I had been dying, I mean dying, to watch the first episode of Top Chef Masters since we taped the series a few months ago. Even last week, in the middle of a trip to Brazil—when, between staying with my boyfriend’s parents for the first time and attending a food conference sponsored by the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paolo, I should have had my mind on other things—I still couldn’t get it out of my head. I mean, I’m a magazine editor, not a TV guy. How was the show going to come off? How was I going to come off? What was my mom going to think?
Finally, Wednesday night, after a red-eye flight back to New York and an afternoon at Saveur, I sat down on the couch to watch the first episode. As the opening sequence began, the memories hit: the long drive out to Pomona College; Hubert Keller pacing nervously back and forth in a courtyard outside, waiting for things to get going; Gael’s fabulous hat.
When Kelly, Gael, Jay, and I sat down for that first meal, we had no inkling of the conditions under which the food was being cooked—we thought it had been cooked in a regular kitchen. I was generally impressed by all the appetizers, especially by Chef Keller’s mi cuit: the half-poached salmon was sheer elegance.
It was only when we moved on to the second course that I started to realize that the chefs must have been working under less than stellar conditions. Though I liked the rustic quality of Michael Schlow’s soup, I could tell somehow that it had been cooked under some kind of duress—you could practically taste the stress in the dish. And Chef Keller’s second dish—the carrot and petit pea soup spiced with cinnamon—reminded me (in not a good way) of breakfast cereal. Still, Tim Love’s posole was sunny with cumin and corn; it was the kind of food that you can’t stop eating.
It was only after we ate that the four of us were shown where the chefs had cooked. And I think I can safely say that our minds were collectively blown. I mean, come on: the microwave, the toaster oven…the shower!
Finally, we carpooled it back to the critics’ table in downtown L.A. As soon as we got there, it became clear that, though we had some opinions in common about the foods that we liked and didn’t like, there were also radical differences among us. Nevertheless, we managed to duke it out without coming to blows. After all, the chefs had put their hearts and souls into doing solid work under undeniably challenging circumstances. I left the critic’s table hungry for the next episode. (Only, hopefully, no dorm showers next time.)