with barbeque beef and corn “chow chow” (Amish pickled vegetables) were the judges' favorites in this challenge. Ultimately, Tyler’s dish won him the coveted first elimination challenge that, according to Top Chef superstition, foreshadows winning the entire competition.
Unfortunately, Carrie and Melissa’s hopes for redemption were thwarted by their performances that landed both of them in the bottom alongside Le Bernadin alumni Adrienne Cheatham. Adrienne’s sweet potato tostone with pork belly, caramel, and radish salad overwhelmed the judge’s palates with sweetness and the unpleasant texture secured her a in the bottom three. The judges were sure to let Tu know that his immunity spared his scorched stew from landing him on the bottom as well. Carrie’s burnt potato chips and overwhelming goat cheese missed the mark, but ultimately it was the dry, underseasoned pork that sent Melissa packing her knives.