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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cook together, win alone: 'Top Chef Masters' meets 'Lost'

I was already really enjoying Bravo's new "Top Chef Masters" -- a spinoff of their popular "Top Chef," the yummiest reality-competition show on TV not starring Heidi Klum -- but last night's episode only endeared it to me more. By featuring a challenge based on "Lost," not only did they satisfy my inner food geek, but my TV geek as well.

Apparently the writers and producers of "Lost" are big "Top Chef" fans, as guest judges Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof made known last night. It makes sense in a way. "Chef" airs right after "Lost," and I'm sure Teal Darlton weren't about to watch that crapfest "Life on Mars," so they had to switch the channel to SOMEthing.

But "Lost" and "Top Chef" also have a lot in common. Bald, intimidating white dudes, for example. "Lost" has John Locke, "Top Chef" has Tom Colicchio. The two shows can both be excruciatingly suspenseful, such as when "Lost" ends on a stupefying cliffhanger, or when "Chef" host Padma Lakshmi takes FOREVER to announce which contestant has to pack their knives and go home. And both shows can be seriously confusing: "Lost" with its recent time-tripping plotlines, and "Chef" with whatever comes out of judge Toby Young's mouth.

While it was entertaining, the "Lost"-based challenge the master chefs were confronted with didn't seem particularly difficult. They had an option of several island-themed proteins (fish, wild boar, sea urchins -- what, no polar bear?), but the twist was they could only use food "approved" by super-secret science organization, the DHARMA Initiative. That meant only prepackaged, canned food, just like the "Lost" castaways would have found in one of the many DHARMA stations on the island. Which I guess to these five-star superchefs could be considered constricting, but to be fair, that list looked like it had just shy of 6 trillion items on it. I doubt they were really hurting for options.

Yet some of the contestants came into the challenge better prepared than others. L.A. chef and eventual winner Suzanne Tracht admitted to be a fan of the show, whereas New York chef and molecular gastronomist (which sounds like someone DHARMA would have on staff) Wiley Dufresne was clueless. Still, Defresne turned out to be the episode's main source of comic relief as he struggled to complete the opening Quickfire Challenge, dashing around the kitchen like a madman and dropping F-bombs galore.

But while the level of competition was high, the level of civility and sportsmanship thankfully was as well. That's one of the main reasons I like this show so much. Face it, these competitors have already made it -- they are award-winning, highly respected chefs. They're competing for charity, but at the end of the day they get to go back to their successful restaurants and their fawning patrons. It's just plain entertaining to watch such unfathomably talented cooks do their thing within these arbitrary constraints, all the while joking around with each other and lending each other a hand. By the end of the episode you really like these people, and it's a shame that in this "Masters" format, only one contestant wins and goes on to the next round.

Just like with "Lost," "Top Chef Masters" is all about the characters. And so far they've assembled a great group of castaways.

-- Adam Reinhard,

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