April 7th, 2011
10:36 AM ET
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Unfortunately, the producers of “Top Chef: Masters” don’t seem to agree.
Last night offered up the premiere of the show’s third season, complete with a lot of changes. As with previous seasons of “Masters,” the contestants are more established chefs than on standard “Top Chef.” They are:
Alex Stratta, Mary Sue Milliken, Floyd Cardoz, Hugh Acheson, Naomi Pomeroy, Celina Tio, Suvir Saran, Sue Zemanick, John Currence, Traci Des Jardins, George Mendes and John Rivera Sedlar.
I will tell you right now that Suvir’s sound bites are my favorite thing in the history of ever. His pontifications on what it means to be a master were the highlight of this entire episode.
The Quickfire challenge pits the chefs in head-to-head competition, preparing a dish using two main components in just 20 minutes. Several chefs don’t finish, sending out empty plates rather than half-completed ones. (That move seems a little self-important to me, but it’s the first week, so I’ll let it slide.)
The winners are Mary Sue, Suvir, Hugh, Floyd, Traci and George. Losers are John C., Celina, Naomi, Alex, John S. and Sue.
Those are the teams for the Elimination challenge as well, which for some reason is Restaurant Wars.
This is THE most anticipated challenge in any season of “Top Chef,” and you’re wasting it on the first episode? I realize producers want the drama of seeing an entire team of people who are used to running their own kitchens forced to work together, but this just screams “bad idea.”
By the way, you don’t get that “too many cooks in the kitchen” drama, either. Except, that is, for the Losers team (we’ll call them the Blue team), on which Naomi takes control and makes the incomprehensible decision to seat all of their diners simultaneously.
Just to clarify: Naomi is one of the chefs who couldn’t finish the Quickfire, so her time management skills (at least in terms of this competition) are already a little suspect. No one else on her team seems to agree with this idea of seating everyone at the same time. The move is questioned by the other team and the judges. It means the kitchen will be slammed, but that’s how Naomi runs her own restaurant, so that’s how this one will run, too.
As for the food, both teams have some stellar dishes, but they also both have some missteps. The Winners/Red team serve an overly salted scallop and an unimaginative chocolate cupcake. The Blue team offers up very raw lamb and an apple jicama salad that still has the label on it.
The critics all preferred the Red team, but the diners decided the winning restaurant, and they went with the Blue team. Alex and Naomi were up for the win, with Alex taking it. Meanwhile, Hugh’s salty scallop is judged to be more of an issue than Mary Sue’s simple cupcake, so Hugh is headed home.
There's not enough drama. These contestants aren’t the up-and-comers of a standard season of “Top Chef,” as evidenced by the fact that they’re competing for charity, rather than their own bank accounts. So there’s not that level of “I need this to establish myself” tension.
By the same token, they’re not the recognizable names we’ve seen in past “Masters” seasons, such as Hubert Keller, Rick Bayless or Marcus Samuelsson. It’s a faulting of the format.
Just speculating here, but, the show may have attracted bigger stars when chefs were asked to come in for quick preliminary rounds, and potentially return for final rounds. It was a shorter time commitment. Asking contestants to stick around for 10 straight weeks could be limiting star power.
Past “Masters” contestants were recognizable to casual viewers, even if only as judges on regular seasons of “Top Chef.” Watching Samuelsson or Bayless compete was entertaining because it felt like the judges had been thrown into the competition.
I’m sure Cardoz and Des Jardins and Stratta are well-known within the food world. But how are non-foodies able to distinguish them from a Richard Blais or Angelo Sosa?
Ultimately, it makes “Masters” feel like just another season of “Top Chef,” but one with lower stakes and less intensity. Coming off the heels of “All-Stars,” that could be a recipe for disaster.
What did you think about the premiere of “Top Chef: Masters”? Sound off below!
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