Your Top Chef: California Recap (OC Edition) - Week 1

"I love yellow mustard!"
"I love yellow mustard!"
Photo courtesy Top Chef

Disclaimer: While this is a Top Chef recap, this is also specific to OC. In other words, us Weeklings are rooting for Amar Santana!
Disclaimer #2: There are total spoilers in here. Do not read unless you want to know who won what this week, okay? Now, let's DO this.

Week 1, Part One (Wednesday)
Chefs, chef/owners, James Beard award nominees and winners, and a sous chef. An accurate summary of this season's competitive 17, according to one cheftestant on Wednesday's premiere of Top Chef. Now in its 13th season, they brought the series full circle, focusing on all things California. The first part of the premiere was fierce, as they hustled to earn immunity spots in the Quickfire Challenge.

On night one of the season opener, we saw the mettle of the new class during their "mise en place race: California edition". A favorite challenge to watch, the gang got to flex their muscles between breaking down five chickens, turning four artichokes, peeling 45 asparagus, separating 40 eggs or supreming (that's a word!) seven oranges. The first nine to earn head judge Tom Colicchio's approval advanced to the second challenge for immunity. Broadway's Amar Santana did an egg-cellent job of cracking shells, placing him fourth. 

For the second part of this quickfire, the nine grouped into teams of three. They had 30 minutes to work on a dish; 10 minutes per chef. The catch: They could not communicate with each other. PLUS, the chef up next was blindfolded. After a race of every chef for themselves, this focus on teamwork was telling. The key was leaving hints for the subsequent chef to easily interpret. 

In this part, Amar dished a bit about his preferences ("I love yellow mustard.") and mentioned his Dominican Republic upbringing. As the final chef on his team, their composed dish materialized as a sweet and sour chicken with citrus marinated slaw. His blue team, also consisting of Rene and Frances 'the sous chef', won immunity for this round. Go Blue!

Next up, the chefs are back on their own, creating 200 servings for a collection of California restaurant critics and bloggers at a DineLA event in Lake Hollywood Park. The budget is $500, but there are no other guidelines. "Without any parameters, your mind goes crazy." said Jeremy Ford of Jean-George's Miami outpost, Matador Room. We feel you, Jeremy. Santana decides to do a meatball, much to the interest of Grayson Schmitz— returning Season 9 chef. At the event, judge Emeril Lagasse enjoyed Amar's balls. However, he remarked,  "Is it a winner? I don't know."

The top and bottom competitors were determined by votes from the day's event, leaving Colicchio and crew to finalize both winner and first one to pack up their knives. At Judges' Table, Chef Santana's spicy and juicy, sherry-glazed pork belly meatball with celery root cream cheese puree and everything spice earned him a place in the top three. Yet in the end, Jeremy Ford's refreshing crudo won this round. We wrap up Wednesday learning the chefs are about to launch multiple, same-day pop-ups throughout Los Angeles, according to guest chef Ludo Lefebvre. And . . . we jump to tomorrow.

Amar's got balls.
Amar's got balls.
Photo courtesy Top Chef

Week 1, Part Two (Thursday)
With one chef banished (See-ya, Garret!) to Last Chance Kitchen, we continue with a nice even number. Four teams of four are driven to different neighborhoods and learn what cuisine they will specialize in. Each spot has a mentor/resource for them to utilize in their planning stages. Team Persia consists of Marjorie, Issac, Amar and Angelina. Saghar Fanisalek, chef/owner of Taste of Tehran appears, and the team interrogates her for "Tehrangeles" flavor profiles.

Former Top Chef Masters competitor Sang Yoon greets the next team at Monk Space's communal dining room. Their collective kitchen strength pushes out a menu of cuttlefish salad, spicy chicken wings, chilled noodles in broth and grilled kalbi with nectarine kimchi. Major shout out to Chef Douglas Keane from Cyrus (RIP) in a surprise cameo dining at their Korean pop-up, giving kudos to the beef short rib/kimchi dish. They ultimately end up safe.

Around Olvera Street, Broken English's Ray Garcia is surprised to find his testosterone-driven team with no questions for him. This comes back to bite them in the ass, despite having two chefs comfortable with the cuisine. They stand behind an eclectic mix of carrot asado, chorizo tomato stew with cotija, shrimp a la plancha and grilled skirt steak with poblano almond puree. We learn that if not for one dish, they would've been on the chopping block.

Venice finds our final quartet faced with vegan cuisine at Eric Lechasseur's Seed Kitchen. For the most part, the team is feeling upbeat about a meatless selection of cauliflower x 3, chickpea curry, stuffed beet with spring green sauce and a charred bean salad by Grayson— who ends up at the bottom of the pack. Again. Who sees a trend? The shocker here is when they send sassy Renee home instead.

In the end, we find the Persia Squared team rules service. Their ability to work under pressure (when Angelina is forced to switch her protein due to lack of seafood) and strength as a team put them at the top. Amar's dish of grilled heirloom carrots in cilantro pesto, plus cumin and cauliflower hummus with vadouvan spice receives raves from judges. Per Santana, "I don't usually cook vegetarian, but I treated those carrots like a piece of meat." Issac's beef and lamb entree with eggplant has depth, but Marjorie rises to the occasion with a dessert so divine, Fanisalek wants it on Tehran's permanent menu. Rose water and orange yogurt mousse, pistachio sponge cake and saffron orange syrup make for a winning combination.

This was only week one, and we can already see the ones to watch out for. Can Amar Santana bring it? If this premiere was any indicator, you already know the answer. Until next week, people.

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