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Knife's Edge: An Advance Review of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters"

If you're at all like me, you've been going through some serious Top Chef withdrawal these past few months and while the series itself won't be returning until sometime later this fall (with a Vegas-set edition), you can get a taste of the culinary competition series by tuning in tonight to spin-off series Top Chef Masters on Bravo.

Hosted by Kelly Choi, Top Chef Masters seems similar--on the surface, anyway--to its predecessor in that several judges square off through both a Quickfire and an Elimination Challenge. However, in Top Chef Masters, the chefs are more well-known than the original series' contestants... and in many cases have appeared on the series as guest judges.

The pressure to win then is even more severe. In addition to bragging rights at being named the ultimate Top Chef Master, these master chefs are competing for donations to the charity of their choice and the first few episodes depict four contestants apiece fighting it out for a spot in the finals. This change in format makes it easier to keep track of the contestants (there are, after all, 24 chefs this time around) and give each of them some weighty screen time.

But if you thought that the producers would let these masters skip through some simple challenges, you've got another thing coming. The Quickfire Challenges are more or less a best-of from the five seasons of Top Chef that have aired so far and the contestants are hampered even more by the fact that they are given less time to complete these challenges than their less famous counterparts.

Ever wonder what Hubert Keller would do when faced with a group of demanding girl scouts in a dessert challenge? Then this is the series for you. These chefs might be the best and brightest in the nation but they are put through their paces with some tough challenges. In the first episode alone, they're tasked with creating a dessert plate on the fly in under thirty minutes and then later in the Elimination Challenge, have to create a three-course meal using only a microwave oven, a hot plate, and a mini-convection oven.

Ahem. And did I mention that all three courses have to be prepared in an actual college student's dorm room? Oh yeah, there's that too.

Top Chef Masters isn't for the faint-hearted. The stakes are just as high here to win as in Top Chef and these master chefs approach the challenges both with as much humility as they do with a shark-like desire to win... and to wipe the floor with their competitors.

Top Chef Masters' first episode features the uber-talented Hubert Keller, Christopher Lee, Michael Schlow, and Tim Love (you can read more about each of them here) and, despite the smaller cast in each episode, it's fantastic to see them work out solutions to each of the challenges. Being a great chef has a lot to do with being highly adaptable and you can see the gears turning inside each of their heads as they figure out their mode of attack for each challenge.

Subsequent episodes will feature such notable chefs as Cindy Pawlcyn, Rick Moonen, Anita Lo, Michael Cimarusti, Elizabeth Falkner, Wylie Dufresne, Mark Peel, Michael Chiarello, Roy Yamaguchi, Graham Elliot Bowles, Wilo Benet, Art Smith, Suzanne Tracht, Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson, Nils Noren, Rick Bayless, John Besh, Jonathan Waxman, Ludo Lebebvre, and Douglas Rodriguez. (Whew.)

Sadly, Tom Collichio isn't presiding over the judges' table on this spin-off but the contestants must instead contend with the sophisticated palates of Observer critic Jay Rayner, New York Magazine's legendary Gael Greene, and Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland. No slouches theses.

The production values are just as high for Top Chef Masters as any Top Chef episode, or indeed any Magical Elves production and the pacing is slick and fast. Some might chafe from the alteration in format, with only four chefs competing at a time, but I think it works here, at least for the first few rounds of elimination.

So who will walk away the ultimate winner of Top Chef Masters? It's way too early to say but I will say that the first episode has made me hungry with anticipation for more. Prepare to be dazzled by these masters.

Top Chef Masters premieres tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on Bravo.


Hadley said…
Yay! I can't wait to watch this tonight and your review has got me even more excited. Seems like it will be just as tense and interesting as the traditional Top Chef, if not more so!
foodie2d said…
I love Hubert Keller and hope he kicks some Top Chef ass!

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