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‘Top Chef: Boston’ opener offers surprises

George Pagonis.
George Pagonis.Tommy Garcia/Bravo/Bravo

George, we hardly knew ye.

Minutes into the opening episode of the Boston-set "Top Chef" Season 12, contestant George Pagonis became the first victim of a brand-new twist to the show: the sudden-death Quickfire challenge, which seems like it ought to come with a trap door and its own circle of Hell – and maybe George would say it does.

All I know is the guy sure sweats a lot for someone with a pretty impressive resume (he's executive chef-partner of former "Top Chef" contestant Mike Isabella at Kapnos in Washington, D.C.) and the face of a Greek runway model.

But George seemed in trouble from the moment the challenge was announced — a team mise en place relay that involved shelling clams, oysters, and lobster, as well as filleting mackerel — and fellow cheftestant Gregory Gourdet seemed only too happy to capitalize on his competitor's dripping fear.


So George is gone, and meanwhile Katsuji Tanabe, the Mexican-Japanese who operates a MexiKosher restaurant in LA (!??), paid no immediate price for loudly botching the clams and derailing his team from first to nearly worst. Katsuji went on to compete in the first-ever "Top Chef" (invitation only) food festival at the Museum of Science, where he made a "Petroleum" shrimp dish with a squid-ink sauce that I can tell you (because I was at the event) tasted nastier than actual petroleum. It was even nastier than bratty Aaron Grissom's super-fatty pork belly that Padma Lakshmi spit out into her napkin. And way nastier than the losing chilled corn soup with sriracha caviar that sent Michael Patlazhan home at the end of the show.

But Mei Lin's winning dish, the congee with caramelized pork, was every bit as good as the judges said it was — the kind of food a person could eat every day, if a person had the talent to make rice porridge into something magical that could be served to 250 people at an outdoor "food festival."


Mei looks like a strong contender, if not the most effusive contestant in the history of the show. More fun to watch is the flashy, bandana-wearing Adam Harvey, this season's go-to guy for a witty quip. Of course, he's a New Yorker, which might not play so well in Boston over the long haul.

Keriann Von Raesfeld could be the cocky/difficult Jen Carroll of this group. Melissa King has the most rockin' hairdo. And, let's just say it, Bay State native Stacy Cogswell is a terrific flag bearer for local flavor: loved her interaction with "The Mayerr" Marty Walsh, can't wait to see her put Yankees fan Adam in his place (we hope).

In just one night, the field has gone from 16 to 14 (putting aside the "Last Chance Kitchen" factor). At this rate, the competition could be over by Thanksgiving.

Related coverage:

'Top Chef: Boston' premiere updates

Boston chefs and 'cheftestants' kick off 'Top Chef'

Please 'Top Chef,' don't resort to Boston cliches

'Top Chef' season shot in Boston makes its debut

Watch the trailer for "Top Chef" season 12

Kristen Kish throws a party (and shares her recipes)

'Top Chef' Boston season revealed

16,000 apply for 'Top Chef' episode


Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeJPage