When Top Chef Masters premiered last week, it was like reviewing a new show. Major format changes, a new host, and a new judge created a lot of “big questions” that I spent a fair bit of time investigating. As someone who tends to view weekly writeups as more “review” than “recap,” it was only natural for me to focus more on what the “new and improved” Top Chef Masters meant for the franchise than on the minutiae that comes with every Top Chef premiere.
However, now that we’re transitioning into weekly coverage, I am aware that not everyone is looking for Top Chef: Treatise. Admittedly, I am very interested in the form of reality television and do intend to discuss the ongoing results of the merger of the basic Top Chef structure with the Masters element of the program, but for now our focus shifts to the week-to-week.
Of course, part of the challenge of “Everything Old is New Again” is that it first needs to entirely undo the results of last week’s episode. With John Rivera Sedlar leaving due to an “emergency,” Hugh Acheson and his uni-brow return to the competition for an opportunity at redemption. In some ways, it’s the ideal scenario: Because of his elimination, we got to learn a fair bit about Hugh, whereas I had no recollection of John at all. It’s a nice jump start into the episode, a boost of narrative interest that is sustained throughout this very solid outing.
A lot of this has to do with the rather wonderful combination of professionalism and utter contempt for the competition that was on display in the Quickfire (and which sort of extended into the Elimination Challenge). On the one hand, the chefs handled the actual challenge (cooking a meatball they ground themselves) without much problem: Sure, a few people couldn’t get the grinder attached to the table, but everyone served a dish and they generally seemed to be executed as their creator had imagined them. No one lost their cool, no one made something entirely terrible, and no one got into a fight in the process.
However, during the judging, the chefs had to suffer the indignation of Kelis (yes, the “Milkshake” Kelis) pretending to be a food critic. Now, Kelis is apparently a trained chef, but I have to agree with the contestants that something about it just seemed strange. It wasn’t that she was entirely wrong with her opinion: after all, we have no way of knowing what they tasted like, and she has every right to that opinion. The issue was that she was trying way too hard: Faced with George’s Chicken and Short Rib meatball, she suggested “froth, to me, is always a little show-offy.” Please note that she didn’t seem to be talking about that froth, but rather froth in general. Most judges come in with preferences, or tastes, but she seemed to be trying extremely hard to establish a sense of authority, and I personally wasn’t buying it.
While there are disadvantages to the Masters being unable to take part in the tasting (as we saw when Floyd couldn’t tell Kelis to eat his meatball like a sandwich, as he had intended), the advantage is that they don’t have to hold back their absolute contempt for the singer critiquing their food. I believe it was Hugh who suggested that “it’s just pointless criticism,” and it doesn’t matter if he’s right or wrong; All that matters is that we got to see the chefs clearly not caring what Kelis thought of their food. Whether you consider it a sign of a collective superiority complex, or simply a natural response to a silly reality show conceit, it showed the chefs seeming decidedly human. They made terrible jokes (some involving milkshakes), they got pissed off at the judging, and John won for his Vietnamese Chicken meatball — an effective and entertaining quickfire, if not necessarily a particularly complicated or interesting task.
Coming off of Top Chef All-Stars, where the challenges seemed more inventive than usual, tonight’s challenges were almost quaint. It’s understandable, really: Given that we already knew the All-Stars from their previous seasons, they had to wow us with new and exciting challenges, whereas this time around they’re able to use our unfamiliarity with the chefs to drive the story. Outside of Floyd’s absolute disbelief that Ambrosia Salad is a thing that existed (and probably even still exists - any defenders?), the challenge of revamping 60s dishes for a cocktail party hosted by Mad Men star Christina Hendricks and Body of Proof star Geoffrey Arend seems pretty simple for these chefs.
What made it so compelling, though, is that the cooking conditions were a variable that should have created absolute chaos. A small cooking space meant that there wasn’t enough room for everyone to cook at once, leaving Suvir and Sue kitchen orphans as everyone else marked their territory. If things had been truly organized, the people cooking last would have been the ones initially orphaned, but that’s not how it worked out, and there’s certainly no prerequisite for such organization. The other chefs had every right to leave Sue and Suvir out in the cold, just as Sue and Suvir had every right to drive in to help their fellow chefs in order to get access to burners/prep space more quickly.
The result was certainly quite hectic, and it sends an important message to Suvir and Sue about the value of philanthropy on Top Chef: There is none. Sue didn’t finish her plating (even with the help of some of those who she assisted earlier), and Suvir’s decision to use the only available cooking space — the deep fryer — for his take on Veal Oscar resulted in what the critics deemed “shoe leather.” And yet, it never devolves into interpersonal squabbling — Sue is actually unwilling to blame anyone but herself, with Suvir needing to interject with the critics twice to explain that she had been helping other chefs and had been pushed out by so-called “Divas.” In a regular season of Top Chef, one feels that we’d be pulling out other chefs from under the bus left and right, but on Top Chef Masters that just isn’t how they roll. Sue goes home because she didn’t finish the challenge, an unfortunate casualty of a tough situation and an inability (or unwillingness) to assert herself, but she leaves with a fair bit of integrity intact.
What I liked about this development is that it had nothing to do with a twist, left instead to a combination of working conditions and subtle interpersonal dynamics. The issue wasn’t that there was some sort of feud with another chef: rather, Sue is simply less assertive than her fellow competitors, and seems to be one of the youngest as well. She wasn’t exactly bullied into that position, but Suvir’s comment about “divas” does suggest a hierarchy among the chefs which could prove interesting in the weeks ahead. At the end of the day, though, these are professionals, so Alex provides only a confirmation of a bit of (naturally) territorial behavior while Sue ultimately takes full responsibility for her failure to properly plate. It’s dramatic without being melodramatic, edifying without becoming exploitative, and snobby without feeling distancing or unprofessional.
I’m still not entirely sold on the format change, but I found this a major improvement over the premiere. Without the forced drama of Restaurant Wars, we got to see more of how these chefs handle challenges simply related to cooking in more difficult conditions than they might be used to. Mary Sue got an opportunity to push herself after last week’s near-exit on a safe cupcake, and ended up with the win for her Japanese take on Deviled Eggs. Last week’s winner, Alex, chose to take the safe route this time around, and nearly went home for his lifeless bread pudding.
It was a good spotlight for the newly added opportunities for redemption and growth within the competition, as the contestants start to learn the difference between being a great chef and being great at Top Chef. Sure, it wasn't exactly the most exciting episode in Top Chef history, but I think subtle is a better way to start a new season of the show, and I find myself liking both the chefs and the format more than I did a few hours ago.
- Suvir is an absolute favorite for me. Between the shoes, the pants, and the general philosophy, he’s just an ideal Top Chef contestant, which is why I was pretty terrified that he might go home. His willingness to call out some other chefs at Critics’ Table was also refreshing: it didn’t feel like he was stirring up drama, but he was embracing his position as an outsider, and that brief interstitial of everyone ogling his pants and imagining his rural existence made it seem like the other chefs might not take him very seriously. He’s a great character, and I do hope he sticks around for a very long time.
- Yes, Christina Hendricks is attractive. Yes, Geoffrey Arend failed to land a single successful line all episode. Yes, my opinion of Arend's humor is probably blinded by jealousy.
- Apparently, Michael Gladis (who we all know as Paul Kinsey from Mad Men) is not famous enough to deserve a chyron — poor Kinsey.
- You would swear based on the editing — “Mad Men is such a fabulous show!” — that AMC was in some way affiliated with Bravo or NBC Universal. It’s not, of course, but that just goes to show you how much pop cultural cachet Mad Men had gathered despite the fact that more people probably watch Top Chef Masters (live, at least).
- I enjoyed Naomi’s brief observation that she’s become the dessert chef — she chose dessert the first time around, and nearly won for it, but here she got saddled with it. It seemed like a decent fit, given that she seems more proficient with dessert than some other chefs, but it's tough to be typecast this early on.
- Sad that we appear to be heading towards absolute madness, based on the preview for next week - seems both elimination and quickfire are built around twists, which just isn't where this show is going to be at its best in my eyes (even if the spectacle might be worth it). Still, we shall wait and see - we're taking this week-to-week, after all.