by Monica Hong
Top Chef is back with its biggest season ever. Big meaning the ever so large state of Texas, multiple cities and a boatload of chefs, 29 to be exact. And lots of Korean American promise. Well, two, in the form of Edward Lee and Beverly Kim, and some other Asian friendly faces!
Lee, a native of New York, is executive chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky and a 2011 James Beard Award nominee for best chef in the Southeast. Kim, a wife and mother, also happens to be chef de cuisine of Aria at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago.
The two KA hopefuls, along with 27 other chefs, arrive at the Alamo proud of themselves for being handpicked out of a thousand chefs only to discover they have to face a qualifying round. Will they remember the Alamo? Ahh ha. Only 16 chefs will move past this round into the real meat of the competition. To narrow the field, the culinary bunch is split into three groups with each group competing in a separate challenge. They must excel at their test in order to earn a Top Chef coat.
Sorta sounds like earning a Masterchef apron. Well, it is. Just like in Gordon Ramsay’s show, American Idol and countless other competition-based reality shows, the contestants’ fate lies in the hands of three judges. The majority rules for all decisions and if the judges agree that you should be in the top 16, then you get a fancy-looking Top Chef jacket. Don’t mind if I do.
If two of them think you should be eliminated, you get sent home. But, if they are undecided, they put you “on the bubble,” meaning you have to compete in one more challenge to earn a spot in the Top Chef house.
“Walking into the Top Chef kitchen for the first time, the air is thick with tension,” Lee says in a talking head segment. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long. I’m ready to cook.”
As part of Group 2 of the qualifying round, Lee faces the challenge of preparing a dish using the same ingredient as unanimously decided by the group. After mulling over the array of proteins, they decide on rabbit. With less than an hour remaining, the chefs hop to it.
Chef Lee encounters some trouble right away when he chooses to use the vac machine, claiming it’s “a little bit more efficient” and will “allow me to set the [rabbit] loins a little better.”
Unfortunately, Chef Lee feels the pressure and can’t get the machine to vacuum seal his meat into a bag, most likely for a sous vide preparation. Uh, oh. It’s not the one he’s used to using!
“Back in Korea, chef wasn’t a job that held a lot of status,” Lee said. “So winning Top Chef, my parents would finally feel proud to say my son is a chef.”
All he wants is for his parents to be proud of him! Damn you, vac machine!
He abandons the machine and chooses to traditionally butter poach his rabbit. At the end of time, the saddle on the loin is not completely cooked. Lee claims, “It’s just not what I wanted to show as my first effort.” Us either!
Despite the meat being too rare, Lee’s dish is quite beautiful. A modern square plate with a splash of orange and a pop of green – a minimalist yet striking presentation to show off his complex dish. As the chef describes what he has made, I kind of really want to try it despite the fact that it’s a bunny on a plate.
“I did a duo of rabbit,” Lee said. “I’ve got the saddle and the loin in butter as well as the leg. The purée on the bottom is butternut squash, got a little roasted cauliflower, broccoli rabe. I also made my own little spice mix.” Well, aren’t we an overachiever!
An impressive and ambitious dish, but not perfectly executed. The judges know the meat is not cooked enough, but judge Tom Colicchio throws Lee a bone.
“I can see that you have skill,” Colicchio said. “I, for one, would love to see you cook again because I think there’s talent here somewhere.” Judge Gail Simmons chimes in, “I can see you cook again.”
Host Padma Lakshmi puts Lee “on the bubble.”
“It’s the first challenge. I’m a fast learner,” Lee said. “I wanna come back and show them a dish that they can feel confident that should be in the top 16.” Hell, yeah! Go Ed! Can I call you Ed?
As Ed heads to the stew room, he greets his fellow “on the bubble” chefs and as he sits down, simply lets out one word, “Sucks.” The competition is fierce. One misstep and you’re out. Lucky for Lee he showcased his talent in spite of a major mistake.
In fact, also in the same presenting group as Lee was Nina Vicente, sous chef at Spur Gastropub in Seattle. Of Filipino heritage, Chef Vicente did not fare so well. Time was not on her side as she failed to get the most vital component on her plate: the rabbit. She was eliminated on the spot without the judges tasting anything she had cooked. Brutal. With each spot highly coveted, it proved that there was no room for error at this point in the competition. No room at the inn!
In next week’s preview clip, Chef Lee is seen with his hand bleeding profusely from a bad cut. Not to worry. He is definitely a tough competitor. You see him getting his bleeding hand bandaged while still using the other to prepare a dish, as he fights to get off “the bubble” and into Top Chef Texas. “I’m ready to kill the other people to get into that jacket,” says Lee. That’s right! Do whatever it takes, Ed!
Chef Beverly Kim is still to come as part of Group 3. She is seen grimacing at the judges’ table in next’s week preview, but I’m thinking that is just a reality show producer’s way of getting Koreans to tune in next week to see if any KA’s make it into the top 16. Argh, it worked!