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Top Chef Masters: Episode #1 Recap

Last night was the première of Top Chef Masters, the spin-off from Bravo’s popular Top Chef series, which just completed its fifth season.

There are a few differences between the two shows. In Masters, the chefs are all established pros at the top of the business, many of them with Michelin stars, James Beard awards, etc. They’re competing for charity. Instead of a large cast that is whittled down week-by-week, each episode has just four chefs, only one of whom survives. After six weeks of this, there will be a “championship round” in which the individual winners return to face each other.

There is much less pressure, and much less drama than on Top Chef. None of the “Masters” sees this show as a career-maker or breaker. In Episode 1, they all seemed to be doing it for good-natured fun. And of course, because they are all more experienced than the Top Cheftestants, most of the dishes looked pretty good.

As on Top Chef, there are two challenges—Quickfire and Elimination. And as on Top Chef, the challenges practically always involve a ridiculous contrivance that the chefs would never face in real life.

This week’s contestants were Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco; Christopher Lee of Aureole in NYC; Tim Love of the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth; and Michael Schlow of Radius in Boston.

For the Quickfire Challenge, they had 60 minutes to make desserts for a Girl Scout troupe. Schlow admitted that desserts are his weak spot, and it showed. He served a pile of brown mush that the scouts quickly dismissed. Tim Love and Chris Lee over-thought their dishes. They didn’t look like what any sensible person would serve to children. That left Keller, whose dessert got five out of five stars from the troupe. (Points scored in the Quickfire carried over to the Elimination round.)

For the Elimination Challenge, they had to cook dinner for college students, using only a hot plate, a toaster oven and a microwave, and doing the prep in Pomona College dorm rooms. All four chefs did a pretty impressive job, especially under these conditions. I would have been happy to eat any of these dishes. Tim Love nearly ruined his food when he accidentally put it in the freezer overnight, but he made a good recovery. Schlow’s dishes were the most boring; I have already forgotten what they were.

Keller won the Elimination, with Lee second, Love third, Schlow last. Keller, of course, had carry-over points from his Quickfire performance, but it he would have won even without that advantage. He mopped the floor with the competition.

Kelly Choi hosted. She did a fine job but is nowhere near as hot as Padma Lakshmi. The three judges were British critic Jay Rayner, retired New York Magazine critic Gael Greene, and Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland. They were remarkably kind to the chefs. It was nowhere near as brutal as Judges’ Table on Top Chef.

Everyone expected Rayner to go after the chefs like an attack dog, maybe because that’s his reputation in Britain, or maybe because he’s so damned scary looking. He was actually a perfectly reasonable guy. Oseland seemed to love everything. This is the first time I’ve seen Gael Greene without a hat covering part of her face. She looked like Archaeopteryx, but like Rayner, was charming and polite to the chefs.

It’s ironic that classic French cuisine is in supposedly decline these days, but the most classically trained chef gave the best performance.

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