Watch What We Say: Top Chef Masters

By Jason Lee

June 12, 2009

He's here to plump *clap* you up.

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Summer is upon us and with it comes all of the stereotypical summer-y activities like family trips to a national park, hiking mountain trails, shopping for short shorts and going to the beach. You know, summer stuff. You'll notice, however, that I didn't mention "watching TV" as one of those iconic summer activities . . . that's because summer television is usually as appetizing as Aunt Murial's rhubarb pie, two days after Thanksgiving.

Not to worry. The summer version of Watch What We Say is all about helping you spot the spot the studs amongst the duds. We'll help you and your TiVo make it through this season.

This week on Watch What We Say: The masters get a shot behind the chopping block at Top Chef.

Okay, I'll come clean. Before I even start my review of the premiere of Bravo's new reality series, Top Chef: Masters, I'll be upfront with you guys and confess that I am a huge, raving, passionate fan of Top Chef. I've watched all five seasons and my boyfriend bought me the Top Chef Cookbook for my birthday this year. Thus, it might be a little bit of an understatement to say that I began last night's episode in a state of mind that was somewhat positively-inclined to enjoy this new spin-off of television's best reality show.


What ensued, for those of you who would like me to get straight to the point, was an entertaining, lighthearted, enjoyable hour of television...though it felt a little bit like Top Chef Lite. Like a fat-free salad dressing that does the job without blowing you away, Top Chef Masters has the majority of ingredients that makes Top Chef great, but lacks the gripping drama and emotional weight that makes Top Chef as compelling as it is.

Let me start back at the beginning. The show opens like most season premieres of Top Chef: a whirlwind of introductions to new chefs, blurbs from interviews, shots of them walking out of the airport, etc. But once we get into the kitchen, we find out that the rules have changed.

Each episode will consist of the familiar combination of a Quickfire Challenge and an Elimination Challenge, but each round will be scored from 1 – 5 stars by a single critic or a panel of critics. This comes out to 5 stars up for grabs in the Quickfire and 20 for the Elimination. Each episode will feature four "Master" chefs, with the winner of each episode advancing to the "Championship Round" where the remaining six will compete head-to-head for the title of Top Chef Master.

I really did appreciate this new format, for it rewards consistency across both challenges – something that was rarely considered in Top Chef. For example, I can remember two instances from Season 4 in which Spike won the Quickfire but botched the Elimination Challenge – in one instance he was narrowly saved, in the other he was cut. However, in neither case was his exemplary performance in the Quickfire weighed against his mistakes in the Elimination Challenge. In Top Chef: Masters, they will be.

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