M: Last time we chatted about Top Chef Masters they had secured 5 of the 6 chefs that would be competing in the Masters round. In the sixth episode, Oprah’s former personal chef, and new restaurateur Art Smith topped a strong field of four to become the last master to the champions round.
The champions round itself is much more reminiscent of Top Chef, reverting to the traditional format of the same competitors staying and one being eliminated each episode. From the looks of it, they are filming each episode in one day, an this week’s finale is the final three, so they were able to pull off taking only about a week’s worth of time from the chefs lasting the longest. Couple that with the exposure they are getting, and the competitive nature they are all showing, and this looks like a very repeatable concept for Bravo.
The six champions, Hubert Keller, Suzanne Tracht, Anita Lo, Rick Bayless, Michael Chiarello and the aforementioned Art Smith, immediately split into teams to take on the quickfire challenge where they have to shuck oysters, dice onions, butcher chickens and then whip eggs until they can stay in a bowl upside-down for 5 seconds. The team of Keller, Lo and Bayless took the challenge, and I wasn’t the least bit surprised, as I felt that based on what we had seen so far they were the three strongest/best chefs in the entire competition. Still, if you saw the same quickfire in Season 3, then you saw eventual winner Hung Hyunh butcher chickens faster than Superman or The Flash could have. None of the masters came up with anything resembling that mind-blowing performance, which was kind of neat, and kind of disappointing at the same time.
After that challenge, in the guise of helping them get to know each other (yeah, right) the six all cooked their signature meal for each other. For the elimination challenge, however, they paired up and had to cook their own take on the other’s signature dish. In the end, Anita won with a mouth watering interpretation of Hubert’s lobster cappuccino (C: Yuck!), which she re-imagined into a three item dish highlighted by a lobster biscuit. Art and Suzanne each struggled to put their own spin on each others dishes, were the bottom two, and in the end Suzanne went home, mostly because she timed cooking her grouper wrong and was done at least 10 minutes early, killing a dish that was struggling to begin with.
The next week’s quickfire was a burger challenge, in which it was revealed that at one of Keller’s restaurants he charges $5,000 for one burger. I believe they mentioned it comes with a wine selection, but unless it also comes with a 60″ LCD TV, that’s just nuts. Chiarello won the challenge making a giant truffle-topped burger for the three judges to share. Anita, in an unfortunate bit of foreshadowing, struggled for the first time, making a cheeseburger shake that didn’t hit home.
For the elimination challenge the chefs were charged with cooking for C’s favorite singer-actress, Zooey Deschanel. (C: Not actually my favorite, but I do like her. E: So who IS your favorite singer-actress?) As a quick aside, quite the talented Hollywood family, those Deschanels are. Not only is Zooey the younger sister of Bones‘ Emily Deschanel, but the daughter of actress Mary Jo and award-winning cinematographer Caleb. Good stock! Anyway, so you may say, what’s so hard about cooking for an actress? Well, let’s see… Zooey is a vegan, meaning not only does she not eat any animals, but she doesn’t eat any dairy products either, so no milk, eggs or cheese. Oh, and add on top of that that she has celiac disease, so she can’t eat any wheat, so bread and pasta are out. One last thing, she doesn’t eat soy products, either. As she finished announcing that to the contestants, I half expected her to say she’s allergic to water and air.
So the chefs were off to Whole Foods, looking for miracles. Amazingly, most of them found what they needed. Art Smith, not so much. Michael, whose wife has gluten allergies, triumphed by finding a quinoa based pasta, cooking it basically a strand at a time to keep it from sticking together. While Anita struggled with her oily eggplant, Hubert had success with appetizers including a beet salad. Rick, who has a daughter that has gluten issues, too, did well with corn tamales, but Art really went down in flames. Usually a cook of comfort food, southern-style fried chicken and mac and cheese, he was out of his element from the start. He made the mistake of choosing dessert, and then bought a lousy rice-milk-based “ice cream,” which he couldn’t save even with strawberries and a butter-less cashew brittle, and he went home.
I was relieved it was Art and not Anita. To admit, pretty much right from him being introduced I have been rooting for Rick. (E: How do you not love a guy who goes to Mexico to do a phd and decides to express his love of the culture through food instead of academia? He’s smart, he’s thoughtful, he’s kind and funny and humble.) I love Mexican food, which was a good start. Add to that that he has a vibrant and engaging personality, and that his food looks so good, and my wife and I are literally looking into going to Chicago in the fall so we can go to his restaurant. OK, well, it’s also a trip for our anniversary, but his food has clinched Chicago as the location. Aside from Rick, Anita has been my next favorite. She’s very unassuming, often self-denigrating, but her food has been just fascinating, and even more than Hubert, has looked like things I would love to eat. She comes up with these dishes that are so well thought through and put together, and have such skill and vision in them. So as affable as Art was, I was happy to see Anita survive…
…unfortunately it didn’t last long. (E: Boo!) In the penultimate episode, the top four squared of in a quickfire where they had to identify as many items as they could while blindfolded. Michael won identifying only seven correctly, Rick and Anita both hit on six, and Hubert surprised with only getting five correct. For the elimination challenge, things got REALLY interesting, easily the most interesting as they’ve been all season. The chefs got to pick assistants (sous chefs) out of a cadre of former Top Chef contestants. Their interview process was a real eye opener. They got to interview each of the 16 candidates for two minutes each, and while Hubert, Anita and Rick tried to get to know them and find out their styles and strengths, Michael barked out orders, had them chop vegetables, fetch ingredients and berate them if they didn’t refer to him as “chef.” Once the teams were picked, he didn’t allow them any input into the menu, and in his own words told them what to do and how to do it. Basically, he came across as a total ass, which was strange because he had been coming across as charismatic and likable up to that point. In the end he made a comment to the judges about not having his fellow competitors experience in trusting staff, as he is only recently back in the restaurant business. While that may have been the case, there was no excuse for the “don’t you know who I am” act of forcing everyone to pronounce his last name correctly (key-a-rello). I came away with a big, fat, sour taste in my mouth for him now, as did E, who is simply rooting for him to lose in the finale. (E: Humiliation with a smile, that was his gig, and it made me gag. I can’t even stomach the sight of him now.)
So, back to the challenge, they had to cook a buffet for 200, and in the middle of their preparations they got moved from the regular Top Chef kitchen/restaurant to an LA hotel, where they’d be serving outside in direct sun, and each lost one of their sous chefs. This killed Anita, who had centered her buffet around a raw bar, which ended up being more of a half-cooked bar. (E: As if a raw bar wasn’t gross enough on its own!) Rick made a delicious looking Mexican buffet, and with the help of family favorite Richard Blais, made a liquid nitrogen-frozen avacado ice cream that wowed the judges both for its taste, and for his trust in his help. Hubert was the big winner, getting help from great chefs such as Antonia Lofaso to create 18 different items for his buffet, and wowing the critics and guests alike. Michael was able to get by, ordering around the remarkably tall CJ Jacobsen and Italian favorite Fabio Viviani (who should absolutely have his own show) (E: And will, I think), making risotto and other Italian dishes.
So tonight the battle is on between newly vilified Michael Chiarello, Hubert Keller and Rick Bayless. In a baffling decision, Bravo will be airing the premier of the new season of regular Top Chef, this time based in Las Vegas, right BEFORE the finale of Masters. Because everyone wants to start a new thing right before they finnish the one they’re in the middle of, right? So if you tune in or set your DVR at 9:00, you’ll catch over two hours (it’s running until at least 11:15, so be careful!) of fabulous food. Which ever way it turns out, I’ll be heading to Chicago.