Texas reality show fans and chef groupies have a new reason to live with the December 1 debut of Top Chef, the cooking competition series from Bravo channel. Two words: John Tesar.
That's not provincialism. In the premiere episode of season 14, which takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, the colorful Dallas chef emerges as the best reason to watch, with oodles of quotable quotes.
Tesar is back as part of a crew of returning chefs who make up half the cast. It's this season's kooky plot twist, which pits eight new chefs against eight retreads who appeared on prior seasons.
The twist adds drama to an otherwise dull premiere. The newbies sullenly resent the hoggy selfishness of the returning chefs, while the returning chefs sagely sermonize about the pitfalls of reality TV.
"I'm not really interested in getting to know the veterans," whines new chef Emily Hahn. "I feel like they've had their time; now it should be ours."
New chef Jamie Lynch, the tattooed guy, makes tattooed guys everywhere proud, saying to the returning chefs, "I'm not gonna lie. My butthole puckered when I saw you guys walk in."
For returning and former Dallas chef Casey Thompson, the situation presents a canny opportunity to capitalize on the new chefs' inexperience by stealing a bed from a newbie.
The show makes a big deal out of staking out a bed. "As veterans, we all know we want to pick our room," says returning chef Katsuji Tanabe.
"My room is awesome," Casey says, after stealing said bed. "They had the room but, rookie move, they didn't put anything on their bed. So when they left to check out the rest of the house, I went right in. Veterans 1, rookies 0."
The rest of the show plods through the getting-to-know-you phase. In one painful segment with the new chefs, Padma asks in a stilted conversational manner, "Aren't you the such-and-such chef who won such-and-such award?"
Returning chef Shirley Chung refers to herself in the third person, when she talks about the questionable wisdom of returning for another season. "Seriously, Shirley Chung?" she asks.
Tesar also tosses out a third-person John Tesar, tucked between lots of first-person introspection.
"People either find me refreshing or they find me the biggest dick in the world, but I'm a kinder, gentler chef these days," he says. "At 58 years old, I'm kind of a dying breed, because a lot of people my age have either burned out or faded away or, let's face it, they're either Emeril or Bobby Flay. For me, winning Top Chef, I wouldn't call it redemption. I just think it's validation."
Tesar is one of two chefs who come in at the bottom. The climax consists of a cookoff between him and Florida chef Gerald Sombright.
"I have this dual apprehension," Tesar says. "Should I game play, or should I just beat him? People are asking, 'Where's that John Tesar I saw in season 10?' No way, brother. That guy's gone."
The cookoff theme is oysters. Tesar does oysters poached in cream. You get to see him open a bottle of cream with his bare teeth. Suddenly, he pulls out a truffle from his bag. It sparks a roar from the watching chefs.
"What — did you bring truffles?" asks one chef, agog. "WHAT?" asks another, aghast.
"Do you think I want to go home on on episode one, folks?" Tesar asks. "On Top Chef, we're allowed to bring a few ingredients. And I have some really nice truffles. And I'm going to take out that truffle and use it."
The show ramps up the sympathy for Sombright, splicing in a segment where he reveals he split from his wife and is maybe possibly living in his car. But his roasted oysters with a Thai mignonette do not have truffles.
"How can you compare a a mignonette with a creamed oyster," Padma stage-whispers to the other judges in horror. "I wish there had been more smoke," sighs disappointed judge Gail Simmons. For judge Tom Colicchio, it's just not Thai enough. "If you're going to do a Thai dish, we want a little more heat."
Sombright packs his knives, and Tesar wins.
"On day one, to be the loser of the quickfire and the winner of the cookoff, it gives you that full circle of energy," he says, tracing a circle in the air with his finger.
Top Chef airs Thursdays at 9 pm CST on Bravo.