Top Chef: Masters - When chefs stop being polite and start getting real

It's been a tough season for me to keep up with, this Top Chef: Masters. I got married, went on a honeymoon (more on that in an upcoming post), then came home and pretty much immediately bought a house. This is only the second episode I've watched live in five weeks.

The chefs strolling into the TC kitchen, then, was a welcome sight for me. Last week saw chef Art Smith finally bidding adieu to Top Chef. I say finally, because he never really seemed to fit in with the concept. But I guess we could (and did) say that about Carla last year, and look what she blossomed into.

This will be the last Quickfire Challenge of the season, and Kelly feels they've saved the best for last: the blindfolded taste test. Oh, I remember Hung going down in a flaming heap of braggadoccio in this challenge a few seasons ago. Good times. Anyway, each chef has to name as many ingredients out of 20 to earn as many stars as possible.

It feels like you could probably predict the outcome. Compare the usual Top Chef contestants--young chefs, still finding their groove, experimenting with flavors and techniques--to the Masters chefs. They're honed, they're (usually) firmly planted in a flavor profile or ethnicity, and they rarely do their own shopping.

Who do you think will do better?

Well, it sure feels like the young chefs did better during their run (thanks to the editing this week), but Season 4 didn't have to be blindfolded, and Season 1's winner only got four right. This year, chef Hubert Keller gets 5 right...and is in last place. Chefs Rick Bayless and Anita Lo tie with 6 out of 20 (Rick missing on mango and really badly on hoisin--ranch??--and Anita missing on hoisin as well, using so much she burns her palate for much of the rest of the test).

No, the winner of this semi-surprisingly lackluster display of culinary depth and breadth is chef Michael Chiarello, an Italian specialist who almost inexplicably misses on mascarpone but still manages to get coconut water right. He finishes with 7 out of 20. He takes 5 stars, Rick and Anita get 4, and Hubert gets 3.5.

The Elimination Challenge gets rolling right away, with Kelly discussing with the chefs the importance of hiring a good team. Their challenge, therefore, will be to prepare a buffet lunch for a bunch of Hollywood insiders (and Sarah Gim aka @TheDelicious ;) Love ya!), and hire your staff from this fine group of enterprising youngsters. And in walk twelve past contestants from previous seasons of Top Chef including Season 2 winner Ilan.

The full list: Fabio (5). CJ (3). Elia (2). Dale, the angry Asian one, not the cute gay one (4). Spike (4). Richard (4). Ilan (2). Antonia (4). Brian (3). Betty, who appears to do nothing but be the Season 1 representative in these types of get-togethers (1). Jamie (5). Oh, and Alex (5).

The Masters will get to interview the Baby Chefs and choose their team draft-style, with Michael getting first pick for winning the QF. Michael takes this as an invitation to be a little wildeyed about culinary integrity, testing his applicants on chopping carrots into batons and brunoise (Jamie: "He's scary!"). He also tests their ability to pronounce his name (which has a vaguely and disturbingly "who's your daddy" sort of quality), which rubs Richard and Dale very much the wrong way.

The interview process is kind of fun to watch. Hubert finds out just how rare it is to have a Top Chef contestant with pastry experience. We learn Jamie worked for Anita back in the early days of her restaurant. And Spike learns that his bullshit doesn't work on everyone. He tries to schmooze his way out of the carrot test with Michael--"don't you want to get to know me a little bit?"--and Michael says, "no, I think we're done." In the confessional, Michael: There's "not a chance in hell he'd set foot in my kitchen." YOU ARE MY FAVORITE CHEF EVER CHEF CHIARELLO. Even if your ego is as big as Hubert's hair on a windy, humid day.

Draft time comes, and Betty discusses how everybody wants to "be with" Hubert. Suuure, Betty. I'm sure you mean "work." In the least shocking turn of events imaginable, Michael picks fellow Italian Fabio first. He rounds his team out with Brian and CJ. Rick takes Richard, who impressed with his eagerness to work and learn, as well as Betty and Alex (who?). Anita picks Jamie (again, no shocker), then Dale and Ilan. Hubert chooses Elia and Antonia, and is left with the human detritus that is Spike with the last pick overall. Spike thinks this is complimentary, noting that the Masters don't want him on their team, all showing them up and shit. ::eyeroll:: +1000

After 45 minutes and $2,000 split between Whole Foods and the wholesaler (Anita's shopping trip was clearly the most haphazard, doesn't bode well), the whole lot head back to the kitchen. Rick values organization, Michael not so much. He values telling his team what to do. When he piles his stuff in front of a fridge, and then Dale starts loading his team's stuff into it, we get our first grudge match of the season. (Some guy named Alex is supportive of Dale in the confessional.) Dale gets all up in Michael's face for calling him "young man" and asking him where he should put his food, then. Michael's confessional response is the Line of the Night: "For the first 20 years of my career, I ate three Dales for breakfast." Temperance prevails (on Michael's part, at least), and the confrontation fizzles in a humorous shot of Michael looking dead at the camera while Dale barks in his ear.

Gotta say, I feel like the Baby Chefs were told to play to their stereotypes and reputations, to the point of exaggerating them. How else to explain Richard's immediate and apropos of almost nothing suggestion of using liquid nitrogen? Spike's infuriatingly delusional confidence (including condescendingly asking Hubert--who he clearly views as a doddering old man--if maybe he needs some fish sauce or anything?) And of course, Dale getting all pissed off at Michael for Michael getting annoyed at Dale for stealing his refrigerator space? ("This is the story of seven people...")

As Jamie continues to get bogged down in the minutiae of prepping raw seafood (her specialty, if you forgot), and Michael micromanages his entire team, and Rick continues to look a little conflicted about molecular gastronomy, in walks Kelly Choi with the twist. You won't be serving indoors here. You'll be serving outdoors at a nearby hotel. Pack everything now, take it to the site, and you get two and a half hours from that point. Ouch.

This is not ideal, as Michael's got mayo-based things, and Anita's menu leans heavily on her raw bar concept; plus, she's got "some sort of fish sauce leakage here." On top of that, when the chefs arrive at the hotel, Kelly corrals everyone out on the terrace and tells the Masters that they'll have to cut one team member right now, on the spot. Fabio is "zweating like a mountain goat right now, at the beach." Fabio, I love you. We miss you.

Michael cuts Brian because he was actually done with his portion of the work already. No harm, no foul. Hubert practically talked over Michael, clearly joyous at the prospect of cutting Spike. Rick cuts Betty, who was mostly just there to look happy anyway. And Anita is forced to cut her old buddy, slowass Jamie who promised but couldn't deliver on quick seafood prep.

I don't think Hubert's team suffers nearly as much as he'd like you, the Viewer, to believe. He basically takes over for all of Spike's responsibilities; I ask you--who would you rather have making a gazpacho and managing a rack of lamb? Nevermind carrying a whole tray of shooter glasses (Anita accomplishes this task as well) without breaking a single one? IN YOUR FACE, clutzy servers from last week's episode!

The food comes out, and Richard's taking more shots at Michael, saying his food looks like "a wedding from 1987." Damn, Blais; where you get all that attitude, son?

Anita Lo's Asiany buffet with "an array of sauces and condiments" (a phrase both spoken by her and shown on-screen; thanks for that, Bravo) goes first. Her menu includes a pork short rib stuffed with more pork (yum), that perhaps ill-fated raw bar with diver sea scallop, and some dumplings. James Oseland worries about the effect of the sun on the raw seafood, Jay Rayner digs the ribs but worries about the depth of quality in the menu.

Up next is Michael Chiarello's rustic Italian buffet. He's got a lamb shank, a really odd-looking swordfish loin, two desserts, shrimp, and other goodies. James finds the shrimp way too briny, and everyone agrees the swordfish is at least very poorly cut, and at worst past its prime. Very little positive commentary.

The incomparably smooth Hubert Keller's 18 dish buffet is served next. There are oysters, a faintly Vietnamese gazpacho, a rack of lamb, and ... well, 15 other things. Hubert has nothing but props for his Angels (having cut the douchebag off his roster), and the critics have nothing but praise for his very potent gazpacho. Jay also notes the strength of Hubert's team, given that Antonia (I believe) came up with the beets all on her own.

Serving last is Richard's new best bud, the cool-under-faux-pressure Rick Bayless and his pan-Mexican buffet. There's a guacamole bar with toasts, a tortilla soup, a pork dish, sauteed shrimp, and avocado ice cream a la Blais, finished on the terrace with the magic of liquid NO2. Rick might be overselling his level of enthusiasm for molecular gastronomy, but it's clear he appreciates Richard's contribution--especially since Bayless loves avocado ice cream and wanted to make it anyway. Oseland says the menu "tastes like Mexico," which is good because there are some really unfortunate things Mexico could also taste like; smog and runoff anyone? They all love the ice cream. I will not say "scream."

It couldn't be more obvious that Rick and Hubert are the top two, and Anita and Michael are the bottom two. The question is how to interpret the editing with regards to the loser: early struggler Anita, or late bomber Michael? It's time for the Critics' Table, and the answer.

Rick loved his team, and doesn't seem to have had any qualms about going almost blindly with Richard's molecular gastronomy. Jay Rayner: "cojones is the word that comes to mind." Hubert describes his interpretation of "buffet" as "feast," and describes his well-praised oyster treatment--a supremed wedge each of lemon and orange and some toasted coriander seed. It's almost like a Belgian witbier-style oyster.

Jay tells Anita that he stole some of James' short ribs, but the critics wonder if Anita reconsidered the raw bar in light of the light of the sun. She tells them she didn't have time, and wasn't about to do a rich seafood stew for lunch on a bright spring day, which is a fair point. Michael, on the other hand, immediately comes off as grumpy and defensive. In defense of the texture of his swordfish, he notes that there was only one outlet at his station and it was used for the heat on the fish; he didn't have the power to use his electric knife, which left the fish fairly ragged. He acknowledges that delegating responsibility to strangers is totally foreign to him, as evidenced by his blaming of the Baby Chefs for serving his olive oil cake wrong.

In the stew lounge, Michael looks despondent and resigned to his fate. Hubert, asked where in the world those beets came from, attributes them to "a smoke last night." Meanwhile, the critics do their work on Anita ("every dish had some kind of a fundamental inadequacy to it," says James) and Michael ("the mushiness was in your mouth," says Gael Green to Oseland, in a strong runner-up for Line of the Night).

No surprise, Rick and Hubert are revealed as the top two chefs. Rick's line: 4 + 4.5, with 4.5/4/4.5 from the critics. That's 21.5. Hubert's line: 3.5 + 3.5 (whoa, how did the diners score him so low?), with a staggering 5/5/5 from the critics. That's 22, and Hubert takes the win. See, Stefan? Being a culinary Terminator doesn't mean being a jerk.

Anita and Michael are left to receive their fate. Anita's line: 4 + 3, and 3.5/3/3.5 from the critics for 17 stars. Michael's line: 5 + 3.5, and 3/4/4 from the unexpectedly kind critics for 19.5 stars and the save. Goodbye to Anita Lo, who perhaps unsurprisingly shares a lot of characteristics with Jamie, her former underling, for better and for worse.

Next week: THE FINALE. All the regular Top Chef judges! All the previou Top Chef winners! And I don't want to spook the other two Masters, but Hubert's bringing out the black again. Dude's fucking badass in that thing.