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Masters of Disaster: Buffets, Frayed Nerves, and Close Encounters of the Dale Kind on "Top Chef Masters"

Just when you thought the atmosphere couldn't get anymore heated on Top Chef Masters, the arrival of some extremely talented Top Chef former contestants stirred up even more trouble.

On last night's penultimate episode of Bravo's Top Chef Masters, the master chefs had to work with three sous chefs culled from the legions of past Top Chef participants in order to execute their vision for a sumptuous buffet at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills (a favorite haunt of mine, if I'm being honest).

This was an opportunity for the masters to position themselves into the role of mentor, chief, and motivator. To prove, in other words, that they were a true master chef in every sense of the words. Chef, after all, means chief and in the kitchen being the leader means being able to effectively communicate with your team, harness their abilities, and work together as a single organism moving in unison.

Which isn't quite what happened last night. At least not on chef Michael Chiarello's team.

So what happened and how did the four remaining master chefs do? Let's dicsuss.

I've been a huge supporter of Chiarello throughout this competition but his behavior last night left me speechless, particularly his "auditioning" of the former Top Chef competitors and his staggering queries of "What's my name."

These are, after all, established and committed chefs in their own right and aren't applying for a commis job in the kitchen. For Chiarello to grill them about the correct way to address him in the kitchen didn't earn him much love or admiration (or, well, respect) from the cheftestants, none of whom particularly wanted to be selected by him as sous chefs.

Here's a clip:

And that's to say nothing of the altercation between Chiarello and Dale, who turned a comment referring to him as "young man" into a full-blown battle royale in which the former Top Chef contestant seemed to want Chiarello to punch him. For a season that has been remarkably low-key about dramatics, this was the single moment in Top Chef Masters where I could not believe what was unfolding before my eyes.

I understand that Chiarello is a seasoned chef worth his whites, but his wanton disregard for any semblance of respect towards these chefs left such a sour taste in my mouth that I am now actively rooting against him at this point in the competition.


That said, let's move onto the food. The master chefs this week had to pull off a huge buffet-style presentation for 200 "Hollywood insiders" at the SLS Hotel and had to roll with the punches as they were given the opportunity to select three sous chefs from among the Top Chef returnees and then had to rethink many of their dishes when they learned that the buffet was now being set up outside in the sun on the terrace at the SLS.

Anita Lo created an Asian buffet with "an array of sauces and condiments," with dishes that included a noodle salad, a raw bar, dumplings, and pork-stuffed pork spare ribs. Lo was let down by the fact that a sun-drenched terrace is not the ideal location for serving raw seafood, the noodle salad seemed a bit pedestrian, and there wasn't a lot of wow factor going on here. Sadly, Lo was in a little over her head and couldn't quite get the logistics and organization under control.

Michael Chiarello offered up a rustic Italian-style buffet, which included three kinds of risotto, prawns, swordfish, and an olive oil cake. Complaints from the critics included that the swordfish was "doughy" and "mealy" and seemed "old," the olive oil cake was far too soaked in oil, and the prawns were overbrined. His presentation seemed more messy/rustic than some of the others and didn't look all that appetizing outside in the heat.

Rick Bayless served up a flawless Mexican buffet that included traditional tortilla soup, a "luxury guacamole bar," pork, a quick sautee of shrimp with figs and nuts, and liquid nitrogen-frozen avocado ice cream.

And then there was Hubert Keller, who offered up an exquisite eighteen-dish buffet that the judges decreed was more like "a million dollars" than the $1000 total budget. And I have to agree. Keller and his team, working in concert, pulled off a daring and incredible array of complex dishes including a Vietnamese-spiced gazpacho with scallops, roasted beets with Cantal cheese, oysters with citrus and coriander seeds, rack of lamb, a selection of elegant desserts, and so much more. It seemed as though they had been working for weeks to pull off an execution that was so polished, so poised, and so confident. Rather like the magnanimous Keller himself, in fact.

Ultimately, I knew that Keller and Bayless (whom I've grown to admire more and more each passing week) would land in the top spots. While I was blown away by the artistry of Bayless' offerings (and the fact that he took a chance by letting the incomparable Richard Blais work his culinary magic with the liquid nitrogen), it was Keller would truly embodied the spirit of this competition and this challenge, wowing the critics (though oddly not the diners, who crazily only awarded him three and a half stars) and the audience with a luxurious and complex feast.

I had a sinking feeling that Lo would be the one to be cut from the competition this week, which is a real shame as I love Anita Lo. But she really did seem out of her element and didn't quite have the vision and organization necessary to adapt to each of the new speed bumps introduced. Which is a shame as I'd have loved to have seen her take on Keller and Bayless in the final round. But alas, the critics seemed to think that Chiarello performed better overall and sent Lo off to pack her knives and leave.

So who will win the final showdown? Will it be Keller, Bayless, or Chiarello taking home the ultimate title of Top Chef Master and a sizable donation for their sponsored charity? Who do you think will walk away the victor and who will walk away empty-handed? Discuss.

Next week on the season finale of Top Chef Masters ("Top Chef Master"), the final three remaining master chefs must delve into their pasts to create a four-course meal; the ultimate master chef is crowned.


Bella Spruce said…
This was an intense but fun episode. It was great seeing previous Top Chef contestants interact with the masters--with both incredible results (Bayliss and Keller's teams) and horrific results (Lo and Chiarello's teams).

It was also hilarious how no one wanted to work with Chiarello. I think that Dale totally overreacted but, let's face it, Chiarello was being a real ass.
Asta said…
For weeks I've believed that either Keller or Bayless would be the winner and I'll be shocked if that is not the case.

I, too, was surprised by Keller only receiving three stars from the diners. I would have given him four for the desserts alone!
rockauteur said…
I was definitely also shocked about Chiarello's behavior. He has been pretty good so far with his theatrics, though its ironic that he won the quickfire in his "casting" episode with swordfish, the same ingredient that almost got him eliminated.

Loved see all the past cheftestants, and it was shocking how everyone treated them, seeing most have their own restaurants now. Dale did overreact, though I felt that Bravo never really presented a resolution to that fight. Plus the previous Top Chefs were never really thanked or saw again once the food came out to the buffet... I know they aren't the focus but would have loved the judges table to interview them on their experiences working with the Master Chefs.

Didn't love the quickfire - its always my least favorite quickfire every season and was pretty shocking that none of them got more than 7 ingredients... out of 20!!!!! Anita Lo even got peanut butter wrong! And she should definitely know hoisin!

I thought it was a bit of sloppy editing that failed to explain who thought Keller's beet salad or the genesis behind that, especially since the judges loved it. Would have liked more info on that.

I've been dying to eat at Bayliss' restaurant. Too bad he doesn't have a place in LA... every time I go to Vegas I always want to go to Keller's burger restaurant, but I always seem to miss the chance... Oh well... To the victor!!
Ally said…
I completely agree, re: Chiarello. Been rooting for him, now actively rooting against.

But Dale WAS an ass.
ewench said…
Chiarello has been my least favorite all along, he is the only one that has maintained this unattractive, stressed out kind of competitive and sooo worried about doing better then Keller while the others seemed to form an easy camaraderie and have real fun. He made an utter ass of himself and has already lost by showing his true colors.

Anita Lo has been so sadly insecure all along, hardly daring a smile when she did win and frankly seemed relieved to be going, like she finally got what she deserved or something. She really needs some self esteem.

The funniest part of this show was when Keller said he got his inspiration for the beet dish while having a smoke (heh heh) and the 2 second shot of Anita's face right after he said that was priceless, we rewound it and paused it and fell off the couch laughing.

Keller and Bayless are awesome - calm, kind, patient, controlled and so very talented, I will be happy if either one wins!

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