I wasn't feeling very optimistic as I settled unto my couch last night to watch the second episode of "Top Chef Masters." I'd been more than disappointed with the first outing of the charity-fueled competition that was a virtual love fest between the talented chefs and judges who were decidedly not Tom, Padma and Gail. All the compliments and back-patting put me to sleep faster than an Ambien + wine cocktail, and I wasn't particularly excited about watching yet another round of hugs and kisses XOXO Gael Greene, Jay Raynor and the bald guy from Saveur.
I prepared myself for the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when Episode 2 some what redeemed the sins of episode past. Thanks to the colorful personality of Wylie Dufresne, his artful use of the f-word, the friendly rivalry between Dufresne and Graham Elliot Bowles, and LA homegirl Suzanne Tracht's mad skills in the kitchen, I finally got a taste of the "Top Chef Masters" that I expected from the network that has redefined reality TV.
When Chef Graham Elliot Bowles stomped his way on screen declaring himself a bit of a punk rocker, I had my doubts. Was he supposed to be this round's version of Tim Love, the "big Texan cook?" The underdog who is not really an underdog at all because this is "Top Chef Masters" and nobody sucks?
Perhaps. But whereas Tim Love's story ended where it began - ie. bad ass Texan cook proves he really is a bad ass Texan cook when he overcomes the obstacles of freezing all his food -- Graham Elliot Bowles actually rolled out a few surprises. The lovable Chicagoan cooking for the American Heart Association immediately ramped up the stakes of the competition with his revelation that he and molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne enjoy a friendly rivalry in the kitchen. Yes, Bowles cares about winning for his nephew who is awaiting a heart transplant, but he also wants to win so he can essentially rub it in Wylie's face. This is the stuff that great TV is made of -- this is the stuff that was missing last week.
Further piquing my interest in the episode was the inclusion of Los Angeles wonder chef Suzanne Tracht of Jar and delicious pot roast fame. Even though I've never been to her restaurant and pledge my allegiance to the US of Mozza (ie. Nancy Silverton), I immediately became like a fair weather Lakers fan and started rooting for my hometown's chef. Especially after hearing the words "Avant Garde pastry chef" that were used to describe Elizabeth Falkner (aka the Suzanne Powder look-a-like) from San Francisco. I like chocolate chip cookies, but do not pledge allegiance to bad hair cuts and sweets getting too close to my savories.
With inconsequential stakes finally on the table (ie. stakes that do not make me tear up over someone's sick nephew), I was completely checked in to the episode by the time the Quickfire challenge got the four chefs up and running (especially Wylie Dufresne who's strategy seemed to be sprinting from one side of the kitchen to the other). The challenge afforded the four chefs 30 minutes to make amuse bouches out of vending machine ingredients a la the chefs from Season 2. In an extra special twist, former contestants Ilan, Betty and Michael would be judging their dishes. The inclusion of the "Top Chef" alums was a nice touch, as were the clips that showed Michael's phallic-like amuse bouche from his turn at the Quickfire.
The challenge also proved to be a real challenge for the chefs -- particularly Tracht who is used to working with fresh ingredients and doesn't even know where to find a vending machine. It was fun watching her transform potato chips and Dr. Pepper into something truly spectacular. Though not as fun as watching Dufresne's reaction when he realized he'd screwed himself over with his grilled cheese sandwiches and syrupy Dr. Pepper reduction sauce. The F bombs flowing from his mouth were like little gifts from Heaven -- the perfect antidote for the decorous behavior of last week's cheftestants.
Ms. Tracht's fried shallot rings were unsurprisngly the decided victor of the Quickfire, with an appreciative nod to Graham's tuna salad which Betty likened to tuna salad that came from an Ivy League School. Good stuff coming from the queen of grilled cheese and soup. With the initial scores set, the chefs were then presented with the Elimination Challenge - cooking a meal using fresh "Island" ingredients and preserved ingredients (ie. canned stuff) for the creators and writers of "Lost."
While the "Lost" Supper theme was a bit campy and egregious to my cynical insider, the light banter between Dufresne and Graham kept my groans in check. The juxtaposition of their playful cheffing with Tracht's methodical preparation of her dish transformed the battle into one of styles as well. Would Dufresne's cooking voodoo with eggs and chicken win over the judges? Would Graham's crazy tuna three ways make a splash? Would Falkner shake things up with her zany papaya mash? Or would Tracht's elegant touch make mincemeat out of the motley crew?
It was fairly clear from the judges' comments at the dining table that Tracht would be asked to stay on the island for ever and ever, but the predictability did not irk me in the same way that Keller's victory did last week. She wasn't playing it safe with her uni risotto, mango salad, boar strip loin, oyster beer sauce, and baked yam like Keller was with his mac & cheese. She presented a dish that was a challenge to her taster's palates, and as such, was rightfully rewarded the victory over her folksy competitors.
Furthermore, even with her seemingly inevitable win, there was still some element of suspense left for viewers to nosh on during the judge's table. Dufresne and Graham's dual in the kitchen could not have ended more perfectly if it were staged by the producers of "the Hills." The chefs' final scores were only a 1/2 point a part, an excruciatingly joyous outcome for any rivalry that ends in a "neener neener" type crown.
This is the "Top Chef Masters" I was patiently waiting for while watching episodes of "The City" and "My Boys" and the pilot of "Glee" this spring. Thank you, Mr. Dufresne for bringing the kitchen back to life. And giving Bravo reason to bleep out half the episode.