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When the producers of Top Chef Masters called me late last year and told me that we were going to film Season 4 in Las Vegas, I was thrilled. I know it can be fashionable to be a Vegas naysayer, but I never have been: I love the city, not just for its iconic place in American culture, but for the fact that it simply has some of the best food anywhere—from high-roller restaurants like Twist to terrific off-Strip restaurants serving Asian, Pan-Latin, and hearty American food. It's a city full of excellent, inventive cuisine, with a strong undercurrent of culinary adventure. Where better to set our new season?
And what a season it is. The chefs this go 'round are, as always, significant players on the American culinary scene, with richly diverse backgrounds and strengths. Some might not have faces quite as nationally recognizable as others, but all of them have the level of passion and talent required to take them to the Top Chef Masters set, and when I saw who was on deck that first day, I was tremendously excited about seeing what they were going to create in the coming weeks.
And so we launched right in to the first challenge! The buffet is a quintessentially Las Vegas form of eating (as Dana Bowen wrote in Saveur, it "perfectly captures the city's blend of optimism and indulgence"), and I am not exaggerating when I say that what we were served in this episode amounts to best buffet food I've ever had. There were no major misfires, no big mistakes. All in all, it bodes extremely well for the rest of the season: the chefs were shockingly good straight out of the gate. In previous seasons of Top Chef Masters, I've been struck by how much of a learning curve there's been for these great chefs who need to acclimate themselves to a new kitchen. Especially on the first day of production, when you're running around a entirely unfamiliar cooking space swarming with other chefs and a camera crew, watching an oversized clock count down the seconds — to me, that's a greater challenge than the various restrictions and last-minute curveballs the chefs are given each week. That level of overall competence made Missy's slip-up with the mandoline — and her subsequent need to bow out of the show in order to let her really very serious wound heal properly — all the sadder. Missy is a hugely talented chef; having eaten many meals at A Voce, her New York restaurant with a location quite close to the Saveur office, I'm very aware of the culinary feats of which she is capable. It was a sad moment for all of us, saying goodbye to her.
Even in her absence, Missy's marinated zucchini salad was one of the nicest dishes on the Red Team's roster — in fact, all their dishes were wonderful -- Chris's winning pork-and-beans stew particularly so. It was a really, really splendid bowl, warm and multilayered and very much in tune with the soulful DNA of Mexican cookery. Which reminds me: I was expecting the Red Team to have a much harder time with their last-minute instruction to make the buffet Mexican than the Blue Team would have with their theme of Indian.
Having lived in India for a year and a half, and having visited Mexico dozens of times, I have a deep understanding of both country's cuisines, including the fact that they're both very internally diverse. But Indian food, for all its complexity, relies on a certain basic palette of flavors—cumin, coriander, lime, turmeric, chiles, cardamom—which I would have thought would be simple to apply to whatever dishes the Blue Team had planned, to give them at least a veneer of the flavors of the subcontinent. Instead, they wound up with a mishmash of flavors, coconut and ginger and preserved lemon veering the palate around from Indonesia to China to North Africa. Debbie, with her lemon meringue pie, didn't even try. But it was a disappointingly dry chicken dish that wound up sending Sue home: she'd taken mediocre chicken breast and cooked it in such a way that emphasized its dry flavorlessness, a decision that couldn't be redeemed even by its vibrant cracked coriander crust. As has happened before on Top Chef Masters — and will probably happen again — it was a sad case of subpar ingredients bringing a great chef down with them.