When I learned that the first Top Chef Masters had the highest ratings ever for a new show on Bravo, I suspected there would be an encore round, but of course I didn’t know if I would be included till the phone call came. I tend to take a weavy path between annoying self-confidence and abject insecurity, so I never know till I know. Between thinking "Wasn’t I great?" I can be racked with doubts. Maybe I wasn’t mean enough as a judge. Maybe I was too easily wowed. Maybe I was a too obvious pushover for Chef Hubert Keller’s ponytail in Series 1. And maybe the producers were just tired of my hats. Actually I was getting a little tired of my hats too. I only wear them for photographs and televison because I feel a restaurant critic must try to stay anonymous.
On the other hand, I had enjoyed playing judge. It was especially exciting and even more of a diplomatic challenge given the caliber of the chefs – most of them are truly masters by any definition — chef owners, television stars, prolific creators of cookbooks, some of them trained with the great chefs of the world from adolescence, most of them chosen by their peers as the Best of the Year in several categories.
In my 40 years as a restaurant critic, I’ve always made my critical judgements first in my mouth at lunch or dinner, again as I typed my notes each morning, and once again as I weighed the experience and wove it into a formal review. I was not used to arguing my case or being second-guessed on camera by conferes whose taste buds I didn’t really know. But I had enjoyed getting into the fray and sticking up for my opinions first time around. I looked forward to coming back as a veteran of the tussle.
I looked forward to seeing James Oseland again. He is adorable, funny, and smart, and I especially responded to his vulnerability (which I admit doesn’t reveal itself on camera). All our plans to get together in New York City after the first TCM fell through. Running Saveur magazine is a full-time job. James and I finally got together when we were invited to a fabulous food festival in Sao Paolo. Kelly was cool and her usual irreverent self when we met again in Los Angles. She and I could never find the right time or place for dinner in New York either…she is the most devoted daughter and her mother was ill. That was always her first priority.
So it was good to escape the clutter of my desk and focus on the new series, new chefs, new challenges, and the familiar faces from the production crew at Magical Elves. We could only be better the second time around, I figured.
I arrived a day early and ran into Gail Simmons. A stalwart of Top Chef, Gail would be rotating at the judges table with we three pioneers – James Oseland, Jay Rayner, and I. I had never spent any significant time alone with Gail so I was delighted she had time for a quick lunch. She introduced me to Bottega Louie which became my stop for fabulous pastry. In five minutes, I felt like we’d known each other forever. She is amazing for her accessibility and easy intimacy and her fabulous background in food.
Oh yes, the show. Like you the audience, we judges are really seeing the show for the first time. It’s always astonishing to me to see what was going on in the kitchen, at Whole Foods, and during the Quick Challenge: what the chefs are thinking, how they shop and make decisions, the mishaps the trip them up in the kitchen, how they improvise, and what finally seduces the Quickfire judges. We also get to see their attachment to the charity they have chosen to get their winnings.
I only know a sweet, good-natured Govind Armstrong from a show we did together a few years ago. I had no idea he was so grumpy. Clearly he felt held back by being paired with Jimmy Bradley, who was a chef on Martha's Vineyard and later at Bryant Park Grill and Flowers in Manhattan, but is best known as the host and creator of the much-loved Red Cat. There the mood and Bradley's food are casual and less ambitious than many of his contemporaries and most of the cocky warriors coming up. Bradley himself seemed wowed by the competition. I'm not sure if he was aware of Govind's frustrations.
At the same time Ana Sorten, the chef owner of Oleana, and Jerry Traunfled from Poppy in Seattle carried on like twins separated at birth, thrilled to be paired for the Elimination Challenge, certain their affection for spice and flowers would make them the winning team.
And little Susan Feniger seemed shocked to be paired with tall and stocky Tony Mantuano. Her genius with Mexican cooking at Border Grill and his mastery of upscale Italian at Spaggia, must have seemed an insurmountable non-sequiter. But as they plotted and shopped and cooked, they discovered an amazing symbiosis. Their combination of Tony’s lush and rich truffle mushroom pasta and Susan’s seafood struck me as the most conducive to romance on a first date. I have very strong ideas of what to eat on a first date – and it’s the same in an important business meeting too. I don’t want to be asked a question or be caught by flirting while chewing away on a gristly morsel of something. I deliberately chose something soft. Baby food would do. Nothing to be caught dribbling on my chin or getting my cheek greasy. Picking up a lamb chop as Govind suggested is sexy but being streaked with lamb fat is not.
Anyway, by the time Tony and Susan took the win, they had seemingly bonded so strongly, we could see how loathe they were to compete against each other in the competition ahead.
Check me out at InsatiableCritic.com and on Twitter.