The latest season of Bravo’s Top Chef kicked off Wednesday with Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Co. taking the cooking competition to New Orleans. If the premiere is any indication, there will be Big Easy-gimmicks galore: Emeril Lagasse bearing beignets? Check. Mardi Gras beads? Check. Scenes from a swamp? Alligators? Check and check. In fact, the first challenge involves the contestants cooking alligator — or turtle or frog — in a swamp and being awarded Mardi Gras beads!
The biggest surprise in Episode 1? These folks have known they are doing a cooking show in New Orleans and didn’t practice cooking alligator, turtle, or frog before they went.
But now that you’ve seen the first episode, who should you bet on to win that $125,000 grand prize furnished by Healthy Choice, a feature in Food & Wine Magazine, a showcase at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, and the title, Top Chef?
Here’s a guide to the real Hunger Games:
3. First-Round Draft Picks
It’s hard to tell after one show, but these seem to be the ones to beat. Do what you can to get one of the top two picks in your draft, then listen to your fellow fantasy players groan, “That’s who I was going to pick!” when you take them.
Being the chef and owner of La Petite Grocery (one of New Orleans’ best restaurants) is a pretty solid credential. He’s playing on his home turf and even though we didn’t see much of him in the season premiere, I’ve got to think he’s the one to beat. Even fellow contestant Nicholas Elmi says “Congratulations on winning Top Chef” when he meets him.
She’s the chef de cuisine at Scarpetta in Miami. She worked under Daniel Boulud. She won the first elimination challenge with pretty rad-looking turtle meatball curry and chutney. Oh P.S., HER DAD WAS PRIME MINISTER OF ST. LUCIA from 1964 until its independence in 1979, so she says she has the entire country depending on her. “If I let St. Lucia down it’s gonna crush me.”
6. Safe Bets
OK, you didn’t get Justin or Nina. But, while anyone on Top Chef can screw up and have to pack their knives and go, these next six (based on their résumés or an impressive first outing) are folks you want in your kitchen.
Yeah, I am a little concerned that her current establishment is at the Minneapolis–St. Paul Airport and I’m not totally into her “rockabilly girl” schtick. But she previously was an exec chef at two of Wolfgang Puck’s places. She makes a nice General Tso’s-style alligator that made Padma sweat.
He seems to have a solid résumé: Guy Savoy in Paris; Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia; Union Pacific, Oceana, and Lutèce in New York; and he’s about to open his own joint in Philadelphia. Didn’t wow the judges or draw their fire, which sometimes is the best way to make it out of the early episodes alive.
Early viewers’ choice contender. The Iowa native was the most likable of the group so far, and her cold poached frog legs with oyster crème and cold zucchini salad wowed the judges. She’s the chef de cuisine at Aragona in Seattle and also has a background in pastry, which could come in handy in later challenges.
She has potential to get on folks’ nerves. (She says she talks a lot.) But remember, Carla Hall from Season 5 was not beloved right off the bat. And Shirley’s got a solid CV: She also worked as executive chef for China Poblano by Jose Andres in Las Vegas and she worked for Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy, and Mario Batali. For the first elimination challenge she made “turtle tea,” a soup with goji berry and Chinese broth — a recipe that she says she stole from her mother-in-law. She wasn’t in the top three, but the judges dug it.
You might recognize her as Top Chef Season 10 winner Kristen Kish’s buddy who was sent packing last season before the competition even officially began by none other than Season 11 judge Emeril. The sous chef at No. 9 Park in Boston is now blonder and says she spent the past year “retraining herself.” And maybe Kish gave her some winning tips.
He’s the executive chef and owner of Mexique in Chicago, which, as several people note throughout the show, received one Michelin star in 2013. He’s got a compelling personal story too. Carlos came to the United States from Mexico illegally and “started working as a dishwasher because I had a hope that one day God would give me a restaurant.” His dish was not a favorite, but redemption is possible.
13. Wait, Who Are These Guys?
Do you recognize any of these folks? Some only got a single cutaway shot or a couple lines, but could end up being sleeper picks. If you’re picking ninth or later and have to take one of them, read the below so if they win you can say, “I knew they would win when in the first episode they…” Your friends will bow to your awesomeness.
Notable facts: From Colorado. Says he only dates Asian guys. Complained to Emeril about alligator being “like a rubber band.”
He said “Holy poop” at one point. At another he was shouting about alligator lettuce wraps being a party in your mouth.
He was in some cutaways, like when the chefs were trying on their chef coats. The ultimate sleeper of sleepers.
He said of Janine, “Wow, like, if she cooks as good as she looks she’s going to be at the top.” Narrowly escaped being in the next category by pretty much being irrelevant.
18. 86 Them
Some made really dumb mistakes, some are just too annoying to root for, and some just seem in way over their heads. Don’t draft them, but be sure to trash talk your friends when they draft them.
Also known in some circles as “the douchebag in the pink shorts.” Every season has its villain. (In Season 10 it was John “I’m the most hated chef in Dallas” Tesar.) Jason asserts his status as Season 11’s Worst Person by telling us, “Being voted as Philly’s sexiest chef was fun… Make sure when I’m out in the dining room the guests like what they see as well as what they eat.” Then, cut to shirtless pictures of him and video of him doing something with booze and a blowtorch.
If that’s not enough, he says things like “I thought this was supposed to be hard” during the elimination challenge, cuts himself, and falls down on his pink-shorts-wearing butt. When not being the most terrible person on Top Chef, he is the chef and owner of Ela Restaurant in Philadelphia.
Where to begin with Janine from Australia? She has clearly lived a tragic life due to “the fact that I’m not so ugly.” But honestly, the biggest violation is the Daisy Dukes and flimsy sandals she wears in the kitchen. Real chefs worldwide are rending garments and gnashing teeth. Safety, people! As one of her fellow chef-testants says, “This isn’t how you look and be professional. This is Top Chef, people. C’mon.”
And yeah, the judges like her alligator in duck fat with bacon but ask yourself: What fried in duck fat with bacon wouldn’t be good?
He’s the frontrunner for the Angelo Sosa (Season 7) Totally Creepy Award. He’s a No. 2: He’s the other contestant from New Orleans and the second most annoying person so far. He is the executive chef at Galatoire’s, the famous French Quarter restaurant popular with the tourists that’s been around since 1905. He talks way too much about how local he is, and that he knows the way people “like it” down here.
He ickily flirts with Janine, calling her “Boo” and talking about her flavors. And he drops bon mots like: “Not too many people could do what I do. I’m not cocky I’m just confident. Cocky is being egotistical, confident is just being cool.”
Bene has a catering and event planning company in New York City called “Indulge by Bene” and says he wants to be the “first top gay chef.” When the chefs don’t love his food he says, “You gonna cook to please the client or cook because this is how I do my work.” That’s going to be problematic.
Oh, poor in-over-her-head Patty. She starts off saying that she is used to taking instructions as sous chef at David Burke Fishtail. She tried stuffing alligator with andouille sausage and realized it wasn’t going to work so pulled it apart into a blah something “to get food on a plate.” She cried a lot. She nearly got sent home. Only take her if you have the last pick.
Hope you didn’t get too attached to Ramon. He committed the cardinal sin of putting ice in his dashi and just made a dirty dishwater-tasting turtle soup. “How do you ice a dashi?” said Emeril. “It’s not a cocktail.”
He had the honor of being the first of Season 11’s contestants told to pack his knives and go. Yes, there’s Last Chance Kitchen, but c’mon, he iced his dashi.
25. Not Quite Bad Enough or Good Enough For Any of the Above Categories
He’s kind of a wild card. He might win a few early quickfires, or could be going home next week.
Pros: He’s the executive chef at the Slurping Turtle, a “Japanese comfort food” joint in Chicago. He called out Janine’s ridiculous kitchenwear. He was in a punk band.
Cons: He tried to serve homemade pasta in a swamp for 150 people. It was a really bad idea. Pasta gets mushy and then isn’t tasty. People like tasty food, Aaron.
Contestant portraits: Justin Stephens/Bravo