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Sharpen Your Knives: Talking with the First Four "Top Chef: Masters" Contestants

True confession: I've been suffering from some painful Top Chef withdrawal since the last season wrapped up.

Fortunately, Bravo realized that many of us have been craving another culinary competition and next week will launch spin-off series Top Chef: Masters which will pit 24 of the country's most celebrated chefs against one another in a battle of wills and skills that will leave only one standing as they fight for bragging rights and a donation to the charity of their choice.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Hubert Keller, Christopher Lee, Michael Schlow, and Tim Love, the first four contestants on Top Chef: Masters last week via a press call to see what they had to say about the series' grueling Quickfire and Elimination Challenges and just how they fared on the chopping block. (Meanwhile, look for an advance review of the first episode of Top Chef: Masters next week.)

"The charity part was absolutely first and foremost," said chef Michael Schlow of Boston's Radius, speaking about why he joined the cast of Top Chef: Masters. "I think you know all of the chefs that are involved in the show will say that. Plus you know it's an honor to be asked to be on a show that's titled Top Chef: Masters. It's a top-rated food program -- the regular Top Chef program is a top-rated food program in the country, and so I think we're all flattered to be asked. I mean we want to represent our cities and our towns. And so the idea of not only doing this for charity but getting a chance to hopefully showcase some of our talents in a fun setting with our friends, it was enough for me, and it was a great opportunity."

But what about the risk factor of pitting well-known and established chefs against each other? Weren't the contestants at all worried about that?

"As far as the risk factor goes, yes, you know you get on any reality TV show, there's a lot of risk involved and I think all of us kind of were biting our cheese a little bit to find out how it was going to be edited because we obviously don't know that until the episode comes," said Tim Love of Fort Worth's The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro and The Love Shack. "But I think it turned out to be really great. And of course I'm sure you can tell from the episode, we all enjoyed hanging out with each other. And anytime you can get together with some of your colleagues like that in a different setting, it always makes for a lot of fun. We see each other at food and wine festivals and things like that, but to get together and make an episode with three other great chefs like these guys that I worked with, it was a great honor."

Famed Fleur de Lys chef Hubert Keller concurred.

"It's true there is risk involved that I think all of us having our own restaurants and business and everything, I think we're running risks everyday, right?" said Keller. "So I think it's part of our lifestyle also that when something is up, when [you get into] something, yes, actually we do take risks and it's all about what we're doing. And otherwise for me also since I was participating as a judge in three different seasons in the past and the first Top Chef was also filmed at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, I must say it's something that I could not have turned down."

"I think we're all going to beat this question down the same way," said Chris Lee of Manhattan's Aureole. "I mean for me it was definitely because of the charity, was the real one reason why I decided to do it. I thought there would be a risk, but I kind of went in there light-minded or light-hearted about the whole thing and just trying to keep a good, positive attitude with it and just did what I did. If I looked stupid I tried to have a sense of humor."

"Of course your staff always wants you to bring home you know the win and whatnot," said Love. "But the risk really is nothing compared to the reward when you go into something like this where you go in for a charity, you got an opportunity to make some money that will make a change in somebody else's life. It's really kind of cool. And the competition itself really for me kind of took a backseat and the fact that we're there you know to make a good show and we're there to compete with our colleagues and I think everybody that enters the competition is pretty much a winner, otherwise they wouldn't have chosen us. And everyday, as I said before, we get judged everyday in our restaurants. So being judged by others is really not, and I don’t mean to speak for everybody, it's really not I think new for anybody."

"The way I'm entering the competition was definitely not something to prove ourselves," admitted Keller. "I think we did enough in our career, where we are today. So as an example, every restaurant that we have or we're running or chefs, right, we are not proving ourselves but we are definitely competing, right, with the other peers in different cities, different restaurants. So I just saw it more on that way on basically entering to compete, because competition, that's what we do in our profession, like with our restaurants. But it's not to prove ourselves; I think that was not the goal of that."

Still, everyone's a critic, right? So why invite even more criticism by participating on a series that showcases that constant appraisal?

"We actually discussed this on the set a couple of times," admitted Schlow. "And what we said, and we actually had said it at probably one of the episodes, was everybody is a critic. Just because you might not have a pen in your hand, you're still a critic. And what Hubert was saying a little bit earlier about the risk and – that we put ourselves out there every single night you know we're inviting criticism or commentary anyway. I think unfortunately the term criticism always moves in negative. It doesn’t, it just means you're forming an opinion good or bad."

"And the reality is, is that with the Internet and all the blogs and everything else, in Chowhound, in Yelp, in Grub Street, there are a lot of critics out there that may not be professional critics but they have their opinions," continued Schlow. "And you know you have to listen to everybody. As we said, on the set, luckily for all of us you know 99.9 times out of a hundred, the criticisms and the critique are good, but there is always that one or two times that you may say you know we prepare something and the guests don't like it."

So which one of these famed masters will move on to the next round? You'll have to tune in next Wednesday to find out. In the meantime, find out more about the first four contestants below.

Meet Tim Love:

Meet Hubert Keller:

Meet Chris Lee:

Meet Michael Schlow:

Top Chef: Masters premieres Wednesday, June 10th at 10 pm ET/PT on Bravo.


Ailee said…
This looks like so much fun! For the first round, I'm definitely routing for Hubert Keller. He's been a great judge on the show and is a fantastic chef. I'm really looking forward to seeing these guys compete!
foodie2d said…
I definitely need a Top Chef fix and this will do nicely!

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