Photo: David Giesbrecht / Bravo
Oh, boy. Are we really ready for this? The trash-talking, ego-flaunting, foodie-baiting franchise known as Top Chef is a presence in our living room, in one form or another, for the better part of a year. And yet, we're always caught off-guard when it returns for another round.
Like a rapidly-multiplying spore, each season seems to top the last: All those cheftestants! All the braggadocio! All the confusing tattoos! There may not be that many more of any of these things than in previous years, of course, but thanks to the wonder of Bravo's machine-gun editing, the overall effect is one of brilliantly organized chaos -- or, to borrow a not-so-apt phrase from Angelo Sosa, this season's early contender for Most Gracelessly Arrogant Chef: "I feel like an orchestra with flavors!"
In keeping with its bigger, faster, more ethos, the show has relocated to Washington, D.C., home not only to three-martini lobbyist lunches but also a few of class-act -- and new judging addition -- Eric Ripert's restaurants. How can we tell we're in the nation's capital? If the tacky gilded eagles hanging in the judging room aren't a hint, then perhaps the looming Capitol Building in the background of the Quickfire Challenge will tip you off.
As always, this first Quickfire went a long way in separating the wheat from the chaff. Small-business entrepreneurs stood alongside James Beard Finalists. Michelin Star restaurateurs faced off with small-town culinary heroes. And at least one -- Vail, Colo.'s Kelly Liken -- is no stranger to televised competition, having just appeared on Iron Chef America.
Sure, all have a shot, but some are already leading -- or trailing -- the pack. To note just a few:
The good-natured but self-proclaimed "alpha male" Kenny Gilbert seems, at this early stage at least, to be the perfect combination of brains and brawn. He iced the competition when slicing, dicing and chopping, and a coffee-rubbed trout was right up our alley (even if the decorative, caramelized flourish on top seemed a bit much).
Angelo -- oh, Angelo. Someone's got to come out of the gate shooting his mouth off and over-gelling his hair, and in Season 7, it's Angelo Sosa. "I feel like a ninja," he announced as he set his sights on taking out Kenny, and when he accomplished his mission via a spoonful of very luxe-looking arctic char, bacon foam and dill, he was not what you'd call humble. "I will set the presidents [sic]!" he said triumphantly, exhibiting a grasp of the English language that suggests this Connecticut native spent a little too much time in Paris, or perhaps chatting with the Queen of Malapropisms herself, Sarah Palin.
At first glance, Michigan's John Somerville had that tragic, middle-aged bohemian look so common to early-round rejects from previous seasons. Dreadlocked, wild-eyed and bespectacled, this babe-in-the-woods seemed ill-suited to the cutthroat hipsters that surrounded him. But his time at the acclaimed Lark restaurant -- and his James Beard nominations -- suggested skills far beyond the store-bought puff pastry he managed to burn in the fancy-schmancy Top Chef ovens in an attempt to make an ode-to-maple-syrup dish. At least the judges recognized that his dessert fell far short of his capabilities as they told him to pack his knives.