New Orleans is such an obvious choice for a Top Chef location that you really have to wonder why it took the producers 11 seasons to get there. While the season premiere predictably conflates the whole of the Big Easy into the most marketable aspects of the French Quarter (contestants actually compete for Mardi Gras beads while reminding themselves to “Let the good times roll”), Top Chef has built up enough goodwill over its long run that we have every reason to believe this season will eventually dig deep into NOLA’s diverse and distinct food scene. Still, I’m half expecting to see Paul Prudhomme wheel up behind host Padma Lakshmi any episode now, most likely while being serenaded by Harry Connick Jr. in a feather mask.
As if the prospect of seeing mouth-watering crawfish and gumbo on your TV screen each week wasn’t exciting enough, this season of the venerable cooking series also has a Minnesotan contestant (excuse me, cheftestant) by way of Sara Johannes, who’s currently making a name for herself as Executive Chef at Shoyu, a modern Japanese restaurant in the Minneapolis- St. Paul International Airport (Concourse G).
Sara is the first chef we meet in the jam-packed initial hour and she leaves quite an impression with her self-proclaimed “rockabilly” look, Rosie the Riveter bandana, and no nonsense demeanor. During her prep time one-on-one with head judge Tom Colicchio, we learn that Sara has worked under the esteemed Wolfgang Puck at two different eateries in the past (including 20.21 at the Walker Art Center), and is finally ready to make a name for herself by stepping out of his shadow. Colicchio reassures her that Puck won’t be making a guest judge cameo during this round, but can you really expect reality-show producers to hold onto that straw for the season’s entire duration?
With 17 other chefs competing in the first round, the episode doesn’t even have enough time to introduce each contestant (seriously, Bret’s sole contribution to this episode is commenting on Janine’s decision to wear Daisy Dukes in the kitchen), let alone have time to hold a Quickfire Challenge. Instead, we get right to the Elimination Challenge, in which each chef is assigned a strand of Mardi Gras beads that informs them whether they’ll be working with frog legs, turtle, or alligator meat as their dish’s main protein.
To make things even more colorful, the chefs are also asked to prepare and serve their dishes for a crowd of people at a swamp soiree, a location that places a few of them within spitting distance of real life alligators. There’s also some business about making the chefs actually assemble the dining stations when they arrive on the scene, a random bit of stumbling-block filler the producers seem keen on ever since they had contestants break through blocks of ice to get to their ingredients on Top Chef: Texas. Sara gets a nice character moment when she’s shown cursing at a bent rod, which already puts her in a better light than Travis, whose major contribution to this episode is loudly declaring that he has an Asian fetish. Moving on.
A few chefs express worry about having never worked with their protein selection before, but the best of the bunch are able to adapt to their own styles and the challenges with the set-ups.
The top three scoring dishes this week belong to the all-female trio of Sara, Nina and Carrie, a sight that’s promising to see this early on considering female chefs have won Top Chef only two out of 10 times, and that's not even counting the Top Chef: Masters spin-off. Carrie gets over her crippling nerves and self doubt to deliver poached frog legs served with an oyster emulsion and cold zucchini salad, a decision that’s praised by the judges as a smart and unusual antidote to the swamp’s sweltering heat.
Sara also impresses with her “unapologetically spicy” General Tso's-style deep-fried alligator with smoked chiles, sweet-and-sour sauce, pickled veggies and pea shoots. Padma yelled out “Holy s---, it's hot!” when tasting this dish, so it really must have packed a wallop. What better place to go bold than New Orleans? Fortunately for Sara, these judges can handle a little extra spice.
Sara was close to squeaking out a win, but instead that honor went to Nina, who made her native Saint Lucia (where her father was once Prime Minster) proud with her curried turtle meatball, chayote slaw and chutney with raisins. She’s definitely one to watch.
In the end, Ramon, Patty and Aaron were in the bottom, a dishonor that was made even worse by the show’s new decision to allow contestants to hear the comments that judges make during the deliberation process as they wait in what is now colloquially known as “The Stew Room.” Aaron gets criticized for cold pasta, Patty is blasted for having an emotional breakdown, and Ramon gets torn to shreds for adding ice to his dashi to bring its temperature down, a decision Tom calls “crazy talk.” Ultimately, Tom Colicchio can’t suffer fools and the judges decide to send Ramon home, where he will surely go back to his undefeated reign as a Muay Thai boxer.
With a solid start under her belt, do you think Sara has what it takes to become Top Chef?
Marcus Michalik is a pop culture writer who watches just about every TV show, including this one. He hopes this season of "Top Chef" inspires him to step away from the frozen food aisle, but he is not counting on it.