Top Chef Season 14, Episode 1 Recap: Something Old, Something New

Photo: Courtesy of Top Chef.
Top Chef is back! The season 14 kickoff begins in Charleston, South Carolina where the opening sequence shows eight newbies (slo-mo walking through the city) who all share the dream of becoming Top Chef. Their introduction is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that eight former cheftestants (a mix of favorites and presumably whoever else could be convinced to do another season of the show) are back "for redemption."

As per usual, everyone's excited for the chance to be featured in Food & Wine mag; go to the Food & Wine Festival in Aspen; win $125,000 furnished by San Pellegrino (get ready for a whole lotta product placement and at least one sparkling water challenge); and, most importantly, to win, as Padma Lakshmi reminds us, "the coveted title of Top Chef."

Tom Colicchio wants to know if the chefs are nervous, and some of them are, but there are only eight of them in the kitchen. And the eight newbies can’t help but wonder, Where are the other eight chefs? We get introduced to the veterans now, and L.A. chef Katsuji Tanabe (season 12: Boston) wants to know if he's getting subtitles this year.

Every season needs its hunk, and Sam Talbot is back, reporting for duty, baseball cap and all. Here’s the full list of the season 14 cheftestants:

New
Silvia Barban — Brooklyn
Emily Hahn — Charleston, S.C.
Jamie Lynch — Charlotte, N.C.
Annie Pettry — Louisville, KY
Sylva Senat — Philadelphia
Gerald Sombright — Marco Island, FL
BJ Smith — Portland, OR
Jim Smith — Montgomery, AL

Returning
Sam Talbot (season 2: Los Angeles) — Brooklyn
Casey Thompson (season 3: Miami & Season 8: All-Stars) — Napa Valley, CA
Amanda Baumgarten (season 7: Washington, D.C.) — Chicago
Brooke Williamson (season 10: Seattle) — Los Angeles
Sheldon Simeon (season 10: Seattle) — Lahaina, Maui, HI
John Tesar (season 10: Seattle) — Dallas
Shirley Chung (season 11: New Orleans) — Orange County, CA
Katsuji Tanabe (season 12: Boston) — Los Angeles

Tom and Padma explain to the eight newbies that they’ll be tested in two groups, but the green cheftestants still don't know that there are a bunch of seasoned cheftestants in the stew-room just waiting to take them out.

Oh, and speaking of the stew room, there's a TV screen, which out of nowhere turns on and shows Padma and Tom talking to the newbies about their impressive résumés and accolades. Now everyone's feeling nervous.

We’re introduced to Jim Smith, the executive chef of the entire state of Alabama and a self-proclaimed nerd. We like him immediately. You do you, Jim!

Also, Padma would just like to clarify that Top Chef isn't only one of the best, it's THE best culinary competition in the country. Thanks, Padma.

Alrighty, the setup and initial banter is over, which means it’s time for the first quickfire to start. The newbie cheftestants have one hour to make as many dishes as they want with an ingredient hidden under a metal covering. Everyone thinks it's going to be a Charlotte favorite, like okra or Carolina rice. But, what's under those cloches? (Side-note: If you're wondering what a "cloche" is, I didn't know, either, but after rewinding, and a quick trip to Google, I’ve determined it's that fancy metal covering you put over a dish so you can do the whole big reveal thing.) It's a whole chicken! Here's the twist: The competitors can make as many dishes as they want and anytime they finish the judges will taste their food right then and there. The winner of the quickfire challenge gets immunity, and the loser has to do a sudden death quickfire with the loser of the still un-introduced other group.

Tom likes the way Jamie breaks down a chicken and is feeling positive about him right off the bat. Jim decides to make three dishes, and we're going to go ahead and call that a rookie mistake. Knowing Tom, he'll want one perfectly cooked chicken dish over several mediocre plates.

At minute 30, only one person has a dish ready to try. It's Brooklyn-based Italian chef (yes, she has a great accent) Sylva. The judges like the dish, although Tom thinks it needs more salt. Suddenly, it's all about the clock. There are only 13 minutes to go, and only one dish has come out of the kitchen. It’s time to show a montage of everyone hustling. Will ANYONE even get food on the plate? Probably, but the suspense is killing us anyway.

Weirdly as this is all happening, the former cheftestants are rooting for the newbies from the stew room. Don't they know by the end of the episode they're all going to be competing against each other?

Here’s a quick overview of what everyone made:
BJ: chicken chasseur, whatever that means. He used a pressure cooker, but time still caught up with him real quick.
Jim: utilized all the innards of the chicken (in an interview he admits this is worrisome) and his dish also includes strawberries, which everyone thinks is a little odd. Also he's one of the only people whose backstory we know so far, which is either real good or real bad for Jim.
Emily: has the added pressure of being the only chef from Charleston and she’s also an early frontrunner for being the season’s hardass. She makes a biscuit sandwich and wings.
Gerald: serves up smoked buttermilk poached chicken and admits that Top Chef, "looks easier on television."
Jamie: pan-roasted chicken breast and chicken grand-mere.
Sylva: paprika and chili marinated buttermilk chicken with grated corn pudding and Pedro Ximenez shallots. (She also made the pasta from earlier.)
Annie: made a pan-seared chicken breast with panzanella, but she doesn't look too pleased with her dish. Tom doesn't think her panzanella is a panzanella and we're guessing Annie has a good shot at having to cook in the sudden death round.
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Tom thought the first showing was okay, but he wanted to see more. He liked Sylva's pasta dish (she wants to be the first Italian top chef) and Emily (with the self-admitted attitude's) fried chicken wings.

And guess what? Jim with his strawberries and innards made a great dish. "Sometimes when you struggle, you do your best work," quips Tom, wisely. (Oh, how we love you, Tom.)

Jim wins the quickfire and gets immunity even though he only used chicken innards. Jim has officially been set apart as the underdog to beat. He doesn't have the same resume as some of the other chefs, but heck, the governor of Alambama himself is rooting for good old Jim, and that's good enough for us. Plus, he's so giddy over his win that we could see ourselves rooting for him all season long.

Now for the bad news. Annie and that ill-fated not-really-a-panzanella salad are on the bottom along with Gerald and a too-greasy sauce and Jamie with his burnt vegetables. Tom's least favorite dish was Gerald's so he has to compete in the sudden death cook-off.

Padma wants to know if the chefs are ready to meet their competition, and we're guessing the real answer is probably not. But, this is reality TV and the show must go on, so out walk the eight returning chefs to a chorus of BLEEPS from the newbies.

Sylva has a crush on Sam. We're with you there, Sylva. Didn't we all have a crush on Sam? And maybe we still do...

Graham Elliot is also joining the judges this season, which means he gave up his gig on Masterchef to judge a different reality cooking competition? Graham wants to know how creative the cheftestants can get with an iconic Charleston dish — shrimp and grits. They only get 30 minutes to execute and as Casey points out, that's barely enough time to cook grits.

Also this is Casey's third time on the show. Kudos to you for being willing to come back, girl.

We loved Sheldon in his previous season and we're falling in love with him all over again. He's ready to represent Hawaii and his family, and we're ready to root for that earnest face.

One difference between the newbies and the veterans is that the veterans can hold up to some TV-worthy banter while they cook. John Tesar says he's much more of a gentle giant than he was last go around and then makes fun of Katsuji for the number of bowties he's brought with him.

Beautiful, beautiful Sam has developed something of an ego since he was last on the show. Part of why he previously made for such great TV was that he didn't seem to know that he was a beautiful man wearing a chef's coat. But, now Sam has been one of People's sexiest men alive and that "was a A LOT of fun for him." We're not really sure what that means, but 10 years seems to have given Sam a boost of confidence and, well, we'll have to see how that plays out.

Here’s what everyone made:
Brooke: a shrimp Scotch egg with a PERFECTLY runny yolk.
Sam: shrimp and coconut milk grits with blackened tomatoes.
Shirley: “a bowl of hug” shrimp and grits with egg custard.
Katsuji: Mexican adobo shrimp with a whole lot of ingredients as per usual.
Casey: coconut shrimp and grits with corn tomato sauce. Casey, sadly, gets the first criticism; her grits are undercooked
John: Korean shrimp and grits with pho kimchi, which Graham Elliot calls one-dimensional.
Amanda: head-on shrimp and grits with tasso ham, raisins, roasted peaches and kale.
Sheldon: Dashi-poached shrimp with miso grits, which Tom thinks is flat.

The frontrunners are Amanda, Brooke, and Shirley, whose bowl of hug only hugs after slapping you (in presumably a good way). Brooke wins with her runny shrimp and grits Scotch egg and gets immunity for the upcoming elimination challenge. Casey, John, and Katsuji are on the bottom. John has to do the sudden death cook-off, and while he stands behind his dish, we never really understand why the chefs do that, he still has to compete in the cook-off.

Except first they get to head home and get a good night's rest. They have a big beautiful, Southern house to share, and Sam thinks it's the Notebook house, except without Ryan Gosling. Over the next few minutes everyone picks their bedrooms (the vibe is summer camp-y as per usual with lots of single bunkbeds), Emily decides she doesn’t want to get to know the veterans, and the cheftestants chat it up over a slew of San Pellegrino products.

Gerald divulges that he hoped his socks would have brought him luck.

Finally it's morning. John is one of the older chefs on the show and he wants validation. John doesn't want to be an asshole anymore so he won't give Gerald a hard time. Gerald has survived a lot of hardship, and now we're rooting for him. They show up in their parade of cars to a plantation. Gerald and John shake hands and get out of the cars and Gail Simmons is there! Hi, Gail!

Now Top Chef wants to talk about the history of the plantation, which everyone is uncomfortable about. Once we make it through a painstaking 30 seconds of forced serious talk, we find out that the challenge is oysters. They have to face off in an oyster roast. Gerald and John have 20 minutes and an open grill fire to take a simple ingredient and see what they can do.

John is doing a fancy french soup where you cook the oysters with hot cream and Gerald is making a simple roast oyster Thai-style mignonette. But wait, there is drama because Gerald's first batch of oysters have small crabs inside. John picks up a hot pan with his bare hands and everyone is impressed.

Thankfully Gerald's second round of oysters are perfectly cooked. The judges try the dishes, and Gerald seizes the opportunity to throw a dig at John's truffles, which he brought from home and utilized in his dish.

After an awkward huddle, which John and Gerald can sort of hear, Padma asks Gerald to, “please pack your knives and go.” Tom thought both dishes were good, but that Gerald’s was lacking in smoke and heat.

Don’t worry, Gerald fans! Last chance kitchen is back, so Gerald will still have another shot at competing. Until then, we're ready for next week when the newbies and the veterans have to start their first elimination challenge RIGHT NOW. Or presumably they shot episode 2 right after the sudden death round of epiosde 1. We also get a quick look at what’s to come this season. There's plenty of fighting, injuries, and Padma makes a weirdly sexual blindfold reference. Looks like it's going to be a wild ride. Until next week!
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