Top Chef: Masters - It's never too late to go back to school

Welcome to Los Angeles, city of superstars, chefs, superstar chefs, and that guy from the Swanson's stock commercial. It's Top Chef: Masters, the first official spin-off of Bravo's acclaimed cooking competition series. I'll be your blogger for this season, as I have been for a couple seasons now on the mothership Top Chef.

This show will feature 24 chefs, grouped off into fours, competing in the familiar Quickfire and Elimination challenges we've grown accustomed to. The chefs will range from superstars of pop culture as well as the culinary arena, to chefs who only patrons of their restaurants and hardcore foodies will recognize. The winnings will go to charities of the chefs' choosing, and the winners of each foursome will be sent to the championship round, to compete for $100,000 for their charity.

Chef No. 1: Michael Schlow, Boston. Radius (among other places). His charity will be the Cam Neely Foundation (cancer research). Seems eager to dip his toes into the Top Chef waters, has won a lot of awards.

Chef No. 2: Hubert Keller, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Fleur de Lys (among other places). His charity will be the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He's the superstar of this week's competition, by my estimation. He's trained the kitchen staff at the White house, he's appeared on Top Chef as a judge, and was a Food and Wine Best New Chef (albeit in 1765).

Chef No. 3: Christopher Lee, New York. Restaurant Aureole (umm, Restaurant What-now?). His charity will be Autism Speaks. Aside from working for a restaurant apparently named after a nipple, Chef Lee is another Best New Chef and also the Swanson stock dude. He's worked with some biggies in the NY and international food scene. Also, he appeared in a number of Hammer Film Productions horror movies. No, not really. But he was Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.

Chef No. 4: Tim Love, Fort Worth. The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. His charity will be March of Dimes. Both of his daughters were born prematurely, so it's nice that he'll work to do that charity some good. He's also the cowboy Tex-Mex dude. No formal training, not much of a resume--except beating Masaharu Morimoto in Battle Chili Pepper (a fair fight, I'm sure) on Iron Chef America.

I like Gail and Tom chiming in with commentary on the chefs in addition to the chefs talking about themselves. It gives the show a real air of all-star-ness, which it should.

New host Kelly Choi, on the other hand, lends an air of stiffness that I'm not sure I'm going to care for. Say what you will about Padma's mellifluous (some might say vapid) delivery: at least she's got the ability to modulate her tone. That, and she's got some junk in her trunk. As TheStew posted on Twitter last night, "Someone dropped a fork. Wait. That's Kelly Choi." Let's just say, girl's a bit slight.

So, introductions done, it's time for the Quickfire Challenge. Kelly tells everyone that these Quickfires will be riffs on popular QF challenges from past seasons of Top Chef. This week? Banana scallops! The de facto signature dish of Richard Blaise from Season 4 was created for the dessert Quickfire, and this week's chefs will have to match that success.

The judges? A four-pack of Girl Scouts. The kids will rate each dessert with up to five stars, and those stars will add to the total for the Elimination Challenge to select the overall winner. The chefs only get 60 minutes to the original 90 minute limit because, y'know, they're good.

Chef Love kicks things off with tequila shots and egg-juggling, which I think comes with every meal at the Bistro. He's shooting for strawberries presented three ways: chocolate-dipped, chicken-fried, and blended into a faux-milkshake (looked more like a smoothie, but whatever).

Chef Lee is whipping up cute little French toast cubes with caramelized banana slices, on a stick. Chef Schlow has a chocolate cake paired with honey almond ice cream in the works, as well as peanut butter chocolate candies. Chef Keller's working on a chocolate swan with meringue.

It's immediately clear that Michael Schlow has underestimated the attention to detail required of a Quickfire-style challenge. His cakes aren't baking, his ice cream base isn't stiffening up, and he's basically flipping out. Those girls are going to eat him alive! Girls can be so mean! He plates a hodgepodge of cake bits and some ugly looking chocolates, but he ain't winning unless that stuff's got Ecstacy in it.

"This kind of tastes like a Tagalong." "It looks like a Trefoil." "This tastes like a hashbrown." "Kind of soft." These are the wilting criticisms of the Girl Scouts. In addition to Michael's abject failure, it becomes just as clear that Hubert Keller has knocked this one out of the park. He made animal shapes, for crying out loud--swan, mouse with a cute tail, all edible. Plus, the girls like the cool glassware.

Schlow: 2.5 stars
Love: 3.5 stars
Lee: 3.5 stars
Keller: 5 stars

Love's response? "I knew I shoulda done a damn mouse." If I had a nickel...

For the Elimination Challenge, Kelly has the helpers wheel out a cart adorned with a microwave, toaster oven, and hotplate. That's right, it's a dorm room challenge. With a small budget, a small pantry, and an even smaller workspace -- an actual dorm room -- the chefs will compete to win up to 20 stars by cooking a three-course meal for a group of students and the judges. BAD. ASS.

The chefs hit Whole Foods (at night!), and Keller reveals that grocery shopping is as foreign to him as a defrizzing creme. He even loses his cart, old man that he is. Chris is going Asian, owing to his grandfather's adeptness at Chinese cookery. Tim wants to do chili, but the meat counter is out of ground beef. D'oh! He proceeds to offer up the first curse bleep of Top Chef: Masters. There will be more.

In fact, they start flowing nicely when the chefs come back to the kitchen the next morning. Turns out Tim's lack of formal training includes the day they taught the difference between fridge and freezer; he packed all of his groceries into the latter rather than the former, and everything came out rock solid.

They all trek off to Pomona College (perhaps using Tim's groceries to keep the rest cool in the coolers), and find their surprise preparation arrangements. Towels and sheets are set over the bed and chair to allow the chefs to set their pans there. I wouldn't set a food-ready pot on a college dorm bed with a Tyvek slicker bungeed around the damn thing, nevermind shock and rewarm pasta by INSERTING THE SHOWER HEAD INTO THE COLANDER, but that's what Hubert does. But it turns out he's also a DJ in his spare time, so I guess we can start compiling a list of Things About Hubert Keller That Make No Sense.

Hotplates a-blazin', the chefs get to work as the residents of their "kitchens" arrive to observe and taste. Michael chides his student for not making his bed, while himself making salmon crudo with cucumber, cabbage soup with smoked bacon and fennel, and a pork chop with piperade, crushed potatoes and a mache-fennel salad. Tim's lovely co-ed assists in tasting his ad hoc squash and corn pozole, minus hominy -- it's called making the best with what you've got, people -- which will be served alongside scallop carpaccio with lime and chili, and a skirt steak and braised kale.

Hubert's menu features Scottish salmon mi cuit over whole grain mustard, a carrot and pea soup with cinnamon croutons, and creamy mac and cheese (thus the shower head--SHOWER HEAD PEOPLE) with prawns, mushrooms, and fresh herbs. Chris goes with red snapper ceviche served with citrus juices, avocado and popcorn, as well as a creamy risotto with prosciutto and a bone-in pork chop a la Apicius with broccolini and mushrooms.

There's not much time devoted to showing the cooking process, but that's fine. We know they have the skills, we just want to see the results. The chefs follow their courses into the dining area, where they meet the judges as we do: Jay Rayner, London Observer. Gael Greene, New York food critic. James Oseland, Saveur. Some impressed surprise is shown by the chefs at the lineup of judges.

The first course seems to go to Hubert Keller. Tim's scallop carpaccio didn't have enough heat to merit the inclusion of "chili" in the name, while Michael didn't cook at all; that gets interpreted as something of a cop-out.

Michael's massive bowl of cabbage soup dominates the landscape of the second round, and it generally goes over well (it's a party in at least one student's mouth, apparently). Tim's pozole garners praise, as does Hubert's soup, although some consternation is shown at the volume of the cinnamon in the croutons. Chris' risotto is hardly al dente, but still creamy and tasty.

By the end of the third course, there's one conclusion to be drawn from this premiere episode: beware the superstar. Hubert Keller walks all over the other three chefs, with his mac and cheese winning over both student and judge alike. The rest are all okay, but each has its own flaws.

Top Chef: Masters retains the Tivo-killer mid-commercial vignettes from the last season of Top Chef, and this one's good. You can't get enough of hifalutin chefs struggling with mundane things like grocery stores and kitchen appliances. The chefs are shown warily approaching the microwaves and poking at them, like the apes in 2001 approaching the monolith. Hubert Keller's line of the night candidate: "I have one at home and I think it's just to dry the newspaper, I guess."

The judges' table, now renamed Critics' Table for TC:M, allows the three judges and Kelly Choi to chit-chat with the chefs about their creations. I say chit-chat, because there really isn't any judging going on. It's remarkably amicable. It's almost like they're all -- gasp -- professionals!

Asked about his mac and cheese, Hubert cops to the shower head trick -- SHOWER HEAD PEOPLE -- which clearly puts James Oseland off his game. For the rest of the episode, any time it comes up, he looks horrified. It's kind of amusing. As for Keller's meal, there's little else said except that the male judges didn't like the cinnamon. The ladies did, however, and that's all that matters AMIRITE? I feel like we're getting old-school Iron Cheffed, wherein the Iron Chef of the week would get less commentary back on his food, making it seem like he was in trouble when he really wasn't at all.

Michael's meal gets credit for the flavor profile of his pork dish, but chided for its overcookedness. As with the rest of the chefs, he's given a little latitude for having to work with a hotplate that doesn't really get very hot. Gael loved his soup, but the other judges are a mixed bag.

With the frozen food debacle, Tim was clearly in a feast-or-famine situation. Turns out, he made the best out of what could have been a disaster, as the pozole might have been Oseland's favorite dish of the night. Rayner posits that the microwave's defrost setting might actually have been a boon for Chef Love, and indeed he says he used it for his frozen meat. Both the skirt steak and the kale were oversalted, but the steak was cooked perfectly.

Chef Lee called the risotto his "scary dish," and acknowledged that it was difficult to prepare in these conditions. He gets props for its taste, if not its loyalty to traditional risotto. He also struggled to get a good sear on his pork, but leaving the bone in allowed for the retention of more moisture.

The chefs leave the Critics' Table area (lit by those really awesome Edison-era reproduction lightbulbs, made by FerroWatt if you're curious), while the critics discuss. All four chefs get credit for doing so well with such godawful conditions, impressing the entire panel. This is, of course, how it should be with such accomplished chefs. Hubert Keller's mac and cheese and Christopher Lee's risotto appear to be the leading dishes, not coincidentally the most technically fussy dishes to prepare. The critics disagree on some things, but don't get snipey or petulant (except for Oseland's Niles Crane-esque shudder at the thought of the shower nozzle). It's a good panel.

Michael adds 3.5 stars from the students plus 2.5 from each judge for a total of 13.5 stars. Tim knocks him out with 3 from the diners and 8 from the judges for 14.5 stars. Tim in turn is eliminated by Christopher's 4-star student score and 11.5 stars from the judges (19 stars total). I don't know if it's going to go in this order every week, but I hope it doesn't. There's very little drama in that kind of ordering.

Anyway, it comes down to Chris vs. Hubert Keller. Keller needs 14 stars to tie, 14.5 to win. He gets 4 from the student diners to come to 9 total, plus a 3.5, a 4 and another 4 from the judges for a total of 20.5, and a closer victory than his dominance would have presaged.

Superstar chefs: 1, simply above-average chefs: 0.

I'm very happy with this series after one episode, and I think if the lineups of chefs each week is compelling, we'll be in for a treat of a season. Plus, Neil Patrick Harris. So we've got that going for us.