I always find the first episode a little like a meet and greet for lost souls, or in this case, chefs. The masters wander in like old camp friends, but at camp at least you had care packages and that really progressive counselor to talk to. Here you just have a lot of chefs, little time, lots of hybrid autos, and some very nervous sous chefs who have no idea what they are in for.
First, to our fine list of competitors. I will explain, in no particular order, something about them.
There is the rotund mastermind in David Burke , a man who may have invented the term lamb lollipop, and thus single-handedly solved the impending crisis of what to call a cocktail lamb chop. He is not to be confused with David Bouley or Daniel Boulud. (How many famous chefs have the initials D.B.?)
There is the Michelin man in the shape of Douglas Keane (full disclaimer here: I like him a lot and we worked together years ago.), who has been without his Mauviel copper pots and fancy range since closing the iconic Cyrus.
Need chefs with some TV experience? Oh, we have those in the much lauded and verified Top Chef veteran, Bryan V. and also the NOLA chef Sue Zemanick, who is looking for redemption from a very stressful service in Season 3 of Top Chef Masters.
There are cherished indie chefs like Neal Fraser and Jenn Louis, so we will probably be seeing some bespoke aprons and knives forged in artistic communities. There will be gnudi. There is always gnudi.
There are also chefs who are more in the business of food and who own millions of plates. Representing that sect is the pan-Latin guru, Richard Sandoval, who owns, operates, or runs about three gazillion restaurants. He is a mastermind in the kitchen, but has probably not been the guy to push through the tickets at 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, unless that Saturday night was in 1992. This is in no way a slight to his cooking ability as the man has built an empire.
Herb Wilson is the chef at the Las Vegas Sushi Samba and is also the most elegant looking man on the show. I am trying not to pronounce his name with a silent "h," something I am prone to do. He is not a culinary plant.
There is a Canadian who laughs a lot, which makes me feel like watching Strange Brew again. Lynn Crawford was at the Four Seasons in Toronto for a long time. She will make poutine sometime, as it is an obligation of citizenship. Lynn in her first five minutes seems to be the most Canadian person I have ever seen.
Sang Yoon is the esteemed L.A. chef at Father’s Office. They make great food. He also has an über-talented sous chef, who is more like a ringer than a sous chef.
Franklin Becker tells us that he is the godfather to many Top Chef alums. He is in NYC and has a very serious sous chef named Vinson who likes to look at me like he wants to either hug me or kill me throughout the whole season. He does neither in the end. I am unloved and still alive. The rest are a bunch of folks who will be known by the food congniscenti but not the general public; I can already hear the gurglings of, “These people aren’t Masters? I have never heard of them!” We hear this every season. I do not have the answer to what makes a Master. I know that I was very confused as to why I was picked, and was actually prepared to perform in a show called Top Chef Mustards, with all sorts of crocks and seeds and a special German costume for olde world mustard making.
But I will attempt to define: to me, a Top Chef Master is someone who has won some acclaim and got some press and been doing this grueling business for a dog’s age. They will be all shapes and sizes and you may have never eaten their food or seen them on TV, but bless your heart, they can all cook their asses off.
So we begin with our thirteen. Big Star is playing in my head. Let us get recounting.
“Won't you tell me what you're thinking of?
Would you be an outlaw for my love?” -Big Star, “Thirteen”
Jenn Louis wants to swim in Curtis’ eyes. I am so confused as to what that means, but that’s probably because Curtis is a foot taller than me and I usually stare at his Adam’s apple. He has a nice one, but this attribute doesn’t make him ever pronounce my last name correctly. I am never offended though.
So, Battle of the Sous Chefs is a separate competition which pits the sous chefs against each other. When they excel, they will give their Top Chef Master a leg up. When they lose, they will be a detriment to their Top Chef Master. Got it? It’ll be on immediately after Top Chef Masters each week, just like Last Chance Kitchen is to Top Chef, but I have skinnier jeans and more hair than the host of that.
So, the Masters get to go have a cocktail while the sous chefs competed with me. During that time they got the briefing of what their challenge would be. Skydive to the cook site, you gain an hour of cooking time. Drive and you just get one hour. Amazingly the only acrophobic culinarian in the bunch is Douglas Keane. If you want to learn more about a fear of heights and its correlation to go-karting babies, you should read this article.
Doug opts for the luxury car transport only to later find out that his Sous Chef, Drew, has taking top prize in the sideshow. More on that in the later in this post. Doug is making all the right decisions so far.
Still amazed at how many chefs decided to jump. They get all dressed up like a Ukrainian circus troupe and get tethered like babies in Baby Bjorns to their experienced instructor. Lynn Crawford is trying to make out with her jumper. What is tattoed on her palms? Are those UPC codes?
When dressed in the nylon onesies, high-fives abound, and the jumping begins. On landing, they realize that if their sous chefs performed badly they lack some basic implements, like say a chef's knife and tongs. The other important attribute of the challenge is that they have to use all of the ingredients that their sous chef used, so if, like in Richard Sandoval’s case, your sous chef used everything in the pantry, you will have a pretty eclectic dish. C’est la vie Top Chef.
The food is generally pretty awesome, but the simplest things, like an oyster, can foil this whole competition. Neal Fraser is happy with his sous chef. Herb not so much. Herb is an underground legend, which is also an album by Lil' Flip. A tumbleweed tumbles towards the grill, but nobody cares. That’s how fires start. Burke is cooking with way too many ingredients and not enough tools. Douglas is skating through with a Japanese inflection.
As the judges and sky aerialists sit, the Canadians invade from their one air force plane. We are silent and apologetic when we attack.
James thinks the shrimp is too shrimpy and the leeks too leeky. He does tip the hat he is not wearing to a poached fish. Jenn Louis is cooking clams slowly, and Bryan is making carrots shine. Sang has made pork chops with a Vietnamese caramel sauce that looks a wee bit underdone but tasty. Sue has made a fish dish with succotash, which may, some say, need more punch, more risk. James is scared of unopened clams. I thought he was scared of open ones.
How do you do 14-thousand skydives? That’s insane!
Richard’s surf and turf has a good chimichurri, but is otherwise the busy busy plate that confused. James does not like big, flabby, arm-sized pieces of meat. You cannot make this up.
Odette wins. I have a feeling we could be saying that a lot in the next little while. Bene did her proud and gave her ingredients that worked for her style. $10,000 into the kitty for Doctors Without Borders.
Bottoms are Richard, Herb, and David. All are great chefs, all with great sous chefs, but the relationships between the two just did not click today. Herb meets his match when he fails to get food together on the plate and leaves the fried oysters all crisp and lonely in the fryer. That shot of the oysters in the pot will haunt him for years. Even if he had gotten his food on the plate, I think maybe his sous chef just gave him too little to work with.
Go watch Battle of the Sous Chefs. It’s a blast. They were so nervous about being put in their own segment, but they ultimately did a great job. Watch away.