Top Chef Recap
By Jason Lee
July 9, 2009

Judging by the scores of the bottom two this week, they should also do Taste No Evil.

This week on Watch What We Say: The Masters bring a little magic into the kitchen.

"He does acerbic well."

That was a behind-the-scenes comment made by one of our prolific writers at BOP regarding a new writer here on the site. It may seem pretty innocuous, but believe me, it instigated a hair-pulling, mascara-streaking, hand-wringing personal crisis that would have made even the biggest drama queen among the Real Housewives in Orange County turn to me in disgust and say, "Chill out, dude" before downing another dirty martini.

In case you guys hadn't noticed, the pieces on BOP can sometimes be a little (how do I say this nicely?) . . . . acidic. Every now and again, we can be a little . . . condescending. Caustic. Some might even say "acerbic."

Of course, being the neurotic, self-confidence-lacking homosexual that I am, I immediately thought to myself, "Do I do acerbic well? Am I writing enough acerbic pieces? Oh lord, what if everyone at BOP is talking behind my back about how boring, bland and banal my writing has become!" A quick glance at my recent pieces illustrated just how much of a "rah-rah" cheerleader I've become for most of the shows I've reviewed or recapped. Top Chef: Masters, Dollhouse, HawthoRNe . . . I'm pretty quick to find redeeming qualities in all of them.

And probably by now, you guys are wondering "Not only are you NOT acerbic, you have a bad tendency to ramble as well." Okay, let me get to the point. In this piece, I'm going to try and reclaim my roots. I'm going to recapture some of BOP's trademark acerbidity (is that a word?). Look out world, here comes Mr. Pissed Off!

. . .

So okay, for a number of reasons, all of which I'll get to, last night's episode was definitely the most "Top Chef-y" episode of Top Chef: Masters so far. But in a stupid way (ummmmm, yeah, stupid!) I think up until this point in the season, the show's producers have done a commendable job of creating a unique viewing experience that stands alone from the original Top Chef show.

We have less drama and fewer instances of emotionally-wrought confrontations over food that may or may not be good. Instead, we have better scenes of people doing better work and engaging in heartfelt discussions about the charities that the Masters are competing on behalf of. It's made for a different and wholly satisfying show – wait, I meant stupid show! It's made for a stupid show!

In this week's episode, however, the producers have injected the show with elements that inevitably harkens back to the original Top Chef. For one thing, the four Masters on this week's episode feel reminiscent of character types that we've seen in the past. We have easy-going Douglas Rodriguez, pioneer of Nuevo Latino cuisine, who has the relaxed charm of surfer-talking Mike from Season 2. We have Anita Lo, a famed NYC Asian chef who has the crossed arms and scowl of Lisa from Season 4. We have John Besh, whose sunny personality keeps him cooking in New Orleans and whose good looks remind me of Jeff from Season 5. And we have Mark Peel, who runs one of the best restaurants in Los Angeles. He doesn't remind me of anyone.

They congregate in the kitchen and are greeted by host Kelly Choi, who's dressed like she just flew in from a luau in Hawaii. A slutty luau. This week for their Quickfire Challenge, the Masters will be revisiting one of my very favorite Quickfires ever: the one-arm egg challenge from the Season 1 vs. Season 2 competition special in which the top four chefs from Season 1 (minus LeeAnn) battled the top four from Season 2. Super-villian Stephen from Season 1 ended up winning with what looked like a boring, unoriginal, Denny's-worthy omelet, though it admittedly looked perfect despite the chef only using one hand.

I'm optimistic that the Masters will do better than that snobby, snarky, conflict-starting oenophile. For the most part, they don't disappoint. Anito Lo cooks with a perpetual half-snarl but whips up a delicious truffle-oil, oyster sauce egg dish that impresses a three-person panel of egg experts (eggperts?) that includes my beloved Gail Simmons from Food & Wine magazine who looks as radiant as ever (I must admit, upon seeing her, I screeched, "Gail! GAIL!" just like Carla from last season). Anita received a perfect score from the judges.

The other three Masters were not quite as successful. Douglas made an open-faced corn cake with scrambled eggs and ham that Gail found delicious – it got three stars. Mark somehow made homemade pasta with an egg and cream sauce, though he forgot to add the olive oil – it got two and a half stars. And poor Mark tried to make soft scrambled eggs in little pots in the oven but they never ever set. He only put out one serving instead of the requisite four, with Gail saying that it tasted like burnt grease. He deservedly got only half a star – I'm assuming that the judges decided against giving him zero stars because his dish was not filled with rat poison.

The Elimination Challenge sounds intriguing – the Masters will be cooking dinner for Neil Patrick Harris (he'll always be Doogie to me) and some of his friends at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, which, as I understand it from the episode, is some sort of invite-only abode filled with magical paraphernalia and spooky paintings. Sounds like Pirates of the Caribbean mixed with my high school's magic club if you ask me.

Each chef is randomly assigned one word from the realm of magic – mystery, illusion, spectacle or surprise – and must cook a dish inspired by that concept. I must say that this is the hardest challenge of Top Chef: Masters so far. Granted, cooking in a dorm room or making street food out of offal is no easy task, but c'mon . . . you can't compare it to trying to make a dish based around the vague idea of "mystery."

The Masters tromp off to Whole Foods, clutching $250 in their greedy little hands. They shop without much drama. Mark notes that Anita doesn't talk very much (maybe she's actually thinking about her dish?) but says that the other three Masters have "quietly concluded that she's the one to beat." Ummmm, ya think? She just schooled you guys by getting a perfect five stars in the Quickfire Challenge and only now are you concluding that she's the one to beat? Maybe you're not the sharpest knife in the kitchen.

The Masters head back to the kitchen where they have two hours to work . . . and lo and behold, who do we have but yet another figure from Top Chef, Tom Colicchio. This is quite the reunion.

Just like in Top Chef, he makes his rounds and talks to each of the Masters about their dishes. In stark contrast to his interactions with the cheftestants, who always seem to be both in awe of Tom and trying to impress Tom, the Masters greet the Top Chef head judge like old colleagues – friends even. There's no pompousness or boasting. It's as if they thought to themselves, "Here comes Tom. I didn't like his restaurant's snapper last week. Has he put on some weight?"

Tom leaves the kitchen after a few minutes and says that unlike the typical Top Chef contestants, they understand how to approach this type of challenge. They didn't get bogged down with their words or concept, they know that with good food, you can tell any story. I wholeheartedly, 100% agree with Tom . . . but let's be real here, they still need to cook some good food before they can tell a story.

Dinner service begins at the Magic Castle and I'm ecstatic to see that beautiful, wonderful Gail is there. She just lights up a room, doesn't she?

*happy sigh*

Mark goes first (he's the chef from LA, you'll remember) and his "mystery" inspired dish is appropriately wrapped in parchment paper so that no diner can see what they'll be eating. Inside the parchment is a thai-cooked snapper with glazed leaks. He's also brought them some scallion oil and dassai sake. There are absolutely no complaints to be heard.

John, pretty boy from New Orleans, comes next and he's done a dish based on "surprise." He gets Neil Patrick Harris, host of this evening's dinner, to help him mix together some liquid nitrogen with some ingredients to make some horseradish sorbet (sounds revolting to me but what do I know?), which he then serves tableside. Seems like a pretty big "spectacle" to me, but he doesn't have that word.

Anyhow, John's dish is pretty complex with salmon tartar, a cauliflower blini with salmon roe and tempura fried lobster. The sorbet doesn't seem to have set correctly but most diners feel that there were some nice surprises in the assorted flavors of the dish.

Anita goes next and frankly, her dish looks really out there. I'm wondering if she's completely wasted her Quickfire lead with a dish that looks far too complex. In the spirit of Richard Blais (master of making tofu taste like beef and making scallops out of bananas), she's used her word "illusion" to create the illusion of a seared sea scallop and caviar by using a piece of poached daikon with steak tartar inside of it. She's also created this whole seascape to go along with the seafood feel, using rice krispies for sand and a shellfish broth for aroma.

As Anita serves it she proclaims it "fugly," but most of the diners seem to love the presentation. Harris says that this dish is his favorite by a mile.

Last comes Douglas with the word "spectacle." In order to achieve a spectacle, he's taken the flammable pink goo from a sterno (a heating device used in outdoor cooking filled with stuff that stays on fire for hours) and rubbed it on coconuts. He aims to set them on fire, bring out his food and then put out the fire. While his food (which includes duck prepared four ways) is beautiful to look at, Harris doesn't think that it was executed well and most diners have trouble to get their fiery coconuts to go out.

This feels like a really tight race at this point – I'm predicting either Anita or Mark to win.

The Masters come before the critics, with Gail once again sitting in for Jay Rayner (who I've always thought looked like a fatter Professor Snape). She's there with Gael Greene, food critic for the NY Times and James Oseland, a food writer.

They start with John and for the most part, they like his food but found the blini far too cold ("it was not pleasant," says Gael). With Anita, Gail loved her presentation, saying that it was like a surrealistic painting. They don't say much about Douglas other than some joking around about his fiery coconuts (insert inappropriate joke here) and complimenting him on his ceviche. With Mark's mystery package (insert second inappropriate joke here), Gail said that the sake hooked them all and was the perfect contrast.

The Masters leave the judges discuss – it still sounds like a battle between Mark and Anita. Gail compliments her intellectual approach but James says that Mark's mystery bag of food was the best execution of the theme words.

And with that, the scoring begins. John who had a woeful half star from the Quickfire, received two and a half stars from the diners. James criticizes his overly cold, brain-freezing blini, giving him three stars. Three more from Gail and another three from Gael for a total of 12 stars. Very, very sad. I think that's one of the lowest totals I've seen so far on Top Chef: Masters.

Mark is next and I'm expecting him to score well. He had two and a half stars in the Quickfire and gets four from the diners. Gail found his food delicious and gives him four and a half stars. Gael gives him four stars and James gives him three and a half for a total of 18 ½ stars. Again, not a super impressive total.

Douglas had three stars to begin with and gets another three from the diners. Gail says that his spectacle fizzled and gives him two and a half stars. two and a half from Gael along with a mere two stars from James gives him 13 in total. Ughhh, I knew this challenge was going to be hard but wow, these guys are getting LOW scores.

Which leaves us with Anita (who's doing a great impression of Lisa from Season 4 with her arms crossed and a scowl on her face). She, of course, started with five stars and gets four and a half from the diners (the highest of the night). Gail was swept away by her presentation and gives her four and a half stars. James gives her four and Gael gives her four and a half and she gets a HUGE total of 22 ½ stars.

Also, it's interesting to note that out of the four episodes so far, three of the winners (Rick Bayless, Suzanne Tracht and now Anita Lo) have finished with totals of 22 ½ stars. The only one who didn't was Hubert Keller from the first episode, who finished with only 20 ½ stars.

I'm happy for Anita – I think she definitely had the hardest word and the most ambitious dish. Somewhere, Richard Blais is smiling.