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Being a critic on Top Chef Masters requires lots of things — among them, an informed palate, an occasionally dark sense of humor, and an abiding love for Curtis Stone’s dulcet voice. But as critics we’re also called on to adjust our expectations while seated at the judging table: the cheftestants each season are extraordinarily talented, but the challenges and constraints imposed on them mean that the food they produce can, at times, be below their usual level. (Of course, that’s not always the case — often the cheftestants make dishes that are absolutely magnificent regardless of any competition restrictions.) When facing a plate of pasta cooked in a dorm room shower, or a soup cooked in a kitchen without running water, it’s important that we be able to assess the dish on its own merits, judging its success within the context in which it was created.
In order to come up with the winner this week, an understanding of context was critical. The chefs had to make a multicourse meal using only a few (um, not very powerful) burners and a tiny oven, which would be a challenge for any chef. Add to that the fact that the kitchen they were working in had a tendency to take sharp turns at high speeds, and everyone was working with a serious handicap.
Of course, you’d hardly know it from the dishes served by the Black Team. The foursome of Traci, Mary Sue, Hugh, and Naomi turned out dishes that transcended their RV origins. The deep-fried avocado that topped Mary Sue’s tostada was revelatory; it was a completely commonplace food prepared in a way that was entirely new to me. Hugh’s corn soup wasn’t a favorite at the table, but I found his combination of corn and vanilla to be a sophisticated, intriguing pairing.
It was a pleasure to recognize Traci, who has won so many Quickfires, with her very first Elimination Challenge win. Steak is one of those deceptively simple dishes that’s easy enough to cook adequately, but it takes a real master to prepare something as flawless as Traci’s ribeye. Her sides were spectacular in themselves: immaculately carved pieces of daikon braised in miso and a stunning cucumber salad in an umeboshi vinaigrette that had a refined balance of faintly bitter and faintly sweet. Eating that food, you would never have known that it was cooked in what amounted to a glorified E-Z Bake oven.
Obviously the season is all done and recorded BUT this is ONE AWFUL Top Chef Masters with challenges after challenges with silly reality based challenges.
These are OK for maybe Top Chef with up and coming stars or even Food Network shows like Chopped and Next Foodnetwork Star, etc.
BUT these chefs are master chefs. Give them the best ingredients and the best work place. Let the audience see what they are made of and maybe tempt them to make reservation and eat at these chefs' restaurants.
Take Iron Chef for example. Yes they get a secret ingredient BUT then everything else is just supreme quality from pantry to cooking utensils to support staff. Let Top Chef Masters be that way too.
No matter how good a winner's dish is I am not going to eat at one of these chefs' restaurants that made food in 7 mins or in a RV! I am not going to spend a $100 per person meal at one of these chefs' restaurants based on the aforementioned kind of challenges and food made.
James, it seems you do everything but keep things in context. World class chefs in a fast food kitchen, cosmopolitan artists over a tour bus burner and your comments are anything but respectful of what it took to present their offering to you. Somewhat disheartening.
I getting frustrated with the gimmicky challenges. I don't think they are worthy of discerning the chef's culinary abilities.
James, I just want to express my admiration for your respectful critiques of the chef's. Your love for the chef's and the food comes through and I really appreciate it. I love that you are a critic on Top Chef Masters and learn much more about the challenges and outcomes from your blog. Thank you.
The Quickfire was a blast! Tom Colicchio's burst of culinary speed was a delight to watch in the All-Stars challenge, and several of these chefs looked like they could go toe-to-toe with him (uncooked, crudo dishes aside). The elimination was a bit more difficult, but I was so impressed with how the Black Team went at the challenge. They each took on a manageable number of dishes, cooked within their strengths, and added the fun of a cocktail to the mix. Their food even looked better tasting! That said, I have loved the thoughtful commentary of Chef Alex, and will miss him.