M here, and I just got through with watching the most recent installment of one of my favorite competition shows, Top Chef. For those of you who have never seen it, in its previous seasons it has followed the typical competition show format set by Survivor 10 years ago… a show starting with a large group of competitors, each getting kicked off the show one contestant per week until only one remains. In the case of Top Chef, which is fairly well hidden on the hit-and-miss Bravo channel, it is a show of aspiring head chefs, some already fairly successful, competing in series of cooking challenges. Now, in stark opposition to the utterly atrocious Hell’s Kitchen, which seems to only teach us that to be a successful chef you must be the biggest egotistical ass on the planet and belittle everyone you come in contact with, this is an intelligent competition that truly focuses on top of the line, high quality food. The contestant kicked out in the first week of each season is 100 times the chef that any of the winners (or the star) of Hell’s Kitchen will ever be…. but I digress.
Top Chef, once we discovered it near the start of its third season, became an instant favorite for myself, my wife and kids. It has enchanted my eldest daughter so much that one of her favorite things to do now is to “plate” our food, meaning that she arranges it on the dishes in an artistic (though once unknowingly a bit PG-13) manner. One of my son’s favorite chefs, season 5’s Richard Blais, had a fauxhawk. Thus began an obsession that has culminated a year and a half later in an actual mohawk. So, you could say that the show has had an impact on our lives.
The show really showcases the best part about cooking, is all about creating dishes that are ridiculously good, and really brings out the best in each of the competitors, which is another thing that sets it apart. There is never any backstabbing, and the contestants actually go out of their way to help each other out. The spirit of it is really that they all want everyone to put out their best food they can, and let whoever is better be the winner. Did I mention the challenges they throw at them? Let me tell you, they make them do some really crazy stuff. Make a gourmet dish out of food from a vending machine? Feed a family of 4 spending only $10 at Whole Foods? I can’t even feed my two year old for $10 at Whole Foods.
This summer, however, Top Chef has shifted from their usual formula, and is putting on Top Chef Masters. This is not like Survivor All-Stars, or even Celebrity Apprentice. Like Celebrity Apprentice, everyone is competing for their favorite charities, which adds a neat element to it, especially when the contestants explain what their charities mean to them, some of which gets very personal. Unlike Celebrity Apprentice, however, the competitors are really masters in the field they are competing in, all of them award winning chefs who own their own restaurants. Many of them own several. These are people who have won awards as the best young chef in America, or the chef of the year. They have nothing to prove, but it turns out they are all highly competitive, which has made it really fun to watch. Another great twist for the Masters season is the format. Out are the 15 contestants working their way week by week down to one. In is an initial stretch of 6 shows where 4 different chefs compete, with the winner advancing to the “champions round” which will follow those 6 shows. This was a great logistical move, because what chef that owns three restaurants can take 15 weeks off to compete on a TV show to win money for charity? Plus, it gives the audience only 4 new people to get to know for each hour of the show, so each one gets a good amount of screen time, and you get to know a decent enough amount about them. On the downside, gone for the Masters edition are regular host Padma Lakshmi, host/judge Tom Colicchio and the usual rotation of judges. In Lakshmi’s place is Kelly Choi, who has proven to be at least serviceable, if not pretty good in her own right. Back, though, is the successful in-episode format. It starts with a “quickfire” challenge at the beginning of each episode, making the chefs create something with crazy rules or ingredients, usually with only a half an hour to do it. This is followed by a larger “elimination” challenge, then by judging.
At this point 5 of the 6 “champions” have been crowned. In the first episode, the main challenge was to cook a meal in a college dorm room. Renowned French chef Hubert (pronounced hugh-bear) Keller won while making a scrumptious pasta dish, for which he rinsed the pasta in the dorm shower. In the second week Californian chef Suzanne Tracht, who as best we can tell, has no ability to show emotion AT ALL, won creating a seafood dish that looked like it was actually a beach for the writers of Lost (and the tie-in certainly helped for E and I, huge Losties that we are). In episode 3, a chef from Chicago, Rick Bayless, overcame the challenge of cooking the nastiest parts of animals, and won making a whole bunch of tongue tacos. No, I’m not kidding. Last week New Yorker Anita Lo wowed Doogie Howser himself, Neil Patrick Harris, and his friends at an exclusive LA magic club by serving them a dish constructed to look exactly like a scallop that was actually steak tartar. As an aside, no matter how much I like How I Met Your Mother, no matter how great Stark Raving Mad was, nor the success of the enjoyably campy Starship Troopers, NPH will always be Doogie Howser. Sometimes it sucks to be a successful child actor.
I’m digressing again. Anyway, this week saw a new slate of chef compete to serve a three course meal, of miniature proportions, thankfully, to 100 Top Chef fans. they claimed that the audience included celebrities, but the closest they came were former contestants on other Bravo shows. No matter how much you like Project Runway, Sweet P is not a celebrity. Sorry. Regardless, former Food Network star and current Napa valley restauranteur Michael Chiarello, who finished his offering with a basil flavored gelato, held off a strong charge from self-proclaimed ADD enthusiast Rick Moonen and Swede Nils Noren (who happens to be the VP at the French Cluinary Institute in New York. That’s right, a Swedish chef who teaches at a French school in America. Cue up School House Rock!
(C: You know, that’s not what I think of when you say “Swedish Chef” ;))
Now there’s one more episode to go before the champions round, and it looks like next week’s master take on ingredients from a mystery box. The food has looked incredible so far, and all the contestants, with the exception of the monotone Suzanne “I… am… really… excited..” Tracht, have had great personalities and have been very engaging. If you like great food, and really, who doesn’t, I suggest tuning in next Wednesday at 10:00.