The new season of Top Chef Masters premiered last night and can be seen weekly on Wednesday nights at 10 pm/9 Central on Bravo. The first episode was full of the surprises and changes that were promised in the previews.
This season, Top Chef Masters has a new host. Celebrity chef Curtis Stone (you may remember him as the Take Home Chef) is a welcome change. Not only is he good-looking with an Australian accent, but he has a lot of personality, which I feel has been lacking in some of the Top Chef hosts in the past.
Twelve seasoned chefs will compete this season to earn the title of “Top Chef Master” and win the $100,000 prize for the charity of their choice. I’ve always liked the charity element of Top Chef Masters, so I’m glad one of the changes wasn’t to do away with it.
Along with the $100,000 grand prize is another $150,000 in prize money that is given out in the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges.
Each week, one “chef-testant” will go home after the episode’s two challenges, the Quickfire and the Elimination.
The chefs on this season’s Top Chef Masters are John Currence, Suvir Saran, John Rivera Sedlar, Alex Stratta, Traci Des Jardins, Mary Sue Milliken, Naomi Pomeroy, Hugh Acheson, Celina Tio, George Mendes, Floyd Cardoz, and Sue Zemanick.
Top Chef Master’s first episode gets down to business with the first Quickfire challenge of the season. Curtis Stone tells the contestants their challenge will be to go head-to-head with the person standing next to them. They each must create a dish featuring one ingredient they’ll find in a mystery box. The catch is that the dish must also include the ingredient from their opponent’s box. The overall winner will win immunity from the Elimination Challenge and will take home $5000 for his/her charity. The chefs were given 20 minutes to prepare, cook, and execute their dish.
I assumed they’d go a little easy on these master chefs in the first round just to let them get their feet wet, but in true Top Chef style, some of the ingredient pairings became less than optimal. By far, the worst was the combination of canned corned beef and marshmallows. Some of the contestants even picked at least one ingredient they can’t stand, which always makes it more difficult to conceive of a tasty dish.
If they underestimated the pressure, well, for some, it showed. Two chefs are unable to get anything on the plate, and another forgets one of the two required ingredients.
Now it’s time for the critics to weigh in. It sounds like the chefs are unaware of who the permanent critics/judges will be for the season until they find themselves on the other side of a video camera watching James Oseland and Ruth Reichl critique their dishes in front of their peers.
Traci Des Jardins wins the first Quickfire with her combination of two salads, one featuring peanut butter, the other, black licorice.
Then Curtis tells them the Elimination Challenge will be a first for Top Chef Masters. I have a feeling it will be Restaurant Wars, a classic competition featured on the original Top Chef seriesin many seasons. I did think it was pretty early in the season for Restaurant Wars, but of course, I was right the first time.
The challenge in Restaurant Wars is for each team of master chefs to create a concept and meals for a restaurant that opens in a few hours for the guests and critics.
For Restaurant Wars, the chefs are split into two teams of six contestants. All of the winners from the head-to-head Quickfire are placed on the Red Team and the losers on the Blue Team.
As the chefs begin to strategize, I wonder how their egos will factor in. All of these chefs have opened several restaurants themselves, so I doubt they’re used to taking orders anymore. But for the most part, the egos don’t seem to play a factor.
Each chef is required to make one dish. Along with the cooking, someone has to be at the front of the house to greet the guests and critics and check in on them.
As service starts, the strategy of the Blue Team comes into question by the critics and even members of the team. Naomi Pomeroy had volunteered to be in the front of the house, and it was her idea to do the seating arrangement and service so that all guests were seated all at once. The problem was that this setup leads to chaos. The servers seem to be confused by all of the orders and it becomes difficult for the chefs to keep up with the cooking, especially when they are trying to make their best dishes possible. The critics seem awfully annoyed at how long it takes in between courses before they get their next plate of food.
At this point, it seems like the Blue Team is doomed. The critics enjoy the food by the Red Team much better. But on Top Chef Masters, the Restaurant Wars team winner was determined by the diners. I thought it was certain that the Blue Team would be on the bottom and that the chef who sent out undercooked lamb with apples that still had part of the wrapper sliced into them would be the obvious loser.
However, the diners preferthe Blue Team’s food (even though the critics prefer the Red Team’s). So, the diners have spoken and it is time to reward the Blue Team’s winner and eliminate someone from the Red Team.
The winner is Alex Stratta, who made a celery root, spinach, and potato fricassee that did sound delicious. I remember one of the diners saying he wanted to pick the bowl up and lick out the remnants! Alex wins $1000 for his charity and I couldn’t help but be excited for him because of the powerful story he had to tell. When his wife was 8 ½ months pregnant with twins, he found out he had colon cancer. Obviously an incredibly scary and stressful situation, he was lucky to come out ok, and now he wants to give back. His money is going to Faster Cures, and I believe he said a lot of the money is given to families who can’t afford quality treatment otherwise.
No one wants to leave a competition, especially as the first one to get the boot. It comes down to two chefs. The first, Hugh Acheson, had taken a chance on a seafood dish that had too large of a portion of a scallop and was incredibly salty. The other, Mary Sue Milliken, put out a cookie-cutter cupcake that looked like something you could find in a Hostess wrapper. For the sake of creativity, I thought Hugh should be the one to stay, but alas, he was the one eliminated.
At the end of the episode, they played short previews of the rest of the season. I think it’s going to be an intense and exciting season of Top Chef Masters. I’m excited to watch such a diverse group of chefs, both in nationality and in cooking style.