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Green Bay Press-Gazette

Thursday, June 11, 2009

'Top Chef: Masters' fight off disasters

When I heard the premise of "Top Chef: Masters," I wasn't completely convinced it was something I wanted to tune into.

Here you have professional chefs -- chefs, who by the simple placement of being on this show have "made it." Chefs who are extremely successful -- yet, I'll be honest, I've never heard of most of them -- and chefs who are deemed "professional" (aka: will likely be well mannered, not cause any drama with other chefs ... and forget about catching a Hosea-Leah-like canoodling fest.) Let's call a spade a spade here --professional chefs could very well equal a snooze fest.

However, last night's premiere pleasantly surprised me, if for no other reason than it made these chefs get back to their roots and as one chef said, "was a humbling experience." Sure, they don't have a career and success riding on the line -- all participants compete for a charity of their choice -- but they're fighting for something even better. Pride.

These true "top chefs" are used to people kissing their molasses and telling them how great they are when they're working in their element and in their multi-million dollar restaurants. What they're not used to is going head-to-head with other top chefs and having to be a one-man (or woman) kitchen. Or having their egos tested.

The set up for "Masters" is a little different than I imagined. Instead of the typical "Top Chef" show where all contestants compete against each other for the title of top dawg, "Masters" takes four pro chefs and puts them in a tournament of sorts. With 24 chefs total, the pros are broken off into groups of four with the winner of each group advancing to a final round. The six winners will go through a series of episodes with a one-person elimination until one "Master" remains. The Top Chef Master will receive $100,000 for the charity of their choice.

First up for the show's premiere were chefs Hubert Keller, Christopher Lee, Michael Schlow and Tim Love. Honestly, I have no idea who any of these chefs are but I remembered Hubert from season one of "Top Chef," so there's that. (Sidenote: Mr. Keller moonlights as a DJ, which is maybe the sweetest "fun fact" ever. After he announced his love of turntables, I couldn't stop thinking of the song "God is a DJ" ... I'm guessing Pink saw Hubert scratching at a club once and got confused. Totally valid. The man looks like God's half-brother.)

The show also introduced host Kelly Choi as the replacement for Padma. Not going to lie, this woman scares the bejesus out of me. It's like watching a bobblehead doll, seriously. I don't know who this woman is but she has the largest noggin I've ever seen. She's a real-life carmel apple. OK, I'm done. Oh, one more ... Kelly Choi is a human Wii character. I want to see her bowl. Or play tennis.

Anyway, the show kicked off with a quickfire challenge of "Top Chef's" past. The challenge was to create the most creative and delicious dessert in 60 minutes. The judges? A group of Girl Scouts. When this challenge appeared on season four -- Blaiser Blais knocked it out of the park. This time around, it seemed a bit more difficult. The master chefs made everything from strawberry smoothies and chicken-fried strawberries to what can only be described as an assortment of poo-shaped chocolate.

It was great to see these top chefs get cut down by a group of little girls. Most notably, "the redhead" was extremely critical -- typical ginger. All the girls seemed to like Keller's the most --and only because he made a whip cream mouse and gave him a chocolate tail, which earned him the most "awww, cute's" of the chefs. Instead of getting advantages from quickfires, the chefs are given "gold stars." No, seriously. After decades of world-reknowned cooking, Hubert Keller was given gold stars from 10-year-old girls.

On to the elimination challenge. The chefs -- who were used to working in multi-million dollar kitchens -- were now headed back to college to cook dorm style. The tools of choice included a microwave, a hot plate and a toaster oven. First of all, who is allowed a hot plate or toaster oven these days? I recall being told by my RA that both were fire hazards, which truly made eating anything in the dorms a large challenge. Nevertheless, they had to give the chefs something to cook with and from the looks of it, that was enough of a challenge.

Not only did the chefs have to cook with dorm utensils but the famous cooks had to prepare these meals -- a three-course meal, at that -- in actual dorm rooms. What a treat.

I personally enjoyed watching Tim Love cook. The southerner had a great personality and was hilarious as the straight shooter. But after a snafu with confusing the freezer for the fridge, I knew he was probably in trouble. I don't know how one confuses the two -- especially how one who is a famous chef confuses the two, but I have a feeling he won't live that one down.

Taking the initiative to make his own pasta for some good ol' mac and cheese left Keller with a dilemma on how to keep the noodles warm, while sufficiently draining the water out. Instead of turning to panic, the crafty DJ cook headed to the bathroom to utilize the sinks and shower, running hot water from the shower over the noodles while they drained out below. What a way to wet your noodle. Ahem, I'm still talking about food here.

Anyway, the trick paid off and beat out Tim Love's pozole, Michael Schlow's pork and Chris Lee's creamy risotto. Not a surprise given the impressions his dishes made -- even on the picky redhead during the quickfire. So Keller advances to the final round as the first winner and successfully charms me enough to make me tune in again next week. Not to mention the previews for upcoming episodes.

It looks like the "Masters" will have some special guest stars including Fabio Viviani from last season, Antonia Lofaso from season four of "Top Chef," adorable Zooey Deschanel and my hero, NPH (aka: Neil Patrick Harris).

Catch "Top Chef: Masters" Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Bravo.

-- Sara Boyd,

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