“Top Chef Masters” Season Two Premiere: No One Takes Anyone Down to Chinatown

The second season of Top Chef Masters – a watered-down version of Top Chef proper meant to keep its audience from defecting to The Food Network between regular seasons – premiered on Wednesday night. Not surprisingly, there were no surprises.  My favorite part of this week’s espiode wasn’t on the show at all – it came from Gael Greene’s blog, where she confesses to anxiety about being invited back as a guest judge for the new season: “Maybe the producers were just tired of my hats. Actually I was getting a little tired of my hats too. I only wear them for photographs and television because I feel a restaurant critic must try and stay anonymous.”  Way to go into deep cover, Gael. Do you not know that we can see you?

The six chefs were divided into three teams of two, and both members of the winning team advanced to the finals. Boston’s Ana Sortun (Oleana) was paired with Seattle’s Jay Traunfeld (Poppy) and his gay agenda; L.A.’s sunny Susan Feniger (STREET) teamed up with a grateful Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia); and Govind Armstrong (8 oz. Burger Bar, People magazine’s Most Beautiful People and don’t you forget it) begrudgingly partnered with the pleasantly clueless Jimmy Bradley (The Red Cat), who couldn’t really believe he was there.

In typical Top Chef style, The Quickfire Challenge insulted the chefs (and the sustainable living agenda) by forcing them to create a dish from ingredients purchased at a gas station. These dishes were judged by the band The Bravery, whose preferred hairstyling product is crude oil.  The Quickfire dishes and the challenge itself were largely unmemorable, with the exception of Govind & Jimmy’s Cheetos macaroni and cheese dish: They accidentally bought Fiery Hot Cheetos, which added an unintended kick to the dish and made it look like a bowl of chopped-up Kelly Bensimon after a particularly violent spray tan. Despite Ana and Jay’s clever play on Romesco sauce – since they used Clamato juice (which is horrifying enough even when not purchased at a GAS STATION), they called it “Clamesco” – Susan and Tony’s bread pudding won the Quickfire Challenge with four stars. Even though the judges seemed to clearly prefer Ana and Jay’s dish, they ended up with the lowest score. This is a trend that continued in the Elimination Challenge.

The chefs were instructed to make a harmonious duo of dishes for a group of 30 diners on their first date. Fortunately, I saw at least one same-sex couple in the dining room – if not, I would have been afraid that Jay Traunfeld would pack up his flowers and go home, a la Ashley It’s-totally-fine-that-gays-aren’t-allowed-in-the-military-but-how-dare-you-make-me-cook-for-a-bachelorette-party Merriman from Top Chef Las Vegas.  Traunfeld got rave reviews for his perfectly caramelized duck breast, but Ana’s vermicelli was a little too cumbersome for a first date. (Did anyone else think she looked stoned?) Jimmy’s lamb carpaccio a made big impression on the judges, if not his patronizing partner.  His late-game decision to sear the edges of the lamb was a good one; although the last I heard, once you cook something, it’s no longer carpaccio. Despite slightly overcooked shrimp – apparently a spicy sauce will continue to cook a protein even after it’s removed from the heat (really?)– Susan and Tony’s Black Pepper Shrimp and Scallop dish with taleggio pasta was a bit hit; big enough to win the competition and advance to the finals.

Although much was made about taking the game to Chinatown, the location had absolutely no significance in either the Quickfire or Elimination Challenge. Nor did the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges have any detectable relationship to each other. Maybe it’s because the stakes are lower, or because the shooting schedule is much shorter than in the regular season, but the production value of Top Chef Masters is sloppier than the previous seasons of Top Chef. Kelly Choi is the only regular fixture on the show who doesn’t have another day job (in fact, I’m not sure she ever has); so Masters can have a phoned-in feel to it. And when I say “phoned-in”, I mean predetermined. Although it was vaguely obvious from the start that Susan Feniger would advance to the finals one way or another, the final ratings didn’t balance out with the Judges’ Table interviews.  Having that said, I’m not complaining – of all the chefs, Susan is the one that I’d most like to see again. I guess Tony Mantuano is okay too.

According to Gael Greene’s aforementioned blog, Govind is not normally this much of a whiner. She defended his grumpiness by pointing out that Jimmy Bradley “is not really a chef” (ouch). And she also noted that Govind’s lamb chop had unsexy chunks of fat in it, a comment that didn’t make it into the final cut. I’d like to see more of the Judges Table deliberation – in both challenges, I felt confused by the final results. If Masters wants to be any more than an advertisement for the Top Chef brand – and I’m not sure it does – it’s going to have to make more of an effort to keep its viewers in the loop. One of the reasons the regular season Top Chef works so well is its pacing:  By carrying the audience along for the ride, we can trick ourselves into believing that we are somehow judging the competition as well. Please, Magical Elves, try harder to indulge our delusions.

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