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'Top Chef Masters': Cooking in the shower? Ingenious yet gross

June 11, 2009 |  9:26 am

NUP_133879_0592 Nary a Marcel, Lisa or Stefan in sight. Instead, the premiere set a tone of mutual respect among the well-established competitors, and of fun rather than cutthroat culinary competition. Just look at those smiling faces! (These chefs are competing for charity.)

Altogether a different, calmer experience from your regularly scheduled "Top Chef" (and one that L.A. Times critic Robert Lloyd appreciated amid all of the manufactured "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here" shenanigans). At least it is for now.

Who knows how serious things will get once the playing field is narrowed to the Final 6.

Me? While I miss the big personalities (and big talk) that the producers usually stock on the show, it was difficult not to be charmed by the first group of four, especially good-natured chef-aspiring DJ Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys fame and the cursed Texan Tim Love, who runs the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. 

Sure, they arrived to the kitchen chuckling, ready only for a competition among friends, but credit the production for humbling these "Masters" right off the bat. Their first challenge? Dessert. Ah, the Achilles' heel of all non-pastry chefs. And the judges? Girls Scouts. Double wince! Their super-sized resumes and chefy culinary tricks would do them no good with the tween set.

Unless, that is, those high-end flourishes involved remembering how to make the fanciful pate a choux swans they undoubtedly all learned to whip up in culinary school; Keller did, and he added some adorable and edible mice to the plate. Love's smoothie, Christopher Lee's French toast and Michael Schlow's botched candy never stood a chance.

Another curve ball. For the elimination challenge, the chefs would be cooking for college kids — in their dorm rooms. Oh, how I cringed when I saw those unsanitary beds, shelves and closets. The judges on this show — Gael Greene, Jay Rayner and James Oseland — are a brave bunch indeed. As ingenious as Keller proved to be in using the dorm showers to cool and reheat his pasta, I found myself squirming right along with Oseland. TMI! TMI! Hygenically sound or not, Keller easily found himself advancing to the Final 6.

Separating the "Masters" from the average "Top Chef" contestant was enlightening (and amusing) in other ways too. We found out that Keller has not done the grocery shopping for himself in quite some time, and none of the "Masters" can operate a microwave. (Oh, it would have been grand to see them take on the microwave challenge from Season 1 or the snacks on a plane challenge from 3.) I guess being the best doesn't always equip you for the perils of "Top Chef" battle. Poor Love even mistook a freezer for a fridge, turning his produce into ice by mistake.

It's going to take a while to get used to the judges, but so far I'm enjoying the break from the increasingly cranky Tom Colicchio and the determinedly harsh Toby Young. Oseland, who is the editor of Saveur magazine; Greene, legendary New York Magazine food critic; and Rayner, from London's the Observer, don't always agree, but for now, they're constructive but kind. Rayner's the most vocal (of course, being the token British judge), but he's a far cry from his overly prepped and needlessly mean peers on reality TV — thank goodness.

— Denise Martin

Photo: NBC Universal

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