D.C. locals and Capitol Hill staffers queued up around the block on Wednesday night at Good Stuff Eatery, where “Top Chef” Season 5’s chef Spike Mendelsohn and his staff cooked up a storm at a watch party for this season’s premiere. Obviously, Spike’s famous burgers, fries and milkshakes were on the menu. Meanwhile, the inaugural episode began.

In the seventh season of “Top Chef,” there are more culinary-school-trained chefs than ever, including six from the Culinary Institute of America. Still, when under pressure and anticipating a rating from judges such as Le Bernardin‘s Eric Ripert, chefs’ skills (and cool) can fly right out the kitchen window.

During the Quickfire Challenge, the “cheftestants” were to demonstrate basic skills with speed, peeling 10 potatoes, dicing 10 cups of onions, breaking down four chickens and preparing a dish with those ingredients. The Elimination Challenge allowed chefs to show a regional dish inspired by their roots. Here are some lessons, applicable in the kitchen and in the front of the house, that could prove helpful in the coming weeks — or then again, maybe not.

  • Speed can hurt you … literally. During the Quickfire, Amanda Baumgarten, sous chef at Water Grill in Los Angeles, was peeling the spuds and sliced her palm. Maybe the whistle or the $20,000 prize had something to do with it. Poise and efficiency are paramount.
  • Strategize all you want. The leaders of the Quickfire pick teams to determine groups for the Elimination Challenge. They pick the chefs who offer the least competition to be in their group, as that’s how they will be judged. This early in the challenge, it was anyone’s guess.
  • Sometimes you’ve gotta play it safe. Jacqueline Lombard, chef-owner of Jacqueline Lombard Events, decides on a chicken liver mousse to represent New York, where she grew up. (Will 300 young Washingtonians dig that dish?) Faced with the clock and some decisions, she realizes it might not have been the best choice. Kevin Sabraga, executive chef at Rat’s Restaurant, pulls his inspiration from lamb in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, knowing that cooked sous-vide, the dish would be solid.

What tips would you offer to these top chef newbies to help them best strategize and perform in the challenges to come? Leave a comment.

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SmartBrief’s Emily Molitor contributed to this report.

Photo via Bravo on Facebook

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9 responses to “Lessons learned from the “Top Chef” premiere”

  1. John Carman says:

    Production has wrapped and events are set in stone, so there's nothing, at this point, that can be said to affect the outcome. The only variable remains with the handful of finalist who will soon shoot the final two episodes. Best of luck the finalists!

  2. Karen F. says:

    After watching the previous seasons of this great show, I would tell them not to second guess themselves and go with their gut! (Pun intended) Seen too many would-be top chefs doubt themselves in the middle of heated competition. If you have a plan, stick with it and execute the heck out of it!

    Karen, The Resume Chick (you can find me on Google or Twitter for questions, comments, or violent reactions)

  3. Best of luck to the finalists, indeed! Should be an interesting season. I'm also hearing via e-mail that chefs need to make friends with other chefs. (But it's a competition!) Thoughts on that?

  4. DDavis says:

    Newbie advice:
    There will be a taste test. Hone your palate, blind-folded. Go with the easy ones first, salt, pepper, garlic, onion which are in almost everything.

    “It’s So Unusual”, but know offal. Tom loves it. Know an organ well, and I don’t mean one with keys.

    Texture. It had better be in there somewhere. Gail craves it.

    Don’t cut corners. Last night a James Beard nominee lost because he used a commercial dough instead of his own. You’ve got to own your dish, in its entirety.

    Think you can hide, it’s not going to happen. You’d better be bold and if you are, stand by your bold dish with solid reasoning.

    D.C. is not an island. You’d better make friends with some of the other chefs. It can only help your career, restaurant, and make you better.

    Don’t let the more popular chefs get in your head and throw you off your game. (Last season’s) Kevin, from Atlanta, kicked butt in a humble way and let the food speak for his skills.

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  6. J Centola says:

    Commenting on making friends… The thing I hate most about these competitions is all the ego and in-fighting. This applies to Top Chef and any other show out there. Likewise, my favorite thing about the Top Chef Masters series is the respectful nature of the competition. Does it not demonstrate that these chefs are accomplished beyond cooking? Not only that, but if you love food, then you probably love to talk about food. And you can only discuss the fine details with another chef. Not to mention the value of networking. Not to mention that everything I've learned in the kitchen lately, I've learned from my contemporaries. I say that making friends is a must.

  7. A Cook's Life says:

    I didn't think it was possible, but Padme and Colichio have gotten even more pretentious than previous seasons of Top Chef. Season One, I couldn't bear to miss an episode. Now, it's unbearable.

  8. Robert Sulick 1982 says:

    Having chefs compete for knife skill speed reeks of the history Domino's had by commiting to unrealistic delivery times. Now someone gets hurt…what if a tendon had been cut and rendered someones hand useless for life…

    The constant attention my alma mater pays to these games , egos' and celebrity activities…all designed to do ltittle more than make money…undermine all of us out working to represent the careers we have chosen as professionals.

    As the CIA did by prostituting themselves through support for the disastrous Rocco DiSpirito fiasco…this path does little to enhance the school with people who really cook for a living…this is why CIA is on a lower plane than true colleges and universities…we do first…listen little to the result… and do again.

  9. Robert, you make a good point that moving too fast with a knife can be extremely dangerous. It's a good tip for chefs to consider how fast is too fast.