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Top Chef Masters: "Magic Chefs"

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A few bullet points and away we go:

• Neil Patrick Harris! In case you didn’t read my Newswire piece on his upcoming Emmy hosting gig or didn’t take my over-the-top hyperbole seriously, I consider NPH to be as good an entertainer as show business has to offer. He’s funny as hell on How I Met Your Mother every week; he’s proven a show-stopping song-and-dance man in Assassins, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, and on the recent Tony broadcast; he was maybe the only young actor in Starship Troopers who was in on the joke; and every so often, he can show a little bit of soul, like in his heartfelt tribute to Broadway during the Tonys or in the furtive looks he gives Cobie Smulders’ character in HIMYM. And if you’ve seen him on various daytime talk shows like Ellen, you also know he’s into magic, too.


And oh yeah, he also did a show as a little kid called Doogie Howser, MD where he played a 14-year-old practicing doctor, and that’s apparently all anyone fucking remembers about him. (I’m looking at you, Mr. Nuevo Latino!) It was great to see the chefs cooking for NPH and his magician chums at Magic Castle, and not at all surprising to see him make with the bon mots and talk about food in a more sophisticated way than the average celebrity. (Granted, Jennifer Coolidge doesn’t set the highest of standards.) I’d like to see him back on the show, perhaps as a more vocal guest judge.

• Not the most memorable bunch this week. No standouts in the personality department like French super-snob Ludo from last week; once again, we’re back to genial professionals doing mostly good work and the Round Robin format, now in Week Four, is starting to grind a little. I think the format is right for the show—and really the only option, since no pro chefs would commit themselves to the grind of a full season—but repetition was bound to be a factor.

• Nevertheless, we had at least two examples of big-time chefs making colossal mistakes and many more examples of really innovative responses to the challenges. And with that…

Chefs: Mark Peel (Campanile, Los Angeles); Douglas Rodriguez (“Nuevo Latino” pioneer and restaurateur, Miami); Anita Lo (Annisa, New York); John Besh (various restaurants, New Orleans)


Quickfire: Tonight’s challenge was a great one from one of the season-versus-season all-star specials: Cook an egg dish with only one hand. Just cooking an egg in general is a classic test of skill, because it’s such a simple yet delicate and temperamental task. The one-handed gimmick just raises the stakes a little more. We also witnessed the first out-and-out disaster of the series: Besh’s egg casserole, which simply didn’t cook in the oven during the allotted time. In a last-ditch effort to salvage it, Besh took one bowl out of the oven and tried to cook it through on the stove, but the judges were clearly horrified. Part of it was fried, part of it raw, and Gail Simmons tasted burnt grease. The best they could give him was half a star, which virtually put him out of contention no matter how well he did on the Elimination Challenge. That left Anita Lo to rock it with her soft-scrambled egg with truffle oil and oyster sauce (though I think she bent the rules a bit by getting a second hand in shaving the tops off those eggs).

Besh’s meltdown in the Quickfire brings me to this point: I’m starting to like the ratings system. Yes, his low score put him too far behind the pack, but I like that the dishes made in the Quickfire all have some consequence. If you think about Michael’s infamous Cheetos-and-Snickers creation during the vending machine Quickfire in Season Two, he really had no motivation to put anything decent on the plate. The winner of the Quickfire gets immunity, but everyone from the runner-up to the absolute worst just move along without incident. Having a ratings system like this keeps the chefs from getting too complacent over their botched ideas.


Elimination: After a nifty (if sort of baffling) card trick by magician and mentalist Max Maven—who, as everyone seemed to note, certainly looked the part—the chefs were tasked to make a meal for NPH and friends at Magic Castle under four broad themes: Mystery, surprise, illusion, and spectacle. Tom Colicchio, back in the kitchen again, noted that the pro chefs were showing a lot of wisdom by finessing the challenge and finding ways to talk their dishes into the theme they’ve been assigned. But to my mind, the opposite happened: All four went out of their way to conform to the theme and they were all extremely imaginative about it, even if they all weren’t successful. Peel’s parchment-wrapped fish with garlic mashed potatoes and leeks handled the “mystery” like a gift; Rodriguez’s hapless attempt at flaming coconuts wiped away his chances, but the appearance of “spectacle” can’t be denied; Besh’s “surprise” took advantage of the liquid nitrogen by freezing poor NPH’s hands; and Lo kicked all of their asses again with her witty “illusion” of a scallop that wasn’t a scallop surrounding a perfectly rich and bloody steak tartare.

Overall, another solid show, and another dominating winner for the third week straight. Anita Lo didn’t need the edge of a perfect rating in the Quickfire; all things being equal, she’d have still survived a solid challenge from Peel in the Elimination. And she did it with the quiet, unassuming confidence (i.e. non-reality-show-contestant-y) of Suzanne Tracht in Episode Two. They should help make for a dignified and competitive Champion’s Round, if not a melodramatic one.


Grade: B+

Stray observations:

• Took care of all my bullet points above, but I left you with this programming note: Next week, I’ll be vacationing with family on the Atlantic Coast, so Top Chef Masters blogging duty will be handled by the very capable Genevieve Koski. Thanks, GK!


• Also: Bravo announced today that Season Six of Top Chef will be premiering on Wednesday, August 26th, earlier than expected.

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