Friday, June 12, 2009

"Top Chef: Masters" Episode 1 - Teaching the Masters how to Shop and Microwave

So, how did we all feel about the first episode? I was really looking forward to it, but was a little concerned about famous chefs having hissy fits and ego-offs, thereby ruining the entire show for me, but I'm pleased to say, I really enjoyed it! Maybe it was just a result of the four chefs they happened to get for the first show, or maybe it was the challenges themselves, but each of the chefs really put out some effort and hid their attitudes away. They were all so gracious and supportive of each other, with some mild banter thrown in. I found myself smiling and laughing right along with them at the ridiculousness that was none of them knowing how to use the microwave and the Girl Scouts reaming the desserts. I can only hope the other batches of chefs are as classy and grateful to be there, competing for charity, as Keller, Love, Lee, and Schlow.

I was pulling for Hubert Keller from the moment he walked into the kitchen - you could just tell he was happy to be there, competing for his charity, ready for whatever they threw at him. He also really impressed me with his line about being on the "other side" of the competition, as he had judges the "Top Chef" contestants before. It made me like him even more to know he thought it was only fair to take it if he was going to dish it out. Just a great chef, classy guy, and a DJ to boot! Tim Love was my second favorite, as I had watched his cooking while travel across the country on horseback on TV and really enjoyed his laid back approach to cooking and life. I hadn't really heard of Lee or Schlow before, but they both seemed ready to go - Lee came across as kind of pissy sometimes (at least to me, let me know if I'm far off base here) and Schlow, I felt so badly for him, his dessert probably would have been amazing if it wasn't for the GE ovens crapping out on him - strong advertisement for your product, GE!!

The Quickfire was great, in my opinion. It's true - none of these chefs probably make dessert, like, ever in their restaurants, but it's fair that they should have a few desserts up their sleeves, especially one that would impress some kids. To be fair, kids are very critical and definitely will not eat bad food, but probably don't want extremely complex flavor profiles and odd combination. I think they all did well (minus the obvious Schlow-issues), but Keller was clearly head and shoulders above the rest. Shamelessly playing to his customers with the swan and mouse, all the while making a delicious, simple dessert, recognizable to the girls, but also showing his beautiful French technique and culinary skill. Lee probably made a misstep with the caramelization on the French toast, that lightly charred flavor is great for adults, not so good for kids, while Love's chocolate covered strawberry was right on the mark, but I'm with the scouts - chicken-fried strawberry does NOT sound appetizing at all.

It was great to see the reactions of the chefs to the Girl Scouts - they were right, the girls were tough on them. That one definitely should be a food critic, she was having none of the, shall we say, less well-made desserts. Not that I expected the chefs to start bad-mouthing kids on TV, but I liked how they took it all in stride and laughed along with one another.

The Elimination Challenge, for me, was interesting in concept, but kind of lacked in execution. I mean, it certainly is a challenge to cook using only a toaster oven, microwave, and a hot plate in a dorm room, but it's also kind of gross, no? I mean, did they clean the rooms before having people prepare food in them? When Keller rinsed the pasta in the shower, had it recently been used? Was it the men's bathroom? Was the shower sanitized directly before he stuck the shower head into the pasta? These are all questions I would have liked answered before I dug into his (admittedly delicious-looking) mac and cheese. That said, I was wholly impressed with what the chefs were able to turn out using such limited space and equipment. Especially for poor Tim Love, having to defrost everything before cooking it - he really stepped it up, for a while I thought he had it in the bag.

My favorite dishes were the mac and cheese (even with the shower rinse), Schlow's salmon crudo, and Lee's pork chop (I don't know how he managed to sear a piece of meat using a hot plate). That's not to say the rest of the dishes weren't impressive, these were just my personal favorites. Although, I do agree with Jay Rayner (pirate guy), it is a bit of a cop out with limited cooking equipment to just not cook anything. That said, I would have just cut up some sashimi and called it a day for all three courses.

As for "Critic's Table," what to say? I guess it's fine - clearly none of the critics are going to go all Colicchio-style and rip these famous, well-established chefs a new one. The criticism was pretty mild, as it should be, unless there's a huge debacle. These guys know what they're doing so criticizing them is like splitting hairs - it's more an issue of personal taste, rather than an objective issue of whether the food is good or not. I guess they're going to have a revolving door of critics for each initial round, but I wonder if they'll have a set group of critics who review the final six chefs, down to the final two? Or maybe a few permanent critics and one rotating one, more in the "Top Chef" vein?

A couple of observations:
1. I LOVE how the masters get a Lexus to chauffeur them around town, rather than the Old Navy of Lexus - a Toyota, like the regular old "Top Chef" contestants do. When the camera zoomed in on the "L" I nearly spit my wine across the room in amusement.

2. Kelly Choi has less personality than Padma (if that's possible) and seems to be completely out of her league. They couldn't find someone to host, who can also speak intelligently about food? Maybe it was just the first episode, so I'll give her a slight pass, but, seriously?

3. The mini-segment of them all trying to figure out the microwaves, then giving up, was comedy gold. I would have watched an entire hour of Hubert Keller cursing in french, trying to make the thing heat up his mustard sauce.

4. Hubert Keller being confused by Whole Foods was simultaneously hysterical and sad. Does he not go shopping for himself? Like for the food he has at home in his fridge?

5. Jay Rayner, seriously, is one puffy shirt away from being a pirate.

All in all, it was a great opening for the show and definitely makes me want to tune in again for next week. I do like how the chefs are in groups of four, so even if one is really irritating, chances are you'll never have to see him/her again, or at least not for another few weeks if they win. I'm thrilled with the Keller win and can't wait to cheer him on five weeks from now. Unless John Besh gets in, too, then it's on like the prawn who yawns at dawn!!

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