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Oh, television. No matter how many seasons I’ve appeared on Top Chef Masters (this is my third go-around), I confess that I’m always slightly less than thrilled to watch myself on the small screen. All my nitpicky internal voices go into overdrive when I watch the show: Was that really a good choice, that gray sweater vest? Why, why, why can’t I keep my hands still in front of me like a normal human being?
Nevertheless, I was completely beside myself to check in this season, to revisit time spent with the Top Chef Masters family, and to marvel yet again at the producers’ ability to edit long hours of shooting into one tight, nail-biter of an episode. This season the show is significantly different than seasons past, and I was dying to see how the final product turned out. There’s the incredible new cast, of course -- hugely talented chefs, really perhaps the strongest group we’ve ever seen on this series. Traci Des Jardins! George Mendes! Hugh Acheson! And on and on. These are some heavy hitters, chefs who are at the forefront of high-end dining. And there are newcomers on the other side of the table, as well: the formidable Ruth Reichl as my co-judge, and Curtis Stone, a man who truly knows how to keep his shirt unbuttoned, as the show’s host.
But the biggest change this season is the format. The show dropped the tournament-style setup of Seasons 1 and 2, where chefs progressed through brackets, in favor of an everybody-in-at-once style cribbed from Top Chef (non-Masters), in which all the chefs compete together and a contestant is eliminated each week. The new style means that participating in the show is a radically different experience for the cheftestants than it has been in previous seasons: They’re getting the opportunity to cook more, to familiarize us judges with their strengths, and to grow and learn both as a collective and as individuals.Take the unfortunate case of Hugh Acheson, who was eliminated from this week’s episode thanks to his tragically oversalted scallop: Hugh used the salt that was available in the Top Chef Masters kitchen, which just happened to be Maldon, a salt known for its hefty-size flakes; just a few extra grains can push a dish from perfectly seasoned to inedible. Because all the other cheftestants were witness to the error, they now know that this is the salt found in the kitchen, and they’re likely to season their dishes accordingly. The kitchen on the show is state of the art, but it’s also unfamiliar to this new lineup of chefs -- they have a huge task in learning how to navigate their way through it, from the heat of the stove to the hot spots in the oven, not to mention the 10-person camera crew leaning in over their about-to-break hollandaise.
Of course, the downside of the new format is that the chefs are going to have to pull off some consistently strenuous feats of cooking. On previous seasons of Top Chef Masters, the winning chef cooked for the judges an average of six times. This year, the winner will have to go up in front of us a whole lot more, including both Quickfires and weekly Elimination Challenges. They’re going to need to pace themselves, and really ration their energy and creativity.
But back to Hugh’s salty scallop. Curtis mentioned this on the show, but I really want to drive it home: while the diners in our premiere episode voted otherwise, the judges overwhelmingly preferred Team Red’s Mosaic restaurant to Team Blue’s Leela. It was heartbreaking to have to send a chef home from what we considered to be the better team; I was genuinely surprised when Leela won the popular vote, having experienced what I thought was a very unremarkable meal. What appeared in the episode to be a brief delay on our entrees was in reality well over a half an hour; additionally, many of the dishes were truly underwhelming, including John Sedlar’s nearly raw rack of lamb and John Currence’s bizarre sweet potato and peanut soup, garnished with a gooey glob of chicken liver “mousse.”All that said, my dinner at Leela was a great reminder about one of the wonderful things about this show, and one of the reasons I was so happy to be back: the unexpected events that can occur when you take chefs out of their comfort zones. The contestants on Top Chef Masters have, in their professional lives, huge teams working for them; as chef-owners, they oversee not just sous-chefs and line cooks but maitre d’s, servers, and general managers. In the Restaurant Wars challenge we asked them to take on all those roles themselves: they had to conceive and execute a fully functional pop-up restaurant in a single day.
Sometimes a decision that makes sense outside the Top Chef Masters universe (like seating your entire restaurant all at once, which is what the folks at Leela decided to do) winds up being a crummy choice once you’re facing the judges -- and the cameras. Team Blue got lucky that the Restaurant Wars diners voted Leela the winning restaurant. If we judges had gotten our say, the episode would have ended with a very different chef going home.