Top Chef D.C.–Does It Have Potential?

D.C. has become a reality TV hotspot. The Real World D.C. cast took over Dupont Circle last summer, sparking a frenzy of Twitter tracking, and supposedly the Real Housewives of D.C. is in the making. But more important (and relevant) for this blog is Top Chef D.C., which premiered last week.

Several impressive contestants from past seasons have represented our nation’s capital, including Spike (of Good Stuff Eatery fame), Carla Hall and Bryan Voltaggio, last season’s runner-up and chef at VOLT in Frederick, Md. Needless to say, D.C.’s food scene is getting some well-deserved attention, hence Bravo’s choice for its seventh season host.

I think I can speak for most of D.C.’s residents when I say that the Real World was a) a huge annoyance and b) a major disappointment. I vowed to watch the entire series just so I could get excited about the places the cast visited, but three minutes in and I was done. There was a lot more mystery surrounding the Top Chef cast and their movements, so I’m going into this season more excited about its potential.

That said, I haven’t been impressed with the cast. Last season, the Voltaggio brothers killed it in every challenge, and it was exciting to watch the friendships, the rivalries and most importantly, the food. So far, no one really rises to the top as either a great chef or an interesting character. In the first episode, John (the crazy-looking one with the dreads) was sent home. You could have predicted that one. Generally the nut gets eliminated first (remember Clay from Top Chef Miami?). Anyway, the Episode 1 Quickfire took place on the outdoor deck at the Newseum, which has beautiful views up and down Pennsylvania Ave. That was exciting. I must admit that I didn’t see the whole episode, which is why we’re starting our weekly recap with Episode 2.

The overall theme of this episode fits nicely with a major foodie initiative happening here in Washington: healthy eating. Michelle Obama has taken this on as her pet cause, with school gardens, fitness events and a White House farmers market. It seems appropriate that the contestants were asked to work in teams to create a healthy school lunch on a minimal budget–under $3.00 per student. For chefs accustomed to having big bucks to make elaborate dishes with pricey ingredients, this obviously was quite difficult.

Sam Kass, the White House chef and something of a food celeb, was the guest judge. I wonder how hard Bravo had to work to make that happen. Anyway, after creating gourmet sandwiches while sharing an apron with a partner and using one hand each, the chefs served their lunch menus to a group of local middle schoolers. The highs: melon skewers with yogurt foam (this guy is channeling Marcel from Season 2), roasted sweet potato with a low-sugar sorbet and tacos with pickled onions, to name a few. The lows: sherry-braised chicken thigh (what kid would like or appreciate that, not to mention the cost?!) and banana pudding that was full of sugar yet still bland. To be fair, Jacqueline got the short end of the stick when it came to the budget, but still, she should have fought for that cash.

One exciting moment was the name-calling and finger-pointing antics during elimination (from the opposing team, no less)–this cast ain’t afraid to create drama and stir up conflict.

Anyway, I’m not attached to any of these chefs–yet. I can only hope that it gets more exciting and that they come up with creative challenges that showcase the D.C. food scene in the way it deserves.

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