Top Chef Masters Recap
By Jason Lee
July 17, 2009

He's very pleased about his win.

This week on Top Chef Masters Recap: It's my cocktail party and I'll cry if I want to

I think I'm ready for Top Chef to come back. Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying Top Chef Masters but frankly, I think that by bringing us four different Masters every episode, the program dilutes the drama and renders the show a series of stand-alone challenges with little connection from week to week. The caustic personalities and personal dramas don't carry over and what inevitably ensues is a lack of building anticipation as the series progresses.

It's basically like a six-course meal whose courses have little relation to each other. *ba dum dum*

Okay, now that I've gotten my bad food pun out of the way, let's get down to the actual four Masters that we have competing today (so that we can quickly forget their names and refer to them by superficial monikers).

Rick Moonen, who's taken three restaurants in NYC to three-star status. He cooks seafood. In my notes, I refer to him as "the guy with ADD".

Nils Noren, VP of the French Culinary Institute, also known as "the Swede".

Lachlan Patterson from Boulder, CO, a former Best New Chef from Food and Wine Magazine. He's the "young'un."

Michael Chiarello from Napa Valley. A former TV chef who's returned to the restaurant world, he's "the Italian."

In comes our host, Kelly, who's wearing a ridiculous grey dress with baby blue trim. All along the front of the dress is a garish mish-mash of colors and fabrics – it looks like an earthquake hit Bed, Bath and Beyond's dishware section and a couple of freshman art majors collected the pieces to create an eye-popping (but not in a good way) collage of the remains. And then glued it to Kelly's dress.

Today's Quickfire Challenge will be one from Season 1: the junk food challenge. The Masters have to take classic, American junk food dishes and elevate them to fine dining. I remember this challenge quite well – not because Harold (Season 1's winner) won this challenge but because Tiffany made a delicious-looking bread pudding out of doughnuts and overweight, backstabbing, crap-talking, reptilian Miguel copied her.

I hated Miguel.

Anyways, the Masters choose their dishes and find out that they will be cooking for the primary cast of Bravo's "Flipping Out," including Jeff Lewis (my sister loves him), his assistant Jenny (I love her) and Jeff's ex-boyfriend and business partner Ryan (who used to be uber-cute but looks less so now). At this point, I think to myself, "Wow, bringing the cast of Flipping Out on Top Chef Masters right before the Season 3 premiere of Flipping Out . . . quite a feat of television masturbation on Bravo's part."

Lachlan, the Young'un, chooses the hotdog and attempts to make his own sausage for a prosciutto stuffado (yeah, I don't know what that is, either), which comes out dangerously undercooked (remember when Sara went home in Season 3 for undercooking her chicken?). Jeff and company enjoy it, noting that it's too rare but compliment the broth.

Michael, the Italian, turns fish sticks into little fried, fish meatballs with a yummy sauce. Jenny says that she loves the dish, remarking that she has "three perfect balls." No one at the table even attempts to hold back their snickering.

Nils, our Swede, chose fried shrimp and puts out a beautiful dish . . . that's not friend in any way. Jeff calls it bland.

Finally, we have Rick, our ADD guy, and he apparently tried to make a dish that was way too complicated with way too many ingredients and didn't get anything on the plate. Epic fail. He's crushed and says that he has a newfound respect for the cheftestants on Top Chef.

At this point, I really hope that they bring a BUNCH of Top Chef Masters back to judge on Top Chef next season. I think that would be highly entertaining, especially now that the Masters have had a turn on the other side of the table.

Kelly tells Jeff and company that the fourth chef couldn't put anything together. "Did he have 45 minutes?" Jeff asks sarcastically. I love Jeff.

As could be expected, Michael comes out on top with four and a half stars for his (perfect) balls, Nils and Lachlan tie with three stars each and Rick comes out with nothing. He's understandably upset. "Anyone can still take this," Kelly warns the chefs after the scoring is announced. Yeah, dream on, Kelly.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will be required to cook a three course hors d'oeuvre menu for 100 people – with hors d'oeuvres based on appetizers, main courses and dessert. This will be a really tough challenge for these Masters, who are obviously not used to cooking without sous-chefs. Just take a look at last week with that annoying French chef who couldn't cook a quesadilla if you want an example.

We head to Whole Foods Market and I'm despondent to see that two Masters have chosen Top Chef's ingredient of choice: the scallop. Season after season after season, we've seen chefs cook scallops. I love scallops and I love to eat scallops but I'm kind of tired of watching chefs cook scallops. I want to scream at them in my best Fabio impersonation, "It's Top Chef Masters, not Top Scallop!"

The cooking takes place with minor drama (Michael's gelato won't set, oh no!) and before I know it, service begins. The critics are our typical three: Gael from the NY Times, Jay the British critic and James the American food writer (no Gail from Food and Wine, *sniff sniff*).

Michael turns out a brussels sprout salad as his appetizer hors d'oeuvre – since I love brussels sprouts, I'm intrigued. It seems to be a hit, though Gael finds it inappropriate for a stand-up cocktail party. Lachlan has created a fried pineapple wrapped in speck (wtf is speck?) and Jay dislikes the oilyness. Rick, our ADD guy, turns out a beautiful ceviche and everyone loves it. Nils presents a scallop with smoked potato cream and James declares it the best cocktail dish so far.

The "main course" hors d'oeuvre comes out and Michael has a prawn with chili and garlic oil – Gael doesn't like that you'd need a knife to eat this hors d'oeuvre at a cocktail party. Wow, she's POed for the first time in the series. Rick has a brandade (what the hell is a brandade?) of scallop with a fennel salad – everyone loves it. Lachlan has grilled short ribs with an anchovy parmesan vinaigrette and everyone loves the lettuce he's used as a cup for the beef. Nils has salmon with napa cabbage and James says that it's the best visual so far.

For those keeping track, I really thought Nils was in the lead at this point.

The dessert hors d'oeuvres come out and Lachlan has a strawberry tart. James says that there's a mint taste in the strawberries and Kelly talks through a mouthful of tart (very unladylike) to agree. Michael's dish looks like a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream with oreos but is actually a mint sorbet. "I don't like lawn cuttings in my dessert," says Gael. Wow, she is really on tonight.

Rick has a lemon panna cotta and the critics are impressed by the fact that he made 100 individual panna cottas that all have the right consistency. "A good panna cotta should wobble like a woman's breast," says Jay. Great, I'm never going to be able to eat another panna cotta again without thinking about eating a breast. Thanks, Jay.

Nils comes out with a chocolate and goat cheese ganache but most diners feel like it was over their culinary heads. James thinks that the dessert tastes like bacon . . . well, I guess bacon doesn't work in everything after all.

Back at Critics table, Michael gets praise for his appetizer and minor criticism for his main course (too oily but delicious) and dessert (lawn cuttings, but also delicious). Rick gets the most praise for his menu of ceviche, brundade (best of the night, says James) and dessert (perfect ending, says Gael). Nils gets complimented on his presentation but James criticizes the fishy-ness of his salmon (Gael and Jay say that they thought it was fine) and the smoke in his dessert (James brings up its bacon taste again). Lachlan gets slammed for his fried pineapple and James says the flavor of his dessert had a meat-like quality.

"Someone should study that palate of yours and donate it to the Smithsonian," quips James. I'm glad that someone other than me is fed up with the over-analyzing and minute dissection of the flaws of each of the Masters' dishes.

The Masters are called back and await their scores. I think Rick won the Elimination but due to his zero stars in the Quickfire, I think either Michael or Nils will take it home.

Rick gets four stars from the diners, four from James, four and a half from Gael and four and a half from Jay. Wow, that's a huge elimination challenge score but an unimpressive 17 and a half star total.

Lachlan gets three and a half from the diners, three from Jay, two and a half from James and three and a half from Gael. That's only 15 and a half in total and he's gone.

Nils gets three and a half from the diners, three and a half from Gael (due to his dessert), four from James and three from Jay. Wow, that's a shocker. Nils is now tied with Rick for the lead. It's pretty obvious that Michael will be able to pass them both up.

Michael only needs 13 stars to win. He gets three and a half from the diners, three and a half from James, four from Gael and four from Jay. Yep, 19 and a half stars and he wins. It's the weakest total thus far from a Top Chef Masters winner but it gets him to the finale. Overall, this was a pretty lackluster episode – I'm eager to see all of the winners back in two weeks for what I'm hoping will be a blockbuster hour of Top Chef.