It’s understandable to be confused by the sudden presence of Top Chef Duels in our lives. Between original Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, Top Chef All-Stars, and the gone and long forgotten Just Desserts, it sure seemed like the franchise had done just about all it could to stretch itself—and yet here we are.
This latest iteration of the Top Chef formula is a series of head-to-head battles between both Top Chefs and Top Chef Masters. Masters host Curtis Stone steps in for the same duty, with Top Chef judge Gail Simmons and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck by his side. Just with the more recent seasons of Top Chef, there is an astonishing amount of money on the table. Since each chef comes armed with a challenge for their competitor, we see the chefs prepare two dishes within the first fifteen minutes—and each is worth ten thousand dollars. They then prepare three dishes for the main challenge, which then determines who will move on to the final. (If this sounds like a lot to handle in one hour, it’s because it’s a lot to handle in one hour.) This means that the culmination of Top Chef Duels will have nine chefs battling it out in the finale for the title of Top…Dueler, I guess? Anyway, Top Chef Duels is a hyperactive version of All Stars that believes wearing a mask will render it completely unrecognizable, despite the fact that obscuring its eyes doesn’t mean we can’t still see its entire face.
The premiere is the showdown between two Top Chef alumnae with a shared background in molecular gastronomy: Top Chef All Stars winner and perpetual pourer of liquid nitrogen Richard Blais versus former Top Chef runner-up and real-life Sonic the Hedgehog Marcel Vigneron. To no one’s surprise, Marcel’s challenge is a gimmick chased by a twist. He challenges Richard to make something hot and cold, and then stipulates that it has to be a dessert. This is not the smartest twist. As my viewing partner and fellow A.V. Club writer Kayla Upadhyaya observed, it would have been more difficult to do this challenge with a savory dish, since a dessert with both hot and cold elements can be “anything a la mode.” Sure enough, that’s exactly what Marcel does. His coconut ice cream is a hit, but his sad little cashew cake falls flat. Richard does pineapple two ways with a side of foam and hot chilies, and ends up winning Marcel’s challenge (and the ten thousand dollars). Richard opts for a simpler challenge with a hamburger cook-off. Of course, Richard Blais’ version of “simpler” involves porcini rings, kimchi ketchup, and a wood-burning oven because “that’s how God intended” burgers to be cooked, so it’s all relative. Marcel leaves the gadgets behind for this challenge and creates an imposing tower of a burger that he christens “The Dirty Girl,” because it makes a mess when you eat it and I can’t believe those are words I just typed. Richard is similarly unimpressed, especially at Marcel’s use of a fried egg, which he calls “the fedora” of hamburger accouterments. As it turns out, though, all the tricks in the world can’t distract from Richard’s slightly overcooked meat, and so The Dirty Girl wins.
These challenges are far from the worst in Top Chef history (especially because they don’t even include a lick of product placement), but it’s hard to get invested in them since they only get about fifteen minutes of airtime combined. Yes, Quickfires go just about as quickly, but two challenges require two sets of rules, two rounds of set-up, and two rounds of judging. It’s cramped, and it’s exhausting. The idea of the chefs issuing their own challenges is good in theory, but I can’t help but think that this first round might be better off as something more like Kristen and CJ’s Last Chance Kitchen standoff during the Seattle season, where they took turns picking elements like time and style to create a collaborative challenge.
Once the final challenge gets going, however, Top Chef Duels shows more signs of creativity. The challenge parameters and judging panel are catered to Richard and Marcel’s shared enthusiasm for molecular gastronomy. They have to prepare three dishes based on different senses. “Sight” challenges them to create a dish that looks like one thing but is actually another; “smell” asks them to create intense aromas for the judges to take in whilst wearing blindfolds; and “touch” demands a variety of textures. There’s a particularly adorable moment when Stone says their judges will include molecular gastronomy experts Josiah Citrin and Homaro Cantu, and Richard Blais’ eyes get as wide as his entire face. Other kids might have had movie posters on their walls, he tells us in an awestruck talking head, but he and Marcel would have had those guys in a heartbeat.
This moment also has Richard actually relating to Marcel, who shares his culinary passions, but whose grating bravado always makes him a contentious contestant. The consensus in this premiere, however, is that Marcel has stepped up his game since we saw him last. His heart of palm disguised as bone marrow and oyster mushroom masquerading as a scallop get great reviews, and his Thai seafood stew manages raves even though he makes the strange decision to add an extra waft of menthol, just because. His “texture” dessert, however, is an elaborate cluster of twenty-five elements that never quite comes together. Meanwhile, Richard frets about his “walking through the woods” menu, but the second his first course is set on the table, it’s clear he’ll be fine. He uses cherry gelatin to disguise a ball of chicken liver mousse and a dehydrated vanilla bean as the cherry “stem,” and the end result looks both delicate and decadent. His porcini mushroom pasta is good, but his cherry-wood smoke is great, and his more elegant black forest-themed dessert tips him over the edge for the final win. Really, there was no doubt that the judges would send Richard to the finals, because they know he can turn out something truly special under even the most stressful of circumstances. In a surprisingly touching moment for Top Chef, though, the chefs sit down to eat each other’s dishes far from the judge’s scrutiny, and Marcel’s food blows Richard away. It’s enough to make you believe that Richard means it when he tells Marcel at the end that his effort was “impressive, Chef.”
At the end of the day, Richard and Marcel ramp up their competitive spirits as best they can to keep us invested, but their constant mugging for the cameras also reveals the fatal flaw in Top Chef Duels’ structure. It can be gratifying to watch favorite reality stars return for redemption, revenge, or even just to drop their day jobs and play. But if you’re not invested in the pairing, which drives so much of the episode and this concept, you’re less likely to enjoy watching an episode devoted to those two people for an entire hour. The opening challenges will always be hit or miss, not to mention rushed. Top Chef Duels will only work if the final challenge can push the chefs in compelling ways that are specific to that week’s particular pair.
What I’m afraid of after this premiere is that the nine duels will feel like mediocre preamble before the main event of the finale with the nine winners. I just hope it takes Top Chef: Seattle’s lead and makes them face off in a stadium gladiator-style, so we can get as much of the awesome chaos that something as bombastic as Top Chef Duels promises.
- Okay, having said all those decent things about Marcel, I just re-watched one of his All Stars episode and he definitely wasn’t this manic. I await/welcome all your conspiracy theories in the comments.
- Richard fumes after he loses the hamburger challenge, “that’s what you get when a Canadian, an Austrian, and an Australian judge an American food contest.” He knows the burger came from elsewhere, right?
- Is every final meal going to be served in a room decorated with the chefs’ faces on banners, like they’re visiting the high school gym where they scored the most baskets?
- The judging in this show is pretty whatever, even though I love Gail. Also, Curtis Stone snickering that it felt like “one of those funny parties” was a very weird moment that was only rivaled by Wolfgang Puck putting on a blindfold and smirking that he might as well be in his bedroom.
- Richard should know by now that starting a meal with, “don’t be scared” pretty much guarantees that everyone will be scared.
- A fan vote will determine which chef gets five thousand dollars for the charity of their choice. By the end of the episode, Marcel was sitting pretty at just 11%. Aw.
- Next week: Top Chef: New Orleans’ Shirley Chung versus Top Chef: Seattle’s Brooke Williamson. You can check out the rest of the matchups here, and join me in my excitement for Stephanie Izard versus Kristen Kish.