Top Chef Masters certainly has a different feel and dynamic than its mothership, plain vanilla Top Chef. The challenge, which the show has been finding it harder and harder to meet head on in recent seasons, has been to find some way to define that difference other than “more boring.” The fact that these are seasoned pros, many of them celebrities and familiar TV faces, ought to mean that the actual cooking is of a dependably higher order. That doesn’t always seem to be the case, and even the most dazzling chefs sometimes get caught up in something as embarrassing as last week’s wedding-cake snafu, which a humbled Art Smith, still licking his wounds, refers to tonight as “Cake-gate.” But now that we’re in our fourth season of famous chefs humbly comparing each other to Obi-Wan Kenobi, followed by scenes of Obi-Wan wiping away flop sweat while pulling smoking, black ruins out of the oven, people tend to recover from these humiliations quickly.
What it does mean is that the stakes are just lower. The chefs are competing for money for charity and bragging rights, and while this is no small thing, it can’t really compare with the situation on Top Chef, where a pack of ambitious nobodies and TV novices are gathered together before a national television audience to see which of them is going to get to have a career. The tensions that erupt on this show are, inevitably, of a smaller and more contained nature than the ones on Top Chef, but you learn to be grateful for them. Right now, the show’s main source of tension is that Art, the self-described “Southern belle,” tends to bring out the worst in the pushy, short-fused Chris Cosentino. The show contrives to keep pushing the two of them together, and will be very, very sorry when one of them has to leave.
Tonight’s episode begins with a Quickfire Challenge judged by Olympic skating champion and South Park axiom Brian Boitano. The chefs, Curtis Stone tells them barely suppressing a giggle, have to prepare a seafood dish “without one of the most important tools in the kitchen—heat.” Everyone immediately starts joshing about how they might as well award first place in what has just become the raw fish cook-off to Takashi Yahihashi, and if this attitude is based on a cultural stereotype, the final results establish that there are sometimes reasons that stereotypes get formed in the first place. With that out of the way, the chefs are broken into three teams, each of which is charged with the task of preparing a three-course meal on a teppanyaki grill, Benihana style. They’ll be feeding a panel that includes four fan favorites from previous seasons of Top Chef Masters: Mary Sue Milliken, Rick Moonen, Jonathan Waxman, and Susan Feniger, whose wide-eyed, grinning, perpetually overjoyed demeanor always reminds me of an old This Is SportsCenter commercial in which a guy wearing a big, goofy mascot costume with a frozen-faced expression of delight catches his wife in bed with another man.
The star attraction is the White team, featuring Art, Chris, and the behatted, pleasantly imperturbable Thierry Rautureau, who helps Chris get into the right frame of mind for his close-up by getting a massage during the shopping expedition. Of all the chefs, it’s Art who best takes to the performance aspect of cooking on the grill, keeping up a happy line of patter while using Jack Daniels to rile the fire gods and constantly improvising with the shape of his grit cakes. He’s a hit, but all Chris can see is a guy goofing around and not appearing to concentrate on getting his job done strictly within the allotted time, so he can get the hell out of the way and let Chris get his job done in his allotted time. The judges mutter to themselves that Chris seems bossy and borderline abusive, but the food has its good points, and between the three of them, these guys put on a good show. The same cannot be said for the team led by Takashi, who seems so discombobulated by having to work with the grill that he just wants to disappear into a safe area of the middle and not be noticed.
He pretty much gets his wish, thanks to a misconceived performance by the Red team, comprised of Lorena Garcia, Kerry Heffernan, and Mark Galer. Their entire menu is judged to have been insufficiently seasoned, and a big deal is made of the fact that the three chefs neglect to taste their food as they’re preparing it. It’s explained that the feeling was that to be tasting it right in front of the people for whom they’re preparing it would appear rude and unseemly, but Mary Sue Milliken, all but rolling her eyes, describes this approach as “cooking with one hand tied behind your back.” In the end, it’s Art who receives $10,000 for his charity and the thanks of a grateful nation, and Mark is shown the door, much to the distress of his partner, Clark Frasier, who remains in the race. Mark doesn’t seem able to convince himself that this counts as a setback worth fretting over. “I can sleep in now,” he says, offering a succinct lesson in the different ways that Top Chef Masters contestants react to being shown the door, as opposed to how they do it on Top Chef.
- Margaret said to tell you kids that she misses you, too, but she'll be back here next week.