From the beginning of Top Chef Masters, critics have harped on several inherent problems with the show: That it lacks the tension of contestants having to live with and compete with each other; that the quality of the cooking keeps colorful disasters from happening; and that the judges would go easy on established chefs so as to not trample on their reputations (especially since the whole thing goes to charity). These are all legitimate complaints—and though I’ve enjoyed the show, I share them to some extent—but I think tonight’s thrilling hour prove one thing: The producers of this series know what they’re doing.
With just this one week before the big finale, the show was very smart to pick two challenges that kicked up the adrenaline and give it some much-needed momentum. The last Quickfire of the season was the dreaded blindfold taste test, which had most of the chefs making excuses before they started so as to soften the embarrassment of not knowing most of the ingredients. Because the Elimination round was such a monumental, surprise-filled ordeal, I think the Quickfire was a bit more rushed that I would have liked, but it’s always fun to watch the grim expressions of chefs forced to consume raw, not-always-tasty mystery ingredients. Nobody embarrasses themselves, though it was a little surprising to see Anita mistake peanut butter for tahini.
But this week was all about the Elimination challenge, which follows tradition in bringing back old Top Chef contestants to serve as sous chefs, but adds several fun twists. First, the four remaining chefs had to draft from a pool of talent from previous seasons, and they were each allowed two-minute interviews to determine which ones to pick. Michael had the inefficient (and yeah, dick-ish) idea of testing their knife skills while simultaneously inquiring about their background. Hubert and Rick were calmer and more magnanimous in vetting their help, and seemed to limit themselves to questions about how the chefs could contribute to their menu. For her part, Anita clung to Jaime out of familiarity and temporarily forgot her shortcomings. On one point, all four could agree: Nobody wanted Spike on their team. If this was gym class, Spike was the bespectacled (or fedora-wearing), uncoordinated butterball destined for deep left field, where he could do the least harm.
Tasked with pulling off a buffet for 200 “Hollywood insiders”—God knows who these awful people were—the challenge revealed a stark contrast in styles: Hubert and Rick had their individual visions, but respected their sous chefs enough to incorporate their ideas and perhaps capitalize on their strengths. Michael, on the other hand, knew exactly what he wanted to do and employed his crew to simply execute his recipes, regardless of how they felt about them. Anita didn’t seem to fall that decisively in either camp, partly because decisiveness in general seemed to elude her. She was neither magnanimous nor a dictator, and she didn’t get what she wanted out of her staff.
Two more twists presented some interesting obstacles: One had the entire group packing up all their stuff on the fly and moving to another location—no matter where’s they’re at in the preparation. The venue change threw Michael into a panic, but the only one who got completely screwed over by it was Anita, who learned too late for her raw bar that they’d be serving food in direct sunlight. The second obstacle was more entertaining: Each of the contestants had to drop a sous chef. This led to two of the funniest moments of the episode, with Hubert dropping Spike with hilariously little consternation and Rick letting Betty go with the regret that he was relying on her to “make the table beautiful” (re: not go anywhere near the kitchen). For most, it seemed like a case of addition through subtraction.
Considering the very difficult and ever-changing circumstances, all four chefs performed pretty well, though Rick and Hubert were on another level. I’m not sure if the contrast between their more collaborative cooking philosophy and Michael’s dictatorial style was played up more than reality, but you certainly leave with the impression that a quiet, respectful tone between a chef and his/her sous chefs works out better than a busy, contentious kitchen. In by far the biggest blow up on this very mild show, Michael made the mistake of locking horns with Dale in an ugly display of machismo (“what are you gonna do about it?!”) that left both of them looking like jerks.
But as usual, the food did the talking, and the winning dishes looked spectacular, with the always-solid Rick sticking to strong Mexican flavors (and smartly rolling the dice on Richard Blais with his nitro-blasted avocado ice cream) while Hubert hit ‘em with an astonishing array of 18 small dishes. With the execution up to Hubert’s audacity, it makes sense that he took it down, though it’s interesting to note that he needed (and got) five stars from all three judges after a weak showing in the Quickfire and 3 ½ stars from the diners. As for the two bottom picks, it was sad to see Anita go home, but she’d been barely treading water the last two weeks and seemed to finally live down to her constant self-deprecation. Would love to have tried her short ribs, though, which is more than I can say than anything on Michael’s menu.
• It’s never said how closely—if at all—the master chefs followed previous seasons of regular Top Chef, but that would have been a huge advantage that no two-minute interview session could match. As is, the right people seemed to be chosen at the right time in the draft, so either the chefs have great instincts or they’ve watched more of the show than the episode led us to believe.
• That said, Ilan, the winner of Season Two—and virtually unrecognizable with that poofy head of hair and glasses—was picked third from last. That tells you how weak that season was.
• Michael’s first impression of Spike: “There’s not a rat’s chance in hell that he’d ever set foot in my kitchen.”
• “I’m sweating like a mountain goat at the beach.” Why doesn’t Fabio have his own show yet?