By People Staff
Updated November 13, 2008 12:00 AM
Credit: NBC

“Welcome to New York,” Padma Lakshmi intoned as this year’s crop of “cheftestants” filed on to Governor’s Island in the opening moments of Top Chef‘s fifth season. “This is the most competitive culinary environment in America.”

Turns out, it’s also the most competitive Top Chef season, too.

For the first time, one cast member was ousted in the show’s opening moments during a surprise Quickfire challenge. Their task? Peel 15 apples with a knife. (Insert Big Apple pun here!) The nine speediest chefs were safe, while the remaining eight competitors had to “brunoise” — translation: finely dice — their fruit. Four were spared from elimination, while the final four had to prepare a dish with their product. As the chopping commenced, so did the boasting. “I’m absolutely fit to cook in New York,” Lauren Hope, 23, said at one point. “I’ll be damned if I go home early.” Flash to several moments later: Hope’s slow knife skills and run-of-the-mill dish … a spinach salad with apples and blue cheese … put her squarely in the bottom. Good thing she never unloaded her knives. She had nothing to pack up when Lakshmi told her to “pack your knives and go” and sent her to an awaiting ferry.

The remaining 16 chefs then drew knives … each one featuring the name of a neighborhood in one of the five boroughs. Producers have promised that New York will feature prominently in the show, and Wednesday’s show sent them out to investigate the ethnic food unique to those areas. Two chefs visited each ‘hood … and then competed head to head, cooking for the judges.

The match-ups: Richard vs. Jamie; Astoria (Greek) Hosea vs. Carla; Brighton Beach (Russian) Stefan vs. Ariane; Long Island City (Middle Eastern) Jeffrey vs. Fabio; Ozone Park (Latin) Radhika vs. Jill; Queens (Jamaican) Leah vs. Melissa; Little Italy (Italian) Patrick vs. Daniel; Chinatown (Chinese) Alex vs. Eugene; Little India (Indian)

So, it was off to work for the chefs, who hit the kitchen with two hours until service. Before we discuss the results, let’s take a moment for levity. Here are the night’s two most entertaining moments.

1. Daniel Gagnon threw down for Team USA in the chef’s house, telling Finnish chef Stefan Richter and Italian chef Fabio Viviani what’s up. “Listen, bro, you’re in my backyard,” the burly New Yorker snapped during an argument over the difference between a vinaigrette and an emulsion.

2) Carla Hall waited for inspiration to strike while shopping at a Russian supermarket. “I want to be led by my spirit guides,” she explained. “That’s how I do it.” Instead, the chef had to rely on (broken) English to communicate what she wanted, asking the grocer for the best product. “Is that a good one?” she asked. “Yummy, yummy? Is that the yummiest?”

OK, now onto the judging: With guest chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Judges Table, the heat was turned up as the chefs presented their dishes against each other. The winning dish spared its creator from elimination. And as the tasting began, it was apparent that Stefan’s lamb dish was among the judges’ favorites … and, indeed, the chef won the challenge. He already had immunity from persevering in the Quickfire challenge. Sorry, Daniel, looks like that’s one point for Team Europe!

In the bottom: Ariane and Patrick, both of whom had major preparation issues. Ariane’s faro was undercooked, while Patrick’s black noodles were gummy and overcooked. In the end, Patrick, a 21-year-old culinary student, was sent packing in the second elimination of the night. –Brian Orloff

Tell us: Did Patrick deserve to go home? Which chef(s) look promising so fara? And do you like how much New York is featured in the season?

Then check back for our Q&A with Patrick.

Jason DeCrow/AP