Top Chef Masters - Paradise by the dashboard light

Is it just me, or does it feel like a really long time since we had any Top Chef to talk about? Knives down, hands up, let's do this.

Welcome back, dear readers, to another season of Top Chef Masters, the show that takes talented and established chefs and makes them cook with Clamato and Cheetos. I'll post this recap a little later than usual to accommodate all the stoners who were drawn in by the subject matter and are just waking up after watching last night's late-as-hell premiere. Thankfully, next week we won't have the very-important Shear Genius finale throwing our timeline for a loop; it's 10/9C from here on out.

For you new viewers, here's the concept. A bunch of "real" chefs get thrown in together, working toward the goal of making it to the championship round. After each week of the elimination round, one or two chefs are retained as the winner(s), while the rest are excused. In the elimination round, the competition moves forward like it does in the regular Top Chef, with one chef getting the boot each week until the final challenge. The winner gets $100,000 for the charity of his or her choice, and each week's winners get extra coin for those charities.

Our chefs and charities this week are Govind Armstrong (8 oz. Burger Bar; Los Angeles, CA; National Kidney Foundation), Susan Feniger (Street; Los Angeles; Scleroderma Research Foundation), Ana Sortun (Oleana; Cambridge, MA; Farm School), Jerry Traunfeld, (Poppy; Seattle, WA; International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission), Jimmy Bradley (The Red Cat; New York, NY; Charity:Water), and Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia; Chicago, IL; Feeding America).

Our Quickfire Challenge tonight is a 2-chef team affair, and a reprise of the gas station challenge from Top Chef Season 1. Our Masters get a bit of a rope-a-dope in being issued the challenge, and Govind Armstrong is none too pleased. Maybe it's his disdain that causes him to grab Flamin' Hot Cheetos for his mac and cheese dish instead of regular ones. I must admit: I noticed right away that they weren't standard issue Cheetos. Don't judge me.

The chefs will be serving the members of musical group The Bravery, one of whom apparently has a culinary degree. None appear to have a cosmetology degree, however; the shaved-side pompadour look a number of them are sporting is bizarre to say the least. The chefs' dishes are served, and the band is just happy to be there, eating. No one really says anything terrible--not that the chefs don't whine like Little Lord Fauntleroy when met with even the slightest critique.

Tony and Susan's maple bread pudding with caramelized bananas is sweet but flavorful, and uses a whole snack pack of fruit and nuts! Govind and Jimmy whip up a lurid red mac and cheese with grilled Slim Jims and tomato soup with Slim Jim breadcrumbs. The Bravery astutely notes that the soup tastes canned, but that there's a lot of flavor here, too. Last is the rice cake with Clamato romesco (or "clamesco") of Ana and Jerry. It's hailed as "restaurant quality" by some, but Hat Guy thinks its a bit bland. Jerry makes some pretty unfounded and stupid assumptions as to why he'd think so.

Ana and Jerry: 3 stars
Govind and Jimmy: 3.5 stars
Tony and Susan: 4 stars

In the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are stuck in their teams of two; the general Twitter vibe on "game night" says that a lot of fans weren't crazy about this. I can live with it, but the producers risk locking themselves into a two-at-a-time format, and I don't think that would be right. Regardless, the chefs in the premiere are tasked with creating a duo dish for couples on their first dates. From a gas station parking lot to a romantic interlude: Meat Loaf would be right at home in this competition.

Ana and Jerry seem to be working together nicely, while Govind and Jimmy seem to regard each other with less than high esteem--when they're talking to the confessional. Tony and Susan are an odd couple, but jovial and creative. Plus, they've got the early lead. After spending their $350 at Whole Foods, the chefs get two hours to prep and cook. Out on the restaurant floor, James Oseland, Gael Greene, Jay Rayner and Kelly Choi await their plates.

Govind and Jimmy kick it off with a lamb duo. Govind serves a roasted chop with cauliflower couscous and a pomegranate reduction, while Jimmy skates by (Govind's opinion) with a seared lamb carpaccio over a baby arugula and herb salad. The carpaccio put the fear of lambiness into James, but he is pleasantly surprised by the flavor, as is Gael. The more-cooked chop, recommended as finger-food, is actually a bit tougher, but tasty. The pairing goes over well.

Ana and Jerry go for sweet and froofy with a duo of duck, both embellished with edible flowers: a lavender-rubbed seared duck breast with red cabbage, pomegranate, and beets (Jerry) and duck leg topped with vermicelli and cinnamon almonds in a broth of orange blossom water (Ana). Jerry's breast is a showstopper, with a tart and vibrant sauce. Ana's leg is expertly spiced but miserable to look at and laborious to actually consume. The two dishes are the true odd couple of the episode, poorly matched in tone and class.

Susan and Tony serve last, pairing Tony's taleggio-filled handmade ravioli, mushrooms and truffles with Susan's black pepper shrimp and scallops. The pasta is, predictably, a bit heavy; while James is on the fence, the rest of the panel appears to mostly enjoy them. Susan's broth is hot, spicy, and envigorating, but the shrimp have become a bit overcooked. The judges agree that the two halves create an intense experience, a good pairing despite perhaps not going hand-in-hand.

Our mid-commercial break vignette brought home a little more classic Top Chef flavor. Turns out Govind worked for Susan back in his mid-teens, and had a major crush on the punky, pink-haired chef. Unfortunately for him, she's playing for the other team; Govind smiles quietly and summarizes, "It didn't exactly work out for us." Stefan could learn a thing or two here about taking a hint.

Critics' Table, unlike the Judges' Table of the original series, is a fairly collegial and positive environment. There are too many carefully-crafted egos in the room for things to get really contentious. Thus, Govind and Jimmy get a more or less pleasant evaluation. Tony is taken to task, if you can call it that, for a "palate challenging" taleggio, but he's confident that it was mild enough to play nice with the rest of the dish. Ana gets hit pretty hard for the awkward presentation, and Jerry demonstrates a surprising lack of humility in accepting a compliment. Even Jay Rayner seemed surprised at the brusque reply.

Jerry and Ana: 3.5 (James), 4 (Gael), 3.5 (Jay) + 4 (diners) = 15 stars.
Jimmy and Govind: 3 (James), 3.5 (Gael), 3 (Jay) + 3 (diners) = 12 stars. See ya, Team Pissy!
Tony and Susan: 4 (James), 4.5 (Gael), 4 (Jay) + 4 (diners) = 16.5 stars, and the decisive victory.

Tony and Susan move on to the Championship Round, while the other four go back to their restaurants. It's kind of much ado about nothing, but the season promises to build a little momentum as we creep closer to the real competition. I was most surprised at how across-the-board the inability to take criticism was among this crowd. Only the very short, Harry Potter-esque Susan Feniger seemed to really take the whole thing in stride. Tell me, readers: is Top Chef Masters gonna do it for you this season?