Boston is my home now and that's the best justification I have for writing about the 12th season of Bravo's Top Chef, which premiered this week with Beantown as backdrop. Why else would I torture myself like this?
To paraphrase John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose 2005 "Leaving Reality" piece in GQ is the gold standard for reality television writing, the switch may have been flipped on Top Chef. As Padma Lakshmi's voice boomed on top of an overly-dramatic opening montage of Boston landmarks, I was consumed by a question: Is this show limping towards oblivion? Curiosity turned towards resignation when Bravo's first commercial break overflowed with plugs for the latest psychotically stupid Real Housewives spinoff. Hashtag aneurysm.
But Top Chef's producers are smarter than I am. They have a undeniable skill for giving garbage a fine sheen, and by the end of the first episode, I was set on coming back next week. Why? Because Gregory Gourdet's stewed chicken and Mei Lin's congee were steaming reminders of what makes me love food so much. Comfort. Culture. Tradition. Family. Stirred together by people who've taken on a grueling profession with passion and curiosity and excitement that can't be buried by even the best typecasting. As long as Top Chef keeps that proverbial dish on special, it'll remain one of maybe two food reality shows that don't make me want to stick my head in a hot oven.
Here are my five takeaways from the Boston season premier:
- Casting: It is almost comical how the new characters feel like clones of stars past. Some of them even look the same. There's Aaron Grissom (new Marcel?), who was all arrogance until Padma kneecapped him by spitting out his pork belly on camera. There's Adam Harvey (new Angelo?), who showed himself to be a complete wild card by, among other things, kowtowing to "Hot Tub" Todd English at the food festival. There's Keriann Von Raesfeld (new Jenn?), who is beautiful and blonde, sure, but seemingly talented and not at all content with being put in that box. There's George Pagonis (new Fabio?), who...let me get to that in a separate bullet. There's Joy Crump (new Carla), who swears she doesn't belong on stage with these city chefs, but may surprise us all yet. There's Ron Eyester (new Kevin G or S), the burly bowl of pudding who probably has a pig tattoo somewhere. There's Mei Lin (Voltaggio brand representation). There's Katsuji (ethnically ambiguous subtitled food truck goofball). And, much as I hate to say it, a bunch of others whom we may too soon forget.
- Richard Blais: I wouldn't bet against his new faux-brusque critic demeanor crumbling into tears at some point this season, but what will bring on the waterworks? Will someone drop a cylinder of liquid nitrogen on his toe? HUGE question.
- Favorite Quotes: "It was bad, but not bad enough?" - Tom Colicchio to the fumbling Michael Patlazhan about his corn soup with caviar. "Because of my short stature, I have to be Napoleon in the kitchen...call me Dougie." - Doug Adams to camera and Padma. "Katsuji is BLOWING it for the blue team!" - Richard to America.
- For F's Sake, DC - Yet another young DC up-and-comer, George Pagonis, becomes a first round punch line on Top Chef. Hurts me to say, because his restaurant was one of my favorites when I lived in DC, but c'mon dude.
- Boston - Stacy Cogswell seems like a good sh*t. And I feel nothing but excitement about where Boston's food scene is going, thanks to chefs who appeared on-screen - Jamie Bissonnette, Ken Oringer, Tiffani Faison, Kristen Kish - and others who should have - Michael Scelfo, Matt Jennings, and Tim Maslow, to name a few. Also have to give props to Barbara Lynch, Ming Tsai, Michael Schlow, and more who have helped put a real foundation in place.
My other favorite moment of the premiere was hearing my wife, who used to work at a Baltimore fish market, talk trash on everyone's seafood quickfire technique. What's not to love about that? Bring on round 2!