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Top Chef 3.1 - First Impressions Recap

On last night's season 3 premiere, Top Chef appeared to be back on form - solidifying its place in my cooking reality shows hierarchy. Unlike Hell's Kitchen, which is about Ramsay screaming at folks and The Next Food Network Star, which is about people showing off their personalities, last night's Top Chef was mostly about the food. Sure there was a little contestant squabbling and drama, but overall it was about the food and the cooking. Plus any show that pulls out my favorite food celebrity as guest judge is going to get big props anyway. To get the full recap (with spoilers),

The show starts off with 15 contestants arriving at what appears to be a cocktail party at Casa Casuarina (Versace's former mansion). At this point there are too many people to get to know, in fact we strangely only get introductions from 11 of them.

After the cheftestants have mingled and devoured a lot of food, Padma and Chef Tom surprise them with a quickfire challenge. The folks have 10 minutes to make an amuse-bouche using the leftover food in front of them. The winning dish was Micah's "Tuscan Sushi Revisted" - an italian ham with figs & balsamic dressing - and the losing dish was Clay's apple filled with salsa/gazpacho something. It looked great to me, but it was not an amuse-bouche. Meaning Micah gets immunity and Clay is now the guy who doesn't know what an amuse-bouche is.

Next they're whisked off to their fancy new digs in order to prepare for tomorrow's elimination challenge. When they arrive at the challenge they're faced with a large table of "proteins" and are asked to create a Surf & Turf dish. The catch (there's always a catch) is that these are pretty exotic proteins, such as kangaroo, black chicken, eel, rattlesnake, geoduck, alligator, etc. The ol' knife block is pulled out to determine who gets to choose proteins first and of course the tamer ones are picked first. Once proteins are chosen they're told that today's guest judge is exotic cuisine-loving Anthony Bourdain - leaving the folks with the tame meats second-guessing their selections.

During the cooking I noticed one major thing, not once did Padma say "The Kenmore Pro Kitchen." The sponsors are still there, but they're not in our face, which in my opinion, is a huge relief. I also noticed that food photography looks better this season and that there were more shots of food and fewer shots of chefs scowling. Also, two contestants (Brian and Howie) actually don't finish their dishes in time (anyone know if this is a TC first??). My favorite part of the night happened when Howie was criticized for not having plated his dish in time and quoted Bourdain to Bourdain as retaliation! I knew there was no way he was going home after that.

The two top performers of the evening turned out to be Tre with ostrich and abalone and Hung with geoduck and blackened chicken. They were so serious during Judge's Panel, but when told they could smile, they actually smiled. And when asked if he tried Hung's food, Tre started gushing amazingly nice sentiments. If this was season 2, you would have expected Hung to scowl or roll his eyes in return, but what does Hung do? Why he gives a genuine thanks and smile. How novel! In the end Tre is the victor with seared ostrich fillet with heirloom tomato risotto and abalone reduction. His prize: he gets to hang out for a night with Bourdain in NYC, as well as receive autographed copies of all of his books. I personally thought it was a weird prize, and this is coming from someone who would hang out with Bourdain any night!

With Tre declared winner, it's time to send someone home. During the loser's panel Padma breaks from her robot persona and smiles naturally while stating that they could fry her toe, dipped in batter and it would taste good. However, after deliberation, it isn't the fried food that gets sent home. Bourdain declares Clay's dish to be like the "quality class of air cambodia" and so Clay is told to pack his knives and go.

If the season 3 premiere didn't satiate your Top Chef hunger, it looks like Bravo gave their TC homepage a makeover. There's even a Hung vs. Clay taste test battle video that didn't make it into the premiere, as well as several of last night's recipes.

And if you're wondering where Ted Allen was, rumor has it that he and Gail will be alternating as judges.

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