"" What's She Eating Now?: A Case for Top Chef Masters

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Case for Top Chef Masters

When Bravo first announced the introduction of Top Chef Masters I was skeptical, thinking it would only be a mechanism to fill air time and promote the upcoming season of Top Chef Las Vegas. Boy was I wrong. While I feel like TCM doesn’t showcase the food and its preparation as well as TCR (“Top Chef Regular”), it provides for equal, and sometimes better, entertainment, and more importantly, a peek into the personalities of some of America’s culinary titans.

And of course, the big personalities are always crowd-pleasers. In fact, last week I momentarily questioned Bravo’s commitment to quality television when they booted the effervescent, emotional and flamboyant Art Smith in favor of Anita Lo, whose screen presence, in contrast to her food, is about as exciting as watching someone take a nap. But Art’s dessert was pretty underwhelming and way beneath his talent level, and staying true to the culinary underpinnings of the show that call just had to be made. This is TV, though, and TCM had to make up that entertainment void to its viewers, which it did with last night’s drama filled episode.

The first “I can’t believe it” of the night was when “Asian fusion savant” Lo could not identify the taste of hoisin sauce in the blind taste test. And I am not just picking on Anita. Rick Bayless guessed that it was ranch dressing. The outcome of this trial shocked everyone; Michael Chiarello won with only 7 of 20 correct guesses. Alas, the masters are human too.

The chefs next moved onto the elimination challenge where they could enlist the help of former TCR contestants to prepare a banquet for “200 Hollywood insiders.” While Bayless calmly interviewed each prospective sous-chef, Chiarello hazed them, and reminiscent of American Pie even demanded they yell out his name. The rest went something like this:

  • An altercation between Chiarello and Season 4 hot head Dale Talde with Dale bouncing around Chiarello like Scrappy-Do, mouthing off “whatcha gonna do about it?”
  • Chiarello telling the camera from the confessional that early in his career he “ate 3 Dales for breakfast” every day.
  • Fan favorite Fabio Viviani (TCR season 5) declares, “I am sweating like a mountain goat on the beach,” when the chefs learn the banquet is outside under the sun.
  • Team Bayless’ Richard Blais (TCR Season 4) expresses confidence, noting that Michael Chiarello’s food looks like its from “a wedding in 1987.”
  • The boys stay, Anita goes.

Some of you may say “this is bull, this show is not about food.” And I can’t say that I fully disagree with that. Sure, the show does need to be entertaining in order to pay the bills and stay on the air, but the program's true purpose is letting the audience get to know some of America’s premier chefs and who they are as people and how and why they do what they do. With the increased appreciation of and enthusiasm for food in this country, people want to get to know their icons a little better, just the way they have always craved more information about their favorite actors and athletes. Admirers’ desire to get closer is perhaps even magnified with chefs, as they perform their major feats, for the most part, out of sight, behind swinging doors.

Without this show, except for an inner circle who would know that renowned French chef Hubert Keller is actually a pretty laidback guy with a good sense of humor who can think creatively on his feet, like the time he made macaroni in a dorm shower. Or that Rick Bayless is the nicest guy on earth? Although I don’t envy his wife after reading on his website that he considers Mexico City to be the most romantic place he’s ever visited. Its really these insights that are driving people to Top Chef Masters, the reality TV audaciousness is just an entertainment bonus.

So I encourage you to tune in next week to the big finale. Now that we have followed Keller, Bayless and Chiarello through several episodes, we understand them better as people and we can make the connection to how that translates in their food. Bayless will probably stick to what he knows and give us Mexican flair from the heart. Keller will create as much a feast for the eyes as the stomach. Chiarello's food will be much like him: brash and Italian. But its only because I know them now that I'll truly enjoy Rick being Rick, Hubert being Hubert, and Michael being Michael. I'll see you on the couch next Wednesday.

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