Posted Wednesday, June 10, 2009, at 11:46 PM
Top Chef has deteriorated season after season—elimination challenges have gotten predictable, product placement ever more obtrusive, the contestants more highbrow. Much of what I enjoyed about the earlier seasons was the amateurism of the professionals—few were so accomplished you couldn't critique their creations without thinking, however unrealistically, that you could do better. That feeling has slowly dissipated as more talented contestants have competed, and it certainly completely disappeared tonight, with the premiere of Top Chef: Masters —a competition for already established top chefs.
Given this, I was highly skeptical of the show. But Masters redeemed the franchise. Four professionals are pitted against one another in a chance to win a spot in the final competition. These masters have less at stake than their Top Chef predecessors—they're competing for charities, not for their careers—and they're more experienced, so it's understandable they'd be more relaxed and able to partake in some repartee, which works to the show's advantage. Other highlights: The most cocky of the chefs, Michael Schlow , went down in the quickfire challenge. We saw some great improvisation from cowboy chef Tim Love .
What really won me over, though, was the humble and talented Hubert Keller . He sweetly admitted how disconcerting it is to win a "lifetime achievement" award when his career is going strong. Despite his haute French background, he tickled junior Girl Scouts with his whimsical whipped cream shaped like a mouse (and was genuinely ecstatic when they loved it).
We'll see how the show is the next several weeks when it can't ride on Keller's charm and genius. It has its definite flaws—it lacks a clear Tom Colicchio-type head judge. (James Oseland of Saveur was clearly trying to play that role, but hasn't pulled it off.) Host Kelly Choi hasn't found her groove. Just when you're starting to get to know the contestants, they get kicked off the show. The challenges are as gimmicky as ever. But there was something incredibly gratifying about watching (spoiler alert) Hubert, the traditional old man beat out the hearty young players. Hubert has me hooked, and I plan to cheer him on in the finale.