Recap: Ann Arbor's Eve Aronoff on premiere of "Top Chef: Las Vegas"
Note: Contains spoiler info."Top Chef" is back for its sixth season, this time around bringing the cheftestants to Las Vegas. This season is locally notable because it marks the first time a Michigan-based chef is in the ranks, with Ann Arbor's own Eve Aronoff (proprietor of eve the restaurant) bringing her unique fusion of flavors to the mix.
As the cheftestants move into a decked-out Las Vegas mansion and introduce themselves to each other and us viewers, Eve interviews that she's not surprised to be the only chef from Michigan, noticing that most of the other chefs are from more metropolitan areas. I say that's no matter; producers this season proudly looked beyond the ordinary culinary meccas to seek out the most skilled group of competitors yet.
Though it's a competition, Eve jumps right in with a friendly attitude toward her fellow chefs. When one roommate, Baltimore-based executive chef Jesse Sandlin, expresses her superstitions about unpacking, Eve (and other roommate, Philadelphian sous chef Jennifer Zavala) assures Jesse that allowing herself to feel somewhat at home in the "Top Chef" house does not mean she'll be the first chef asked to pack her knives and go.
As the cheftestants enter the "Top Chef" kitchen for the first time, host Padma Lakshmi warns that they should expect twists and turns, the first of which turns out to be a group of Stardust showgirls dancing by.
That silliness aside, it's quickfire time. True to "Top Chef" tradition, it's a four-person team Mise en place (French for "putting in place"; cooking preparation and setup, if you will) relay race. The teams, assigned by the competitors pulling multicolored poker chips, divide up the duties: shell 15 clams, peel 30 prawns, clean five lobsters, break down two ribeye chops. The first team to complete the challenge wins. One lucky chef (Seattle-based chef and educator Robin Leventhal) pulls a gold-colored chip, nabbing the opportunity to sit out of the challenge and immunity.
The rest, though, are off to work. Eve's teammates: Google executive chef Preeti Mistry, Atlanta-based executive chef Kevin Gillespie and LA-based Chef de Cuisine Michael Voltaggio. Preeti is the first to go, shucking clams, but struggles and tries opening them like one would an oyster — the wrong method. This sets the pace for the rest of the quickfire and finds Eve's team in the bottom two. We don't even see Eve's team's progress shown on TV beyond the first stage, and Kevin jokes that it doesn't matter at this point that he's even there.
True to Padma's promise of surprises, the members of the winning team (Eve's roommate Jesse Sandlin, plus Maryland-based chef and restaurant partner Bryan Voltaggio [familar surname? His twin brother Michael is also competing this season and was on Eve's quickfire team], Chef de Cuisine of 10 Arts Jennifer Carroll and French-born restaurant proprietor Mattin Noblia) are pitted against each other with 30 minutes to make a dish using the Mise en place ingredients to definitively determine the quickfire winner. To sweeten the surprise, the winner also gets $15,000. Ultimately, Jennifer C's simple ceviche in citron vinegar gets head judge Tom Colicchio's top pick — and the cash prize.
For the elimination challenge, the cheftestants must prepare a dish inspired by one of their vices. The parameters: $150 budget, 30 minutes to shop, two hours to cook. Taking inspiration from the second part of the quickfire, the chefs compete against their former teammates. One member from each team will be up for the win; one up for elimination. Though Robin won immunity with a lucky quickfire chip, she still needs to compete, so she jumps on board with another team. Finally, rounding out the judges' table for this challenge is Wolfgang Puck, who also lends the kitchen facilities of his Vegas restaurant, Cut.
The cheftestants head to Whole Foods to get ingredients, which doesn't feature much from Eve. In interviews she's mentioned that she was more interested in just being a chef than getting into the trappings of TV-making, so one would assume that while some of her competitors were running around wildly, she took a calmer (albeit less TV-friendly) approach.At the Cut kitchen, Eve interviews that her vice is overcomplicating things, and that she'll be preparing shrimp and scallops with English peas in a curry cream sauce. She goes on to explain that she planned to use white wine in the sauce, but the kitchen supply was depleted by the time she got to it, which concerns her because the dish needed an acidic counterpart to the spice and richness of the other ingredients in the sauce. She also lamented that while looking for an alternative to the wine, her seafood was getting overcooked.
With two hours up, the competitors bring their dishes to the judges' table. Teammate Kevin's vice is procrastination, and he offers arctic char with turnip salsa verde. Preeti, inspired by the vice of a Manhattan cocktail, brings a fennel-crusted pork tenderloin with a bourbon sweet potato puree. Michael V takes thinks outwardly and uses the vice of plastic surgery to create a rack of lamb with coconut sauce and gnocchi.As usual, the judges (Gail Simmons of Food & Wine is a regular at the table along with Tom and Padma) bring plenty of opinions along with their appetites, calling out Preeti for using alcohol too liberally in her dish, and Eve for making an imbalanced sauce with underseasoned seafood — mirroring Eve's concerns due to the challenges she faced in the kitchen. Conversely, the judges appreciated the delicate touch Kevin brought to his fish preparation, and the sophistication Michael V brought to his lamb in terms of taste and presentation.
In the end, Kevin was the favorite of Eve's team and the overall challenge winner. Not far behind were Ron Duprat's jerk-seasoned bass with greens and hash, and coincidentally two takes on poached halibut: Michael Isabella's with eggplant puree, Jennifer C's in a three-liquor sauce.
Bad luck must have been in the air in the bedroom shared by Eve, Jennifer Z (who made a seitan-filled chile relleno) and Jesse (braised chicken with potatoes and a fried egg), as they all ended up in the bottom four, along with Hector Santiago (smoked ribeye with celery ceviche).Before Padma announces who is eliminated, Tom points out that the bottom four's vices really did contribute to their placement in the elimination challenge: Hector, a cigar smoker, made ribeye that lacked smokiness; self-proclaimed fiery-tempered Jennifer Z's chile relleno similarly was in need of heat; Jesse, whose vices are excess and drinking, braised her chicken so long that it became very dry. The same was true for Eve, who said she overcomplicates things, which in this case manifested in her overthinking her seafood in curry cream to the point that it wasn't complex enough.
Ultimately, the judges couldn't forgive Jennifer Z's unspicy pepper filled with bland seitan. If executed properly, her chile relleno could have proved her to be innovative and bold. But without proper seasoning and fully-realized ingredients, boldness alone just isn't enough, and she was eliminated.
Here's hoping Eve's first go-around on "Top Chef" was just a case of getting into the rhythm of working around a different group of people and becoming familiar with the process of participating in a TV production. With Ann Arbor's food-loving set on her side, she definitely has a loyal cheering section.
Want to watch more? The "Top Chef" videos page has a bonus clip in which we hear a bit more from Eve — and hear Michael I. disrespect her (and us). The season premiere, called "Sin City Vice," re-airs frequently on Bravo — see the airtimes. Chrysta Cherrie is the entertainment producer/copy editor for AnnArbor.com. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @chrystacherrie.