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Double Down

Hugh Acheson assesses the new crop of cheftestants.

By Hugh Acheson


How to Watch

Catch up on Top Chef Masters on Peacock or the Bravo App.

Let me preface something to the chefs on this season: 

I feel for you. I was in your position. I too toiled through the Masters stage, taking critiques, sometimes profound, sometimes obtuse, sometimes off the mark, from Curtis “Ken Doll” Stone, James “Wise Hipster” Oseland, Ruth “Daily Haiku” Reichl, and the bevy of odd visiting judges. It is a stressful arena, and I can relate. I felt the fun of being on top (albeit not that often… I only won Quickfires), and experienced being on the bottom, actually getting kicked off twice, a feat in itself. 

I also personally know some of you, this being a small world in our trade. I respect all of you for the wonderful chefs you are. You are awesome leaders in our industry, unequaled in your dedication to your communities, your people, and your craft. 

That said, I want you to clearly understand something: I am going to make fun of you. No matter what I say or write, realize that my respect for you is always there and I mean no disrespect. Remember: it’s TV. My humor is a little on the acerbic side, so think it through before you get offended. When we do meet up I will give you a big hug, buy you a lot to drink, and you can make fun of my monobrow. I can take it. 

May the best chef win this thing, but may you all continue to succeed in life. Cheers to a Season 4. I am going to make myself a Cosmopolitan and put on my special Top Chef-watching outfit. 

Art Smith, the Chicago stalwart of Oprah-etic fame is first on the scene, and he’s looking pretty dapper these days. He has done this Masters thing before, and that has to be an asset, plus he looks like he’ll be able to move more like the well-dressed mongoose he’s always wanted to be. Also on a previous season was Thierry from Seattle. He’s back in the house with his signature hat and accent. Mark and Clark enter, lauded chefs from Arrows in Maine. They are also a couple, so this should be interesting. I would rather pull out my hair with vice grips than compete against my wife on national TV. We also have Patricia Yeo, the Italian prowess of Missy Robbins, Kerry Heffernan, the founding chef of Eleven Madison Park, the constant Japanese brilliance of Takashi Yagihashi, the sage salumi skills of Chris Cosentino, the media-rrific Lorena Garcia, the Mexican tactician Sue Torres, and the middle American goodness of Debbie Gold. I will say this: I love me the Cosmopolitan Hotel. A friend of mine used to run the joint, and it’s a stellar property with great food offerings. Funky spot. I saw the Shins earlier this year there and had a lot of fun. Great food at Jaleo, Blue Ribbon Sushi, the hidden pizza joint, and the wonderfully-strange China Poblano. 

This crew of chefs seems much more media and appearance-savvy than Season 3. They exude confidence. We were all like deer in the headlights on Season 3, except Suvir, who was a deer in Prada loafers choosing a glittering disco ball over headlights. 

Quickfire time. Partner up, people. It’s food card blackjack and Curtis is that dealer who woos you with smooth-talk as you lose your ass. The guest eaters are pro dealers. Gotta say that the catfish-steak combo is intriguing, but 15 minutes is not a lot of time to do anything with protein cuts like that. All the teams seem to be working well together but give it time; they’ll be at each other’s throats. 

One of the dealers had a customer win $167,000 LAST NIGHT. She failed to finish the story (which ended with him being plied with cocktails and then giving it all back to the dealer.) My rule is to have someone willing to pull you away when you’re up. 

The food all looks good for a 15-minute challenge, but Patricia and Chris take the win and get some money for their charities. Nice start. Chris is competing for the guy from Family Ties (not Skippy, Alex). Patricia is competing for Heifer International, a group that my very socially-conscious (read liberal) older sister supported for a while. They advocate getting everyone their own calf as a pet, or something like that. My charity currently is for everyone to get a fruiting bonsai tree that they have to make jam from. It teaches canning, gardening, and fine motor skills. 

The Elimination Challenge is to create a buffet for a bunch of Vegas show people. It’s the definition of challenging to write a menu that’s going to appeal to a very diverse crowd of pirates, clowns, strippers, Jersey boys, and circus people. I recommend chicken wings. Everyone loves those things. Chris and Art have very different stances on the buffet. Art thinks people like big and glamorous, while Chris did not come here to cook crap and only wants to put food in tiny vessels. Does Patricia have an Eton accent? Makes her sound very buttoned up, but also like a character from Harry Potter. I like it. Art dumps blueberries on the ground while shopping and expects the plebeians of Whole Foods to clean it up. 

As Art giggles at the poor people cleaning up his mess he states, “I cook for billionaires; I don’t have budgets.” Nice one; very man of the people. 

They get back to the kitchen and it’s scratch and win time. Various consequences occur, like team switching, monetary bonuses, time penalties, and something called “waterboarding by Curtis.” 

The big surprise comes when they are informed that though they have already shopped and come up with their dishes, one team is now deemed Mexican and one deemed Indian. They will now be profiled by the TSA and the Vegas police. I would have challenged the idea and made Mayan food, hitting both sides of the equation.

Team Mexican sends Art shopping, but Art has had a personal shopper since 1985 and this will be the second time in 1/4 of a a century that he has had to go to the grocery store. The last time was an hour ago. Back in 1984, he and Oprah used to go down to Kroger a lot. 

Mexican in red aprons, Indians in blue ones. Missy Robbins is tired of this shit already and decides to chop off her finger. Mandolines are the taker of more skin in kitchens than any other device, knives included. This is just my fact, but it's probably true. Those things are dangerous to use when you’re rushing around. 

We have two Mexican specialists in the house, one on each team. Blue Team has Sue Torres whose restaurant, Suenos, in NYC has always gotten high acclaim. Red Team has Lorena Garcia, who has a real restaurant, but makes the riches from her revamps of Taco Bell menus. (The crazy plan worked seeing as I went to a Taco Bell for the first time in 20 years to try out her new offerings). Take note, I shall be calling Lorena “Gidget Chipperton” this season. To the Google!Chris and Art are the early bickering couple of the season. This is going to be fun! Team Blue seems to be in good shape, having not lost a member to the fate of the mandoline.

Missy’s medical diagnosis is not good. If you have never been to A Voce, go. Girl can cook. Love that place. I feel for her. I cut myself once on the show, grabbing a bread knife from my knife bag. Amateur move, dude. 

Oh my. The Vegas customers are a varied lot. The judges come forward, and it’s Ruth, James, and Krista. Krista is a wild card here. Don’t know her, but look forward to her smiling critiques. 

Kerry has made steak with posole. Patricia is doing her pancake thing with adobo thing. She is also executing Missy’s idea. That’s brazen. Art has made a Southern sweet, and is ebullient in his stylish way. Chris has made meat and that tradition will undoubtedly continue, cause it’s what he does. Gidget has made ceviche with horchata. Judges all seem to think it’s pretty good with some good raves about Chris’s pork and beans, though the showgirls find fault with the under-flavored broth.

Team India. Clark has made a fried green bean salad, while Mark has made a corn soup. Takashi has made a dumpling with shrimp and salmon and a coconut broth. Thierry has made couscous with beef shoulder and salmon, which is not available at any Indian restaurant I have ever been to. Debbie has made a lemon curd with spiced streusel. Not so Indian either. It’s becoming clear that they got the more difficult, or at least more unfamiliar, ethnic cuisine.  

Mark loves him some pirates. Does Clark know this? Mark’s soup is underseasoned. Takashi’s dish is dense. James wants it to be “smoooother.” Thierry has a killer dish, sadly not rooted in India. Chicken by Sue is not so strong, though some employed knight likes it. Clark has the vegetarian element, and it’s kind of a mixed bag with the judges. We do get some good back and forth between Ruth and James on Debbie’s dessert. The critics are battling early. Love that. Let them wrestle. I’d pay to see that. I picture James pinning her in a figure-four leg lock, resulting in a sullen twitter haiku from Ruth: 

Saveur the moment 
Skinny jeans chafe
Late night hair puller

If you think I have gone insane, Ruth is well known for her Twitter poems focusing on her fondness of food fetishes. Follow her @ruthreichl. 

They all have some views on the views. Art is a sucker for a pretty boy and has lots of booty. Egads. 

Missy returns to announce her no return. 

Red Team wins with Mexican goodness. Chris wins. He’s cleaning up. Missy goes home because of her finger. I wish her the best of luck. One chef down and this group of Bandoleros has pulled it off. 

The Indian team is not so lucky. They just failed to execute the proper flavor profile of Indian food. Takashi explains this best, reminding the judges that, well, he’s never cooked Indian food. Good point. 

Alas the chicken is deemed the least favorite. That’s such a positive term. Sue Torres is the cooker of the chicken and the show is already down to 10 people. Onwards. 

Double down people, it’s the only way to win. 


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