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September 2, 2014

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Top Chef Episode 1: Vice is nice

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Trae Patton / BravoTV

Kevin Gillespie blends on the first episode of Top Chef.

If last night’s premiere episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas is a good indication of the caliber of cooking and creativity fans can expect from the new batch of chefs, the sixth season is shaping up to be delicious.

First Episode of Top Chef

Chef Robin Leventhal cooks up onions during Top Chef sixth season. Launch slideshow »

The episode kicked off with 17 chefs from around the country arriving in Las Vegas to take their shot at the Top Chef title. Rather than bunking down in a casino Real World-style, the chefs took over an off-Strip house complete with pool, water slide and plenty of single beds. This season’s chef’testants are a formidable bunch, with James Beard Award nominees (Bryan Voltaggio and Kevin Gillespie), chefs who’ve trained with the world’s best (Jennifer Carroll is chef de cuisine at 10 Arts by Eric Ripert.) and self-taught powerhouses who pack serious flavor (Michael Isabella, Ash Fulk and Jesse Sandlin).

For the first day of competition the chefs headed to the M Resort, where head judge Tom Colicchio and host/judge Padma Lakshmi welcomed them to the Top Chef kitchen alongside sashaying showgirls from the now-imploded Stardust.

“Expect twists and turns like no other season,” Lakshmi warned with a sly smile.

Vegas was in the details in the first episode. Plenty of Strip shots reminded that this was Vegas, baby! Vegas!, and the chefs drew teams by picking colored poker chips from a magician’s top hat, a single gold chip drawn by Robin Leventhal providing the first twist of the season. The chip granted her immunity from the elimination challenge and sidelined her for the “Quickfire” – the much-loved mise en place relay race, stocked this time around with clams to be shucked, prawns to be shelled, lobsters to clean and a prime rib that needed to be butchered into two clean chops.

With teammates cheering, cajoling and even teaching, the kitchen took on the feel of an amateur sporting event and a few things were immediately evident: 1) Don’t shuck clams against the clock if you’ve never done it before (ahem, Preeti). 2) French-born, San Francisco-based Mattin Noblia is handy with a lobster. 3) Sexism is still very present in the kitchen, courtesy of this comment from Michael Isabella on Jennifer Carroll nearly beating him in the clam-shucking leg: “A girl shouldn’t be at the same level as I am.”

Eventually, Carroll’s Blue Team beat out the Black Team, thanks to Noblia’s impressive lobster skills and Bryan Voltaggio’s quick butchering, with the other two teams lagging far behind. However, the “Quickfire” didn’t end there. A $15,000 poker chip from the M Resort was put up for grabs with the winning team battling each other in a 30-minute cook off using the ingredients they had worked with during the race. Thanks to a spare but flavorful clam ceviche, Carroll took home the $15,000, thanking Colicchio and Lakshmi enthusiastically with hugs and kisses.

Vegas was front and center for the first elimination challenge – a single dish based on each chef’s vices. As the chef’testants shopped and cooked, the vices rolled in - lots of drinkers in this crew, a few procrastinators, one smoker and a pork-eating Jew.

“You could fit my entire restaurant in that kitchen,” gushed Fulk, of the stainless steel Mecca that was CUT restaurant’s kitchen. The chefs would be cooking for its owner, none other than restaurateur extraordinaire Wolfgang Puck.

After two frantic hours the offerings covered an impressive range of style and inspiration: Isabella’s olive oil-poached halibut represented the bar of soap his mom used to wash out his dirty mouth, and Michael Voltaggio’s ode to plastic surgery centered around a rack of lamb with juice from two plump coconuts providing an extra wink-nod tie in.

When the judges had deliberated Isabella found his way into the top four, along with Carroll, Ron Duprat and Gillespie. “We won’t get a better halibut in Las Vegas,” guest judge Wolfgang Puck said of Carroll’s poached fish in a sauce that paid tribute to her taste for many types of alcohol. However, it was Gillespie’s take on procrastination – a delicate, slow-cooked artic char contrasted with a turnip salsa verde– that took home the win.

On the bottom rung, Jen Zavala’s seitan-filled chile relleno earned the judges’ wrath for a lack of flavor and refinement, as did Eve Aronoff’s meek seafood curry.

“Somebody has to go first,” Colicchio said firmly, before Lakshmi delivered the news: It was time for the tattooed Zavala to pack her knives and go home.

With the exception of a few missteps and misfires, Top Chef: Las Vegas’s first episode delivered a promising crop of chef’testants and an impressive array of cuisine. Though the chefs will be sweating it out in the Vegas’ hot sun and scalding kitchens, it looks like the judges will be eating well this season. Let the games begin!

Elimination Challenge Top Four:

Ron Duprat – Jerk Bass with Collard Greens and Rastian Hash

Mike Isabella - Olive Oil Poached Halibut with Eggplant Purée

Kevin Gillespie - Arctic Char with Salsa Verde of Turnips

Jennifer Carroll - Poached Halibut in a Whiskey, Bourbon and Scotch Sauce

Bottom Four:

Hector Santiago - Smoked Rib-Eye with Ceviche of Celery

Jen Zavala - Chile Relleno Stuffed with Seitan

Jesse Sandlin - Braised Chicken with Potatoes and Fried Egg

Eve Aronoff - Shrimp and Scallops in a Curry Cream Sauce

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