Welcome back to Top Chef Masters, another node of the Bravo culinary empire that gets freshened up, redressed, and trotted out every once in a while when people are so saturated with singing competitions and reruns of Cops that they’ll tune in eagerly to see Curtis Stone and his teensy, tiny, soul patch. Like Myles McNutt, my esteemed Top Chef Masters reviews predecessor, I confess that I had grown a bit weary by the end of last season. Floyd has his charms, sure, but the problem with all that celebration and camaraderie is that it had all the friction of an oiled up slip’n’slide. But season four has promise. Sharp-tongued food writing legend Ruth Reichl in back in the ranks of the judges, not to mention the lovely LA Times contributor Krista Simmons. Then there’s Cooking Channel commenter and all-around cool dude Francis Lam, who promises to appear later in the season. Plus, the premiere had the key thing that Top Chef Masters promises—high-caliber chefs in situations that would make most culinary professionals break down into tears.
The contestants already have more drama brewing than the last couple seasons combined. Though they bleed together a bit at this point, there are a few standouts. Art Smith, who’s lost an astonishing amount of weight since his hey day as Oprah’s personal chef, is prone to making exclamations like “I cook for billionaires! I don’t have a budget.” Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, an adorable couple, have coordinating bleached hair and rhyming-ish names that would put The Sprockets to shame. Lorena Garcia I’m interested in for the possibilities of using her Taco Bell commercial fame alone. Thierry Rautereau seems both good-natured and like a never nude, only for hats. And Chris Cosentino is the young firecracker with an expertise in offal cookery, apparently.
For the introductory Quickfire, Curtis Stone, or “the thunder from Down Under” as Art prefers, would like to remind all the chefs that they’re in Las Vegas. Short of forcing everyone to carve a bust of Celine Dion out of butter, the best way of making it clear that you’re in the world of airless casinos and sparkly fountains is games of chance, right? And that’s sort of what the first Quickfire entails. The chefs pair up and sit around a table in a Blackjack-like situation, where Curtis deals out cards with the two mystery ingredients that the chefs have to combine into a dish. What actually is going into the dishes isn’t as much of a problem as the combination. Pork tenderloin and bologna don’t seem like a great match no matter how much you fancy it up. In 15 minutes, each of the pairs whip up something that looks palatable, if a tad bizarre. Chris Cosentino and Patricia Yeo take the first win—and a cool $10,000—for a beef and catfish dish that dazzled the card dealers who judged the plates.
Another sure sign that this season is set in Vegas: a buffet challenge. Usually, Top Chef Masters tends to go a bit more high-minded than the regular old Top Chef varietal, but Sin City really brings out the gimmick in a show. The chefs split into two teams, armed with $2,000 each, to feed a crew of 200 performers and transform the lifeless hotel buffet into something, well, masterful. But no sooner have they brought home their bags of groceries than Curtis comes in with a handful of scratch cards. Each one metes out punishment or reward, 30 minutes lopped off the cooking time, switching teams, a $1000 prize, or, for Debbie, immunity. But the real rub is in the gold tickets, which assign the red team a surprise Mexican theme and the blue team Indian.
Impromptu ethnic cuisine that’s out of the personal wheelhouse is the kiss of death for Top Chef-ers of yore, and the mid-cuisine pivot throws off even these seasoned chefs. In that respect, it’s a great challenge. These kitchen-toughened wonders are far more difficult to throw into a panic, so seeing them scramble through re-imagining a dish was more interesting. Thierry slyly comments that his choice of beef, when turned into an Indian buffet, was like “serving vodka at an AA meeting.” Missy Robbins cut her finger so badly that a doctor prescribed a skin graft, but still only bowed out of the show with much chagrin. Someone give that woman a badge or something.
James Osland, resplendent in plaid and tiny spectacles, consulted with Ruth and Krista extensively, but it was clear that the Indian buffet had failed. The red team won with their Mexican offerings, Missy’s bum finger and all. Chris Costentino, despite some clashes with Art, pulled out the winning pork and beans dish. The blue team’s main flaw was that none of the offerings could really be considered Indian. Ruth Reichl called the ginger on Sue’s dry chicken “ill-conceived” and criticized Debbie’s dessert for being too sugary. When Osland objected, she scoffed, “I am the queen of lemons. This is very sweet.” But Debbie had immunity, and Takashi’s Indian dumpling at least got marks for trying. “He boldly said: I can’t do that,” Reichl noted. In the end Sue went home with the lingering wish that she had ony gotten on the Mexican buffet team.
- Where can I get some candy-popped quinoa?
- For those of you who also didn’t know what a “beefalo” was, it is exactly what it sounds like: A bison bred with a cow. You’re welcome.
- Takashi’s comment was also pretty good: “I just realized I’ve never been to India.” Just now?