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Chicago chefs excel on "Top Chef"

Read more in our recap of the ninth season's first episode

November 03, 2011|By Lisa Arnett

It looks like we're going to see a whole lotta Chicago on "Top Chef: Texas."

In a qualifying round on last night's first episode, five of the six Chicago hopefuls were awarded a spot in the season's cast of 16 cheftestants. That included Sarah Grueneberg of Spiaggia, Heather Terhune of Sable, Chuy Valencia of Chilam Balam as well as Chris Jones and Richie Farina, both from Moto.

The sixth Chicago hopeful, Beverly Kim of Aria, has yet to compete in her qualifying challenge and won't appear until the second episode next Wednesday.

The Chicago chefs saw plenty of screen time in the first episode, including the introduction of Jones and Farina as colleagues and fellow competitors. "Chris Jones, he's my boss at Moto," said Farina. "It's a little bit of mixed emotions. I'm happy to have the opportunity to compete against him. I know how talented he is and I know that he is one of my threats to stand in my way to get the title." In addition to tasting Farina's dish and giving him feedback, Jones was also filmed stepping in to help vegan restaurant chef Colin Patterson from Seattle when he struggled with butchering a cut of pork.

The judges split the 29 hopefuls into three groups for three different qualifying challenges, and ruled each chef in, out or "on the bubble," meaning they'd compete in one more challenge on the next episode.

Grueneberg, Terhune, Jones and Farina were put in the first group to make a dish with one of 10 cuts of pork. Jones was the first awarded a spot in the cast thanks to his pork-filled caramel apple, and Grueneberg was right behind him after impressing the judges with her pig skin-filled pasta inspired by cotechino, a northern Italian sausage.

Terhune had us worried early on with her ribs and grits dish, but the judges put her through. "I taste my grits and it tastes like a salt lick," she said mid-challenge. "I dump half of it out, I add more milk, but the clock is ticking, so I'm hoping that this fixes it in time."

Richie also had a moment of uncertainty about his soup made with pig ears. "[I'm] just overanalyzing in my head that my salty palate might've did me in," Farina said. But the judges didn't think so, and he too scored a spot.

Chuy Valencia was the sole Chicagoan competing in the second group and had to prepare a dish using rabbit. "I really enjoy cooking with rabbit. My mother always had rabbits for us as kids; she actually raised rabbits growing up," he said. "My sister would go name them, and once in a while, one would disappear and we would have something for dinner that we would tell her was chicken." The judges were impressed by his dish's flavorful, spicy sauce and celebrated with a "Booyah, bee-yotch!" at the camera after being awarded the eleventh spot.

As the chefs reconvened at their cast house, Grueneberg acknowledged the powerhouse of Chicago chefs that had formed. "I feel this is a Chicago competition, because we're right here, it's like, let's dule it out! But also, I am anxious to see some of the other chefs we're going to be competing against."

Five out of 16 cheftestants from Chicago is already a record showing compared with past seasons of "Top Chef." Six would be the icing on the cake. Tune in next week to see how remaining Chicago chef Beverly Kim fares as the last five cheftestants are cast.

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