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Knife Block: My Thoughts on Tonight's Season Premiere of Top Chef Masters

In watching tonight's season premiere of Top Chef Masters, the haute cuisine culinary competition series that spun out of Top Chef a few seasons back, it's easy to get a sense of what's been lost rather than what's been gained by the format changes. (The latter can be summed up in two words: Ruth Reichl.)

Gone is Kelly Choi, she of the perfectly coiffed mane. Gone is the complicated but novel star-based ratings system. Gone are the early heats.

What remains is rather like Top Chef. Or exactly like Top Chef, in fact, save for the experience of the master chefs competing here and the fact that their winnings go to the charities of their choice rather than into bankrolling a restaurant.

Choi has been replaced by suddenly ubiquitous Aussie chef Curtis Stone, yanked onto the cable channel while still appearing on NBC's America's Next Great Restaurant. He's affable enough but his omnipresence--from here and the NBC show to commercials--is a bit off-putting, if I'm being entirely honest.

The scoring system is gone completely. Chefs now compete in the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges but the only scoring that's done is occurring behind the scenes. The winner of the Quickfire receives immunity from the Elimination portion of the episode... and the chefs are all sticking around until they're picked off one by one.

While this does allow for the viewer to get a better sense of the individual players over the course of the season (or I'm assuming so, having only seen the season opener), it's this change that makes this spin-off feel like a carbon copy of the original more than any other. While these chefs dazzle with their creativity, innovation, and abilities, it's really just another iteration of Top Chef, albeit one where the chefs competing have less to gain (or lose), other than a sense of pride or a blow to their egos.

Instead, Top Chef Masters hopes to distinguish itself from its forebear with its challenges. In the season opener, the chefs are put through their paces by competing in one of the toughest and most brutal of Top Chef crucibles: Restaurant Wars. In pitting the masters against each other in this fan-favorite challenge, the producers seem to be setting us up for a season full of insane challenges; the implication is that this is going to be the easiest thing facing these masters.

There's a bit of thematic shorthand going on here, but it also rankled a bit. After all, these chefs run their own restaurants and have done so for years. It should be a cakewalk for them, after all. And, while there are some surprises in the mix in tonight's episode, the overall simplicity and ease with which they largely pull off the evening is a testament to their individual experience level. Even without participating in competitions, these chefs have kept their knives finely honed.

And that's a good thing, but it's also somewhat disappointing. Coming off of a particularly strong season of Top Chef, it's hard to shake the sense that we've seen all of this before just a few weeks ago (when the all-stars themselves went through Restaurant Wars).

Which isn't to say that Top Chef Masters won't end up offering a thrilling season of culinary highs and lows, because it's still likely to do so. It's just a shame that the producers took away the original touches that made this iteration separate and unique within the franchise.

However, what's most promising is the presence of Reichl here at the critics' table. She brings a certain je ne sais quoi to the mix and a nice counterbalance to James Oseland on the whole. Reichl is warm where he is prickly, and she's articulate, intelligent, and passionate. She's the heat needed to make the changes here palatable and much of my interest in watching will likely stem from Reichl's participation this season. (Yes, if you couldn't tell, I'm a huge fan of Ruth.)

All in all, it's an entertaining if low-key start to the season. I'll be watching as always but I also want to see some excitement and difference begin to permeate the season.

Will you be watching tonight? Which chef are you rooting for? Happy to see Reichl at the table? What are your thoughts on Stone? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Top Chef Masters premieres tonight at 11 pm ET/PT on Bravo.


Hadley said…
I don't know much about Curtis Stone but he seems pretty cheesy. But I am thrilled by the addition of Ruth Reichl!

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