On a balmy Tuesday afternoon, I spent my lunch break watching Sam and Ilan from Top Chef season 2 duke it out in a quickfire challenge in Union Square. The Top Chef event, co-sponsored by New York Restaurant Week, was conducted the day before season 3 of Top Chef begins. Miguel from season 1 shared emcee duties with Padma. Other Top Chef alum spotted: Josie, busy on her cell phone; Lee Anne, who’s joined the Top Chef production crew.
The event kicked off shortly after noon, with Padma introducing a panel of judges from NYC’s food scene: Tom Colicchio, of course; Stephen Lewandowski, executive chef at Tribeca Grill; Tracy Nieporent, partner of the Myriad Restaurant Group; Floyd Cardoz, executive chef at Tabla; and David Burke, restaurateur and chef, of davidburke & donatella fame.
Sam and Ilan trooped out onto the stage to much cheering and a fair amount of shrieking. There was a large Sam fan contingent, although Ilan had his supporters, too. I was never one of the die-hard “Oh my god, Sam’s so hot!” fangirls, but I have to admit he looked pretty smokin’ with his new haircut and hip-hugging jeans. Speaking of hair, I’m happy to report that Ilan’s shaved off the skyline of NYC he’d etched into his hair. I don’t think I could deal with seeing the Brooklyn Bridge on his head again.
Each of the judges had come out onstage carrying a covered sauté pan. Sam and Ilan had to pick one of the pans, and use the mystery protein ingredient contained therein to create an entrée in 30 minutes. The winner’s dish was to be featured on a Restaurant Week menu.
Ilan got first pick. He walked up to the judges’ table where Tom Colicchio, not realizing that it was supposed to be a blind choice, had uncovered his pan. Ilan chose to go with Colicchio’s protein – soft shell crab. BTW, you could totally tell that Ilan enjoyed basking in the adulation of his fans. I mean, the guy’s obviously a talented chef, but he really gets off on the fame. Being in front of a crowd cheering for him, he was just beaming with good spirit and enthusiasm.
As Padma prompted Sam to make his pick, a lone voice shrieked from the audience, “Pick me, Sam, pick ME!” to much applause and laughter. Sam didn’t miss a beat, just picked a pan and ended up with quail. He’s quite a cool customer, that one.
The two chefs got started on their dishes, and Padma gave the audience some information about season 3 of Top Chef. Ted Allen will be a season 3 judge! He was great on Queer Eye, and it’s good to see him on a show where he won’t get trash-talked by Jeffrey Steingarten (well, not on screen, anyway). We were also introduced to some of the season 3 contestants, although not all of them. I wonder if that’s a potential spoiler.
After half an hour, Sam and Ilan served their dishes to the judges, who seemed to enjoy the food. Alas, I couldn’t get any photos of the food since the judges’ table was elevated above my line of sight. Ilan served a soft-shell crab salad, while Sam came up with grilled quail and potatoes. The judges munched, deliberated briefly, and decided on a winner. Ilan’s soft-shell crab salad won the day, alas for Sam, who was told (yet again!) to pack his knives and go.
Over the course of the event, Padma and Miguel distributed various giveaways and prizes – $100 gift certificates for NYC Restaurant Week, Top Chef goodie bags, chocolates with Top Chef printed on them, and gift-wrapped bonus prizes that turned out to be grilling tool sets from Red Envelope.
Overall, the Top Chef event was a blast! I always like seeing Sam and Ilan in action, and the event was a brief introduction to the season 3 contestants and a good way to get ready for tonight’s first episode. I’m looking forward to finding new contestants to love, and just as important, new contestants I’ll love to hate.