Top Chef Masters, Episode 1 (SPOILERS!)

Well, it’s not quite the real thing.  On the other hand, it is the sequel/summer replacement of the best reality tv show around, and certainly my favorite reality TV franchise – so who am I to be picky?  What is Top Chef Masters?  Put simply, take the classic challenges from Top Chef seasons, but have super chefs compete for charity.  For instance, Michael Chiarello and Hubert Keller were runners up to Rick Bayless, no less than the preeminent Mexican chef in the United States.  Of course this is the second season of the Masters franchise – and a lot of the principals are back:

Kelly Choi – the pretty but terribly skinny host

Gael Greene – 40 year NY restaurant critic – she of the zany hats

Jay Rayner – British – not as mean as you’d expect considering

Gail Simmons – from Top Chef, we love her … um … eyes

James Oseland – editor in chief of Sauveur magazine.  Sounds important – he’s solid.

Instead of straight elimination, there is 5 star ratings for each quickfire and elimination.  So, with THAT out of the way – this episode is 6 chefs – with only 2 advancing.

THE COMBATANTS:

Susan Feniger – one half of the Two Hot Tamales

Jerry Traunfeld – from Seattle, 2000 Beard award winner

Govind Armstrong – NYC foodie scene superstar

Jimmy Bradley – chef/owner of The Red Cat, been on TV

Tony Mantuano – Obama likes him in Chicago

Ana Sortun – works in Cambridge, MA … yay!

QUICKFIRE:

At the beginning, the chefs are split into teams of two by the drawing of aprons … Mantuano and Feniger, Sortun and Traunfeld, Armstrong and Bradley.  After thinking they were being driven to represent a local LA neighborhood – suddenly they are at … a gas station.  So the convenience store is where they shop to get ingredients for their quickfire.  Some band I have barely heard of (The Bravery) would judge, being experts in gas station food and all.

Mantuano and Feniger took a bag of fruit and nut mix and made a bread pudding which was very well received.  With its maple flavor, I was even tempted.  4 stars

Armstrong and Bradley had Slim Jims and Fiery Hot Cheetos and salsa (which they discovered after the fact) and turned it into a mac and cheese and tomato soup.  The mac and cheese was a weird color – looked like the Taco Bell Extreme Taco shell color – most alarming.  The band seemed to like it. 3.5 stars

Sortun and Traunfeld had pork rinds – and turned it into a rice cake.  Very delicate pice of food the band liked very much, albeit bland. 3 stars

ELIMINATION:

The chefs stay in teams to produce a duo for a party of blind daters.  Greene, Rayner and Oseland the judges this week:

A Take on Lamb: Armstrong = Cauliflower Couscous, pomegranite reduction, roast chop … Bradley= Lamb carpaccio with arugula … the judges were scared (as I was) of the idea of a carpaccio out of something gamey like lamb.  But the judges liked it a lot, more than Armstrong’s lamb chop.  Given Armstrong’s teasing of Bradley’s simplicity, it was funny.

A Duo of Duck:  Traunfeld= Lavender duck breast with red cabbage, pom, gold beets … Sortun= duck with orange blossom, cinnamon.  Sortun’s presentation was pretty sloppy – and it was a hard plate to eat, but it looked delectible.  It lacked the cleanliness of Traundeld’s duck breast, but they both worked.

Asian-Italian pairing: Feniger = Black pepper shrimp and scallops … Mantuano = homemade pasta with cheese, truffles, mushroom.  Judges loved both of the dishes, although Mantuano’s pasta with tellagio cheese was perhaps a bit too rich – but not quite.  The shrimp for Feniger was overcooked a little – but the scallops looked wonderful.

JUDGES TABLE:

Given the 4 star start for Mantuano and Feniger, and how well they were received, watching the show this seems like a setup for a double cross.  The win seems too easy.  The normal judges table is good – but on Masters it is less so since the comments aren’t scathing – and besides, these people are all REALLY good cooks.

But what the hell, let’s see how it goes.  The judges can each give 5 stars, the diners can give 5.  The total is out of 25 stars (including the quickfire).

FIRST: Sortun/Traunfeld: Coming in with 3 stars.  Judges liked it (3.5, 4, 3.5), diners liked it (4 stars).  The total = 18 stars

SECOND: Armstrong/Bradley: Coming in with 3.5 stars.  The lamb chop did not inspire the judges OR the diners (3, 3.5, 3 … 3 stars for diners).  The total = 16.

FINALLY: Mantuano/Feniger: Coming in with 4 stars.  Only need 15+ stars to win.  The judges seemed in their comments so effusive, and the result (4, 4.5, 4) and diners’ assessment (4) resulted in a blowout of 20.5 stars.

Overall, good episode – chefs all did well, although it doesn’t make smoldering television.  But for a food lover … mmmmmm

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