I knew what was coming within the first five minutes of the premiere episode of "Top Chef" Season 5. His cleanly-scrubbed face, flushed with color and devoid of any perceptible blemish or stray chin hair, was a little too angelic. His eyes, unadulterated from the wisdom that comes with life experience, were a little too blue. His age -- 21 -- was a little too young. As contestant Patrick gazed into the camera and excitedly revealed that he is still in culinary school, I knew he was a goner.
What I didn't know, and what I still don't know, is why he was there at all.
Watching last night's episode of "Top Chef" was akin to watching the preliminary rounds of "American Idol." It was painful to watch Patrick marching his way down a plank toward an inevitable death. The "Quickfire Challenge" that in a fun play on the NYC "Big Apple" setting, required the contestants to peel and chop fifteen apples, only confirmed my first impressions of Patrick's chances. The only thing "quick" about his performance in the challenge was how quickly he proved how out of his league he was among the other more seasoned chefs. His inferior knife skills and weak attempt at an apple salad immediately established him as an amateur -- a small fish in a huge pond. He couldn't compete, and to even begin to compare him to the other chefs surrounding the chopping block would be akin to comparing apples and oranges.
Despite his lackluster beginning, Patrick was still able to out perform his former CIA classmate, Lauren, to make it to the elimination round. No big shocker there. Judging by the amount of screen time both contestants received in the first few minutes of the episode, it was foreseeable that Lauren's lack of face time implied an early exit. With no attachment to her whatsoever, it didn't bother me to see her "pack her knives" and go.
For the elimination challenge, each contestant was asked to draw a knife for a different neighborhood in NYC. Based on the neighborhood drawn -- Little Italy, Chinatown, etc. -- the contestants were then charged with the task of shopping at a market in the area to create an ethnic dish inspired by what they found. Two contestants were assigned to each area, and their dishes would be presented head-to-head for the panel. The superior of the dishes would be in the running to win the competition; the losing dish would be up on the chopping block for elimination.
As Patrick and Danny, a chef from New Hyde Park, NY, descended on Chinatown, I knew it was over for the fresh-faced student as soon as he said the words "black rice noodles." The camera focused in on his ominous revelation that he'd never worked with the noodles before, and as he tossed the package into his basket, he sealed his fate. I didn't even have to hear that he planned to serve it alongside the woefully mundane salmon and bok choy that only further clarified that at this juncture in his culinary career, Patrick doesn't have the confidence or skill sets to push the envelope. Hearing him boast that he had learned about Chinese cooking in one of his culinary school courses made me physically cringe. I couldn't help but wish Jung from Season 3 was there to go a-wall on a duck or black chicken to prepare something truly authentic and reflective of Chinese cuisine.
When Patrick presented his contrived "Americanized" dish to guest judge Jean George, Padma, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons, I felt like I was watching a child approaching a snake pit. I wanted to save him the embarrassment of serving something so generically uninspired to the great Jean George, but could do nothing but sit on my coach, asking myself over and over again, "What was Bravo thinking?" This wasn't entertainment -- this was cruel and unusual punishment.
After the predictable announcement that Patrick was out of the competition, Padma chirped out an almost patronizing, "Good luck!" I wouldn't have been surprised if she'd reached out and patted him on the head, and then given him a cookie and glass of milk to make his bad day better. I could have used a cookie too. The sympathy pains I felt during last night's episode were excruciating.