"Top Chef" is back, and while some things are different (there's a cool TV in the stew room!), many things remain the same. Case in point: at this stage in the competition, there are too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough minutes in the show to get to know them all. So, let's not worry about who's who or where they're from. After all, one of the few chefs with an interesting backstory gets the boot before the show is over. Let's just hope the food continues to look delicious.

Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio don't waste any time putting the chefs (I'd really rather not call them chef'testants, Bravo) to work. There's no Quick Fire to ease everyone into the game, but instead it's right into the Elimination Challenge, so everyone immediately has a small heart attack. But no time to fret! Padma and Tom are soon flinging strings of beads at everyone's heads, which is not an invitation for anyone to show their boobs, but a way of assigning proteins. In keeping with the New Orleans theme (which is apropos, given that this season is set in New Orleans), they get one of three critters -- alligator, turtle or frog. So, everything tastes like chicken! 

Some of the chefs seem fine with swamp creatures (especially Michael and Justin, the local winners of "Padma's Picks"), though others seem to be caught up in remembering beloved pet turtles and talking frogs from cartoons of their youth. Yeah, if you think too much about your proteins, you can get into trouble. The one and only time I tried to cook lobsters, I had named them by the time I got them home from the grocery store and within the hour was trying to figure out if I could keep them alive in my bathtub as pets. 

As to which chefs appeared to have actual personalities and not be small, shaking balls of neuroses (there were certainly a few of those) or jerky, shallow egomaniacs (also, a few of those), there were thankfully several. Not only did everyone seem to love Nina's turtle curry, but her dad was the Prime Minister of St. Lucia. Janine, an Aussie, considers herself a smart blonde and rocks booty shorts in the kitchen, which seems to both frustrate and enflame several of her male counterparts. Sara from Minnesota is doing '40s style make-up and hair (an accomplishment in high humidity) and has worked with Wolfgang Puck, though now she's working at the Minneapolis airport. Huh. Ramon went to Thailand and became an undefeated Muy Thai fighter, while Aaron was a drummer in a punk band. Carlos was an illegal immigrant from Mexico, and he puts about a POUND of butter into his dish. I know it has to feed 100 people, but I suspect his food (his restaurant has a Michelin star) is both delicious and super fattening. Which, you know, probably applies to almost everyone. Oh, and Travis only dates Asian guys. 

In addition to cooking weird proteins, the chefs must dish up vittles for 150 people who are part of a dinner club in New Orleans. They will be giving Mardi Gras beads (those damn beads again!) to the chefs whose food they liked the most. The three chefs with the most beads have a shot to win, while the three with the least run the risk of going home. 

Because all of the food looks weirdly the same (when confronted with an ugly protein, deep fry it! Roll it in oats! Render it unrecognizable!), I'll just list the dishes they showed. It's safe to say they all looked sort of like jalepeno poppers that have been run over by a car, then sprinkled with interesting looking sauces. 

Bene - Turtle croquette with cauliflower puree & shiitake mushrooms

Nina - Curried turtle meatball, chayote slaw & chutney with raisins

Janine - Bacon & alligator confit with tomato jam & lemon frisee

Aaron - Picked eggplant with turtle confit & turtle ragou with tagliatelle pasta

Shirley - Turtle soup with goji berry & Chinese broth

Carrie - Poached frog legs with oyster emulsion & cold zucchini salad

Carlos - Alligator rillettes with fennel & pickled red onion relish

Michael - Fried alligator with sauce piquant & slaw

Sara - Deep fried alligator with smoked chilis, sweet & sour sauce & pickled vegetables

Ramon - Braised turtle with Thai dashi

Patty - Cajun style alligator with yuca puree

Jason - Frog leg croquette with roasted eggplant, fennel salad & pickled cherry puree

Stephanie - Frog leg butter confit with spinach & watercress puree

The chefs enter the stew room, then discover that nifty TV isn't tuned to CNN, but to the judges (Padma and Tom are joined by Emeril Lagasse and Curtis Stone) talking smack about them! Oh no! They announce Nina, Sara, Carrie, Shirley and Janine were great. On the other hand, Aaron, Patty, Carlos, Ramon, Bene sucked. 

Finally, the top three are Carrie, Nina and Sara. They loved Sara's heat, and they thought Nina was genius for making meatballs. They also loved the fact Carrie made cold frog. The winner is... Nina! It's a win not just for her, but St. Lucia!

The bottom three are sent back -- Patty, Aaron and Ramon. Aaron didn't think about making pasta in a swamp, and he knew it was mushy. But Curtis can still tell he's a good chef! Ramon admits he added ice to his dashi to cool it down. Tom looks like he's going to vomit or punch him. Don't DO that to DASHI! Patty starts crying the moment she opens her mouth. I screwed up! It was swill! Tom thinks her crappy alligator dish would have been fine if she were a home cook, but alas, she's not. Curtis assures all of the chefs that in another season they would be in the middle of the pack, but the competition is really tough this year.

Backstage, the chefs comfort sad Patty, then give her booze. Meanwhile, the judges talk. Padma hates to see Patty cry, but she served crappy food! Maybe she should cry! But really, the great crime -- you DON'T add ICE to DASHI! Thus, Ramon is the first to go. He's disappointed, as he never had the chance to cook his food for the judges. Just wondering if his food was ice cream.

Are you watching this season? Do you think this was a good challenge, or just resulted in ugly food?