Welcome back to Top Chef Masters, the looks-like Top Chef show in which well-established chefs compete against each other for charity. It's been nearly eight months since Chicago's Rick Bayless took the title, pushing wait times at Frontera Grill from one and a half hours to three, and we're ready to crown a new top master. I'm taking over coverage from Scott Tobias, who's tied up with other shows but promises to check in if he goes on another feeding frenzy.
The show's format has shifted slightly this season. Instead of promoting one chef at the close of each show, the top two chefs in each round will advance to the finals. The first four rounds will proceed as tonight's episode did, while the last six episodes focus on elimination.
And I, for one, am anxious to get there. This lackluster first episode highlighted the perils of the early format of this show—there's nothing at stake. Aside from a few jabs from Govind Armstrong, the chefs are cordial and professional. (Essentially what you'd expect from professional chefs as opposed to reality TV stars.) We're shedding twice as many chefs as we're promoting; it's hard to feel any attachment to any of the chefs at this point in the game. (Especially since this episode lacked explosive characters like Ludo Lefebvre, Hubert Keller, or Wylie Dufresne from season one. Excited to see Dufresne return.) Throw in cutaways to awkward first dates, a wind-up host, and a judges table absent of chemistry, and this episode had me cringing, even as a big fan of Season One.
I'm using Scott's format for the write-ups until we get to the meat of the season:
Chefs: Govind Armstrong (Table 8, 8 Oz Burger Bars), Susan Feniger (CITY, Border Grill), Ana Sortun (Oleana), Jerry Traunfeld (Poppy), Jimmy Bradley (The Red Cat, The Harrison), Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia)
Quickfire challenge: the old cook-with-junk-food challenge, as seen in Top Chef Season Two and in last season's Masters, this time repackaged in gas station form. While the opportunity for this challenge is huge—to transform cheap packaged food into something delicious and surprising—it also carries heavy risk, as we saw in the blend of Cheetos and mac 'n' cheese from Govind Armstrong and Jimmy Bradley. The shot of those red-hot Cheetos floating in milk made my stomach turn. Susan and Tony's gelatinous maple bread pudding with caramelized bananas takes the prize.
Elimination: Working in teams to create complementary dishes, the chefs cook for 30 couples on a first date. This uninspired elimination challenge lacked the constraints that make this show fun; no one really squirmed at the idea of cooking a meal for a couple (why should they?), so we ended up with a fairly uninspired procession of plates. Remember last season, when Hubert brought his pasta into a dormitory shower to strain? TCM had better pull challenges like that one going forward, or it may as well be any run-of-the-mill cooking show. Part of the fun of Masters is seeing the ingenuity of already-top chefs at work. Sure, you have a fancy restaurant, but can you cook in a shower? How about making intestines taste good? How about for a couple on a first date? One of these things is not like the other.
Govind and Jimmy pulled together a duo of lamb, with Jimmy searing it for a cold salad followed by Govind's hot chops. Seeing cranky Govind (he of the unhappy partnership and bruised mac-n-cheese ego) quake before the judges was endearing, but alas, he and Jimmy packed their knives and went first with only 12 and a half stars. Ana and Jerry's lavender duck breast and leg also got the axe; Gael and co. use the words "homey" and "pajamas" as stand-ins for "low-brow," and Ana's dish, while it tasted good, didn't look good. Moving forward are Susan and Tony, whose pasta and black pepper shrimp, while stuffed with strong cheese and lightly overcooked, won great reactions from the judges and diners.