'Top Chef Masters' Reaches Such Great Heights
Ep 1: ...Literally. In the season premiere, the Masters jump out of planes!
I wouldn't have jumped. Ever. I can't think of a sum high enough that would get me to jump. (OK -- maybe if it were for charity, I would consider it.)
But, I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
Welcome back, my little skydivers! My name is Monica Reyhani. I'm Senior Producer of Bravo Digital, and I'll be your Bravotv.com recapper for Top Chef Masters Season 5, as I have been for more seasons than I care to count. I've been saying this all week (to myself, to others), but I'm serious when I say this is the best season of Top Chef Masters ever, and you can tell from the first episode.
First, before the episode even started, the Internets were treated to the biggest change this season -- Battle of the Sous Chefs. Battle of the Sous Chefs is a prequel to each on-air episode, hosted by Hugh Acheson. In it, the Masters' sous chefs will compete to earn their Masters advantages in the next episode, or, unfortunately, disadvantages. These sous chefs are at a very high level, and it shows. Full disclosure: the only sous chef's food I'm aware I've eaten is Vinson Petrillo's -- Franklin Becker's sous -- at Prospect in Brooklyn. It is imaginative and delicious, so I can't wait to see what he and his competitors come up with.
So, simultaneously, our 13 accomplished Masters enter their kitchen. This is one of my favorite parts of the whole season. Unlike our Top Chefs, these guys know each other, and might be very close friends, so seeing their initial reactions to their competitors is always priceless. When I heard who was competing, I was pretty shocked. I mean, David Burke? The guy's a legend. Douglas Keane? I've heard many a chef wax poetic about Douglas and his former restaurant, Cyrus. Richard Sandoval? I may be biased because I live quite close to one of his NYC restaurants, Maya, but try his Maya Margarita with tamarind, and tell me you aren't rooting for him too. The list of amazing chefs competing goes on and on. But now, in the Top Chef Masters kitchen, they're equals. And Curtis brings them down to earth (well, actually the opposite) with their first challenge: to prepare a family-style meal for the Skyhawks parachute team. But wait, there's more! The chefs will be given two hours to cook... if they jump out of a plane. Only one hour for the wusses. Say what?! And, kind of surprisingly, all of the chefs decide to jump‚ except Douglas Keane. I'm with you, Douglas. Luckily for him, Hugh enters the kitchen with some exciting news: Douglas' sous chef, Drew, has won the first Battle of the Sous Chefs, so Douglas has immunity -- only having one hour to cook now doesn't seem so bad because he can't go home.
In probably one of the funniest sequences ever shown on Top Chef, we watch our 12 daredevil Masters jump out of a plane. But honestly, all I care about is watching David Burke jump out of a plane. And it seems our lone Canadian Lynn Crawford -- already emerging as our most outspoken chef -- is pretty psyched too. One by one they go. Where they stop, only their tandem riders know. Immediately after landing, they have to cook! Can you imagine?! And now‚ even more twists. All the chefs can only use the ingredients used by their sous chefs. And that's not even a disadvantage? What is the disavantage you ask? The chefs whose sous chefs were on the bottom in Battle of the Sous Chefs don't have basic kitchen utensils. Eeek! Taking away a chef's knife is, well, not recommended. But the chefs rise to the challenge and don't seem too mad at their sous. Honestly, Sang Yoon is the only chef I truly believe would maybe fire his sous chef over a loss. Ha!
The chefs are cooking for a while when Douglas Keane arrives, cool as a cucumber from his leisurely drive over to the grounds. The critics -- including new head critic Gail Simmons! And the lovely Ms. Lesley Suter! -- arrive with their fellow diners, the Skyhawks. Some walk in, some skydive in. This whole skydiving thing is making me very anxious. The first group of chefs -- Franklin, David, Herb, and Lynn present their dishes. David and Lynn created their dishes with no utensils, but it's Herb with the obvious worst dish: he didn't get his oysters in their shells. While I -- and the critics -- commend him for waiting to fry, all the critics were left to judge was a shell of sauce. A delicious sauce by itself is still just sauce. Herb seemed pretty dead in the water at this point, but we still have two more groups!
Next up is Jenn Louis, not to be confused with Jenny Lewis of Troop Beverly hills, Rilo Kiley, and Postal service fame (and the inspiration for this recap title.) But guess what? If there's a dessert challenge and Jenn doesn't start singing "It's cookie time!" I'll be pretty disappointed. There's Sue Zemanick, who has competed before. Did we mention Top Chef is in Sue's city of New Orleans next season? We did? OK. Sang Yoon, who's burger at Father's Office in L.A. is supposed to be awesome. (I'm ashamed to say I've never tried it.) And Mr. Bryan Voltaggio. Now, I'm not going to say Bryan is my favorite cheftestant of all time, because that would be like ranking your children, but I have admitted in this space before that Volt is probably my favorite restaurant. And I may or may not be doing Table 21 (yes, that's 21 courses) at Volt for my birthday in August. I'll share photos here -- don't worry. A few years ago, Bryan told me he wanted to be the first Top Chef to compete on Masters, and well, he did it. It will be interesting to see if his experience competing is an advantage or not, but either way, he's an exciting chef to watch, and an even more entertaining one to listen to laugh, or giggle in this case.
The critics -- especially James -- aren't happy Jenn's clams aren't all open. Sue's escabeche is meh and Sang's pork is undercooked in places. Bryan's dish -- the only vegetarian one in the lot -- is well-received. Bryan is comfortable cooking vegetables -- he actually has an entire "Tasting of Fruits and Vegetables" menu at Volt.Finally, we have our last group of the challenge -- the largest group of Odette, who I realy hope to hear yell in Italian, Jennifer, Douglas, Neal, who looks like someone I just haven't put my finger on yet, and Richard. Although Doug wanted to impress, despite his immunity, his many and varied Japanese ingredients got lost. It was a visually stunning dish. Richard admits his beef isn't cut thinly enough, but that may be the least of the dish's problems. Jennifer's meat causes James and Gail to flail their arms about in, well, um... watch:
Aw, Curtis. Don't be shy. (And Gail and James don't kill me for having this .gif created! It's too good!)
Anywaaay, (seriously, don't kill me Gail and James!), Neal incorporated his many sous chef-provided ingredients well and lands on top. As does Odette with her chilled lamb.
So, Odette, Bryan, and Neal face the critics... on top! Odette wins $10K for her charity!
It's Herb, Richard, and David's turn to face the critics, and while all the dishes had their faults, Herb was the only one who didn't present a complete dish. He did go out with a lot of class, though, falling on his sword. I spoke with Herb at the premiere party, and he said he'd like to compete again. I echo James' sentiment in saying that I'd love to see what he can do!
It's time to watch the next ep of Battle of the Sous Chefs to see who will get advantages or disadvantages in the next challenge. So, watch HERE.
Next week, Kathy Lee Gifford is guest-judging. And, no, it's not a wine challenge.
See you all then!
Let me know in the Comments below who you're rooting for!