Top Chef Masters has done right by us this season, quickly abandoning the preliminary rounds in favor of the championship. I felt settled tonight for the first time; here at the first round of the championship, we now know what's coming. We now have time to become invested in the chefs, watch some personality and rivalry develop, and recognize something more akin to a plot. Or at least more akin to the normal reality-show elimination design. This season's finalists stand to put on an entertaining show, if only because they represent such a wide variety of cuisines and techniques.
Tonight's quickfire challenge is one of my favorites from Top Chef past: a culinary reality-show spin on the surrealist circle game exquisite corpse. Each member of a four-person team must cook in succession, blindly inheriting the dish from the former. Rick Moonen was the judge for this in Top Chef season six and rightly recognizes the challenge. The chefs must work with the flavors already at work, but there's a psychological game at play as well. They're guessing about the intentions of the previous chefs while planning and planting clues for the future ones. Susan sets Rick up for seafood, while Carmen assumes the team's going Italian since Tony started things off.
The producers did well to kick things off with this challenge; it's playful and keeps us guessing. Will they make sense of the clues, or will they totally screw up the original intentions? Like that other circle-game "telephone," what comes out the end is always a distorted version of the original, and since we witness it all, it's easy to delight in the interpretations along the way.
The gem here was team-closer Jonathan Waxman, who is claustrophobic enough to be afraid of blindfolds, poor thing, but who steps easily into the final round and displays a thoughtful, charming confidence. Moonen watches him with us, as he strolls through the flavors and emerges with a smile. The frozen shot of that smile and accompanying "Ding! made me laugh out loud. Cheesy but effective, and certainly more playful than Top Chef Masters has been this season. Long live Jonathan Waxman. The blue team—Susan, Jody, Rick, and Jonathan—takes the title here, with "perfectly cooked" mussel and scallop stew with orange and fennel. This in spite of a bitterness that made Jay jump and grimace as if stung by a bee. Quite pronounced indeed.
With the quickfire out of the way, the show hit us next with "Wedding Wars," another ambitious challenge for this first round. Under consideration is not only the food, but also the chefs' adherence to the couple's wishes and how well the dishes fit the event. Our couple this week was edited to be picky, with the groom claiming a love for simple dishes (Gael later chalks this up to "the grooms limitations") and the bride turning down ideas of lamb and shellfish. The chefs had 12 hours over two days to cook for 150 people—and a wedding cake. Top Chef fans know that chefs die easily over desserts, and this crop quakes at the word.
The most disappointing thing about this challenge, and where Masters falls short in general, is that it spent too much time on food prep and not enough on criticism. I get that it's partly political—as we've said over and over in this space, they're professional chefs competing for charity; Bravo isn't going to tear them to pieces—but it still leaves me somewhat baffled during the judging. If they're going to dole out scores and send folks home, they should devote more time to why. This week, again, no time was given to the deliberations. Pick a sequence and stick to it, TCM! "Your beef was soggy" sounds a hell of a lot worse than Carmen's offense; they docked her hard for delicious but unambitious food. Two stars across the board. This, while Jody chose a dish that was "perfect" but that directly went against the bride's demands.
-- Noticing Gael's teeth more this episode. Are those dentures? They must be. Or very expensive fake teeth. (Or both? I've much to learn about dentistry and no time to Google.)
-- James v. Jay. I hope their distaste for each other grows like a beautiful, gay, British rose.
-- Next week: Simpsons!