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The Master Chefs Get Schooled on "Top Chef: Masters" Series Premiere

Just out of curiosity, how many of you tuned in last night for the series premiere of Bravo's Top Chef Masters ("Masters Get Schooled"), the spin-off series for its venerable Top Chef series?

You read my advance review of the series premiere yesterday, but I'd love to know what you thought of the episode itself and the new format of the series, in which four chefs will compete head-to-head over six weeks to determine who will move on to the final rounds.

Last night's episode featured Hubert Keller, Christopher Lee, Michael Schlow, and Tim Love as they were tasked first with creating a dessert plate for a group of Girl Scouts in under thirty minutes and then had to create a three-course meal for some college students using only a microwave, hot-plate, and mini-convection oven in an actual dorm room.

So how did they do? Let's discuss.

I thought that the Quickfire Challenge was a good one because desserts somehow always manage to trip up the competitors on Top Chef, so I was pleased to see these master chefs put through their paces under severe pressure and some intense scrutiny... especially from that outspoken little red-haired girl who certainly voiced her opinions and objections. I felt bad for Michael Schlow, who tried to do way too much, offering a milk chocolate cake (which failed to rise), peanut butter-chocolate candies, and honey almond cream. Likewise, Tim Love was extremely ambitious with his strawberries three ways, including a chocolate-dipped strawberry, a strawberry smoothie (which the kids called bitter), and a chicken-fried strawberry that defied description. Christopher Lee offered French toast skewers with caramelized banana, orange sauce, and maple syrup fluff.

But most successful was Hubert Keller, who seemed to best understand and execute the brief: he designed an incredibly imaginative plate that included an adult-focused dessert (chocolate mousse and meringue) but interpreted in a kid-friendly fashion: a meringue swan, a whipped cream mouse (complete with ears and tail), an oversized goblet of mousse. The flavors were sophisticated but approachable and he tweaked the presentation to suit the diner. Well done, Mssr. Keller.

I was stunned to see just how many restrictions the producers had placed upon the chefs for the Elimination Challenge. It's tricky enough when the task involves microwave ovens and hot plates but take the chefs out of the familiar environs of the kitchen and place them in cramped, messy, and equipment-less dorm rooms and you have some serious challenges. (Loved how Keller used the shower to drain and cool his pasta. Stroke of genius, really.)

For the first course, Love offered up a scallop carpaccio with lime and chili that was elegant and refined. Likewise, Schlow went the raw fish route with a salmon crudo with cucumber, mint, red chilies, and kumquat and Lee did the same with a red snapper ceviche with citrus, avocado, and popcorn, which offered a range of textures and flavors. But once again, it was Keller who delivered the goods, with fresh Scottish salmon served over a creamy whole-grain mustard and caper sauce and topped with radishes.

Second course: a cabbage soup with smoked bacon, fennel, and white beans from Schlow that was rich and hearty; Lee served up risotto with proscuitto, sage, and parmigiano reggiano that was overcooked (hard to cook risotto to order in a dorm room; bad call); Keller offered a carrot and petit pea soup with cinnamon croutons; and Love turned tragedy (accidentally freezing all of his ingredients) into triumph with a squash and corn "posole."

Third course: skirt steak and braised kale (overly salty) from Love; pork a la apicius with broccolini and mushrooms from Schlow; mac and cheese with prawns, mushrooms, and herbs from Keller; and a pork chop with piperade, crushed potatoes, and mache and fennel salad from Lee.

All in all, a strong display of skills and vision from all but it was no surprise that Keller walked away the ultimate winner here. I had a feeling from the opening seconds of the episode that Keller, of San Francisco's Fleur de Lys, was the one to beat and I can't say that I was shocked that he's moving on to the next round of competition.

What did you think of the episode? Was Keller the strongest competitor? Does the series live up to its Top Chef pedigree? Do you miss Tom, Gail, and Padma? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("The Lost Supper"), the next four master chefs are tasked with creating an elegant amuse-bouche from vending machine fare; Lost provides the inspiration for the elimination challenge.


Amy Beth said…
I enjoyed it. It was different from Top Chef because you already knew these guys were going to be able to cook and create something great but it was fun to watch them do it. I am happy to say that I have something in common with these chefs in that I don't really know how to operate a microwave either! ;) I loved Keller's bit about using it to dry newspapers. I have new respect for Tim Love after the freezer incident.

I think Keller was the superior chef out of that group and I'm happy he won. I really wanted to try that salmon dish.

I didn't really miss Padma et al but I do wish they had an established chef (a la Tom C.)on the judge panel.
Jennifer said…
I loved the attitudes of the chefs; it was clear that they wanted to win and have competitive streaks, but they also had fun. We're not going to see any backstabbing or bodies thrown under the bus, and that's ok. I love Top Chef because for the most part it is a glimpse into the craft and art of cooking (minus the Ilan & Co days). It's back to that basic premise with this version of the original.
Asta said…
I'm not sure how I feel about the series just yet. I found my interest waning about half way through. Honestly, I think I missed waiting to see who would fail miserably and be raked over the coals by the judges. I just don't see that happening with chefs of this caliber.

Another problem I had is I pegged Hubert Keller to be the victor early on. He had such wonderful ideas, unless something went horribly wrong in preparation, I just couldn't see him losing. And I really want to try his mac and cheese!

What I did like was limiting the competitors. One problem I have with the traditional 'Top Chef' format is that many competitors are kept in the background early on, likely because their personalities aren't as TV friendly as the producers would like, and if they should survive late into the competition we aren't always sure how they managed to get there.
So happy that Hubert Keller won. I'd love to hang out with that dude one day. So creative and cool!
HoneyB said…
I usually dislike the microwave cooking or similar challenges on the regular Top Chef because I want to see what the aspiring chefs can do without all of the gimmicks. But in Top Chef Masters, we already know what great things these talented guys can do so it's fantastic to see them truly challenged and have to adapt and improvise. I loved it!
Melissa said…
I didn't love it, but will keep watching. I didn't find the personalties compelling and I thought the challenges were on the uninteresting side. Hubert Keller was just so clearly heads and tails above the rest.

Not a fan of the judging panel either. Hope they are different in upcoming weeks.

I am looking forward to seeing how my local (LA) chefs do in upcoming weeks.

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