Top Chef Masters: "Restaurant Wars"
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Top Chef Masters: "Restaurant Wars"

The second season of Top Chef Masters debuted on April 7, 2010, which is exactly 52 weeks ago, and over the course of two months of high-class cookery, Marcus Samuelsson emerged as the victor over chefs I personally found more interesting (in Susur Lee and Rick Moonen). Since then, Top Chef has been busy: It went to Washington, it discovered that the Red Hots were for Mommy, and it brought back some of its most memorable chefs for a second chance at the coveted title.

That sounds like a busy year, and it was: After some digging, I discovered that Top Chef was on the air 47 out of 52 weeks in the last year. Also, of those five weeks off, only two came between seasons: The other three were just one-week hiatuses within seasons. If you are someone who follows Top Chef and both of its spin-offs, in other words, you have been in the midst of one season or another for almost an entire year.

Are you tired? Because I know I am, and I ditched Just Desserts early on—out of fear for the contestants' sanity and my own—and haven’t had to cover the franchise nearly every week like the intrepid duo of Scott Tobias and (most recently) Emily Withrow. I’m stepping in to at least start the third season of Top Chef Masters, but part of what I want to talk about this week is if we’re all suffering from Top Chef Fatigue, and whether weekly coverage is something that you’re interested in reading when it comes to this revamped Masters format.

Bravo, with two successful spinoffs and solid returns for the original franchise, has finally fulfilled its goal of year-round Top Chef. In fact, it’s one of two reality franchises that the network is able to air year-round: Can you remember a point in time where they weren’t looking in on the Real Housewives of one city or another? While the casts and the locations might change, however, is there a point where we just become numb? Is there such a thing as too much Top Chef?

I actually watched the first four seasons of the show over the course of a few weeks, having come to the show fairly late in its run, so I certainly think that the format is strong enough to withstand successive airings (or, in my case, screenings). Also, the formats of Masters and Just Desserts added additional diversity beyond different casts and different locations, or at least more diversity compared to something like different seasons of Real Housewives. It’s still possible that fans took a break during Just Desserts or let some episodes pile up on the DVR to facilitate a breather, but I think it’s very possible to have watched all four seasons of Top Chef and its spinoffs that aired over the course of the last year.

The third season of Top Chef Masters, however, is the ultimate test. In previous seasons, what differentiated Masters was a different elimination system (with winners from qualifier rounds advancing to a short mini-season), a different grading system (with stars given out for both the quickfire and the elimination challenge), and a higher caliber of chef. This year, however, most of this is gone: Twelve relatively unknown, award-winning chefs will compete as if they were contestants on a regular edition of Top Chef, with one chef eliminated per week and without any sort of star system to differentiate them.

If this was coming after the show’s seventh season, it would come as a welcome change: That field was low on talent and personality, so a group of talented chefs whose difficulties would be adapting to Top Chef (which I always find fascinating) instead of achieving basic competency (which I do not) is exciting, even if the format is the same. However, coming out of an All-Stars season where the show upped the ante on the challenges and contestants were trained both as chefs and as Top Chef competitors, the similar format created a definite lack of excitement (especially given that All-Stars just ended last week, giving us no time to start missing the franchise).

Perhaps this is why we begin with what Top Chef usually deploys as a key turning point midway through the season: How can we complain about Restaurant Wars, that bastion of culinary conflict and emotional meltdowns? Well, that’s actually quite easy: We complain about Restaurant Wars when it isn’t actually Restaurant Wars. This was “Two Restaurants,” where we can compare and contrast two different strategies for seating restaurant guests, while chefs more or less just sweat a bit more than they might otherwise. At the end, they all sit at a big table like a family, acting like the professionals they are, instead of the animals Restaurant Wars is supposed to turn them into.

The logic of the episode is actually pretty solid: The initial, one-on-one competition tests the chefs’ ability to pair strange ingredients (a Top Chef skill if there ever was one), while highlighting their personal styles and also giving the losers an eye for revenge in the upcoming competition. The problem, of course, is that the chefs seem unwilling to be competitive; maybe it’s that they’re still playing for charities, but the spirit of Restaurant Wars is entirely gone. Heck, toward the end, Mary Sue (who nearly goes home for her too-dry “supermarket cupcake”) actually posits that they might not send anyone home. It’s a wonderful thought, but it seems to reveal why Restaurant Wars might not have been the best fit for this particular spinoff.

So, then, why call it Restaurant Wars? Why not just tell the teams that they would be running two restaurants, and that one restaurant would be voted the favorite? Why does this show need to be defined in terms of the original, when it is clearly operating in a different culinary space? What always struck me about Top Chef Masters was that the “drama” was very rarely between two different chefs: It was about a single chef’s struggle with his or her own dish or everyone’s struggle with a particularly difficult challenge. Competitive elements seemed fueled by professional rivalries that carried over into the competition, and the most drama that the show created was when certain chefs like Ludo resisted the basic tenets of the competition.

But this time around, the show seems to want to create long-term rivalries within the competition and to turn brief disagreements into potentially explosive arguments. We go to commercial with a promise of conflict… and we return to a brief moment of confusion that doesn’t seem to affect much of anything. The producers are never going to be able to turn a good-natured competition for charity into a “war” through editing tricks, and even the episode-ending preview of the season to come could only sell us on people briefly losing self-control before they inevitably smooth over.

I guess my question is why they’re selling it at all. What was wrong with selling Top Chef Masters as something different? I like the idea that the chefs aren’t very competitive at the end of the day and that the drama is dialed back: While I like a truly feisty Restaurant Wars as much as the next person, the downright theatrical Just Desserts was too much for me to handle. This could be a nice change of pace, especially after a hyper-competitive (although not hyper-dramatic) All-Stars season. It’s just good chefs, good food, and a good-natured competition between colleagues who have a healthy combination of personal pride, professional reputation, and charitable contribution on the line.

The unfortunate thing is that I actually think the show’s other changes are an improvement. Curtis Stone is an improvement over Kelly Choi, Ruth Reichl seems capable of making pointed criticism while still seeming like a delightful person, and the elimination of the star system means that those horrible summarizing lines that preceded the critics’ stars are absent. I also think that the cast has a certain charm. Suvir seems like a fun character, there were some creative dishes in the first challenge, and even if I don’t remember very many people’s names, I never felt as though it was because they were boring. Rather, the new format just wasn’t designed to tell us about their charities or delve into their backgrounds. Instead, they were just decent people put into a situation meant to strip away their decency that decided to just cook their food and moved onto the scotch.

Thus, Top Chef Masters’ revamped style is awkward but admirable: The structure doesn’t match the contestants or their reasons for being there, but their determination to stick to cooking and avoid the outright backstabbing makes me like them in spite of the producers’ intentions. Many of the changes, like the new elimination format, were smart because they can help us relate to these chefs in the long term or tap into the logistics of the traditional Top Chef judging format. However, until the editors learn that these chefs are not going to willingly participate in the traditional reality show narratives that they have come to rely on, Top Chef Masters will be fighting against itself.

And, of course, fighting against the Top Chef Fatigue that might be spreading across America.

Stray observations:

  • A sad goodbye to Hugh Acheson, my fellow Canadian (if not my fellow unibrow sporter, as I would never be able to pull that off). He seemed like someone who was having a bit of fun in the talking heads and could have been a contender in the later portions of the competition, so I'm disappointed that one of the less interesting contestants couldn’t have gone home (especially given that the critics disagreed with the diners and would have sent home one of the weaker chefs on the other team whom I found less interesting).
  • I love how the team with the Canadian on it ended up with Mosaic as a team name and that the other team decided to name their team after a Futurama character. That was their explanation for Leela, right?
  • One of the big problems with the new structure is that the contestants risk spoiling themselves with their explanation for different charities (which are no longer all established at the start of each episode, as they were in previous rounds): Alex (or Alessandro) won the challenge and just happened to be the only person who explained his charity and his reasons for choosing it earlier in the episode. Let’s avoid that particular bit of foreshadowing in future weeks, Magical Elves.
  • Neat bit of convergence between my twitter feed and the episode, as Cougar Town co-creator Kevin Biegel was one of the diners featured during the episode. Figures, though: Modern Family’s crew get served as part of an episode of their very own, and a writer on the superior show gets deemed a random diner.
  • Perhaps this will get me fired from any future recaps, but I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the food while watching Top Chef. I could pretend that I fully understand why some of these things might be delicious, but that would be a horrible lie given my limited palate. Accordingly, if any foodies want to chime in with their take on the food, please feel free to do so.
  • I’m always fascinated by the “This Season on…” previews that air after the first episode of a reality season. Do we really need to know everything that’s coming up? Do you ever make decisions based on seeing a particular challenge or moment that you just can’t wait to see? Maybe I’m just a spoilerphobe, but they do nothing for me.
  • Since it was the lead-in and all, I figure we should talk a bit about the All-Stars reunion. The usual fare, really: a lot of fun behind-the-scenes stuff, some good camaraderie, a little bit of drama, some much deserved love for my girl Carla (who remains my favorite cheftestant in the show’s history), and some awkward Xbox Kinect product placement. However, it was all worth it for MORE MUPPETS. Seriously, I vote for an entire season judged by Muppets.
  • If you're looking for weekly coverage to see how this comes together as the season continues, untouched by Top Chef fatigue, let us know in the comments.

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