Something I thought to myself while watching Top Chef Masters this week: You know who would never allow wrestlers in chicken masks to carry him offscreen, Charlie Chaplin-style? Tom Colicchio, that’s who. This occurred to me just after I watched Curtis Stone jump into the arms of a few men in tights and get whisked away as the remaining chefs smiled, pretending they weren’t witnessing the last vestiges of a man’s dignity disappear out stage left.
And then this occurred to me: No matter how ridiculous the original Top Chef gets, no matter how many non-sequitur celebrity appearances and shameless product tie-ins, you always have Colicchio there, lending much-need gravitas to the Bravo fluff factory. Stone, on the other hand, only amps up the ridiculousness with his V-necks and his white teeth and his handsome-boy, game attitude. He seems like a nice guy, but is definitely part of the problem.
Hello there, TCM fans. After a recap hiatus last week—I wouldn’t dream of doing this while you all were on vacay—we’re back together to celebrate the fact that our own Bryan Voltaggio has made it to the final four despite serving beet sorbet to little kids, getting mentally bedazzled by a jeans-clad Ali Larter, and finding himself locked in a battle of egos with Sang Yoon.
“I’m wondering what Doug did with the other 27 minutes of the challenge.”
Our main takeaway from episode six: Mindy Kaling is not a magical unicorn. Uproariously funny? Yes. In possession of a Nora Ephron-esque ability to capture the pop culture zeitgeist in a way that’s totally original yet familiar as your favorite sweater? Totally. But not even Kaling can save a television show in which Gail Simmons sings a Yo Gabba Gabba song and children are fed eggplant jello. The comedian shows up for a Quickfire themed around her favorite romantic comedies. Which is such a boring idea. The waste-of-a-Kaling segment ends with her selecting Douglas Keane’s scrambled eggs and caviar, based on the movie Midnight in Paris. This makes Yoon feel robbed since, you know, he’s a genius chef appearing on a television show in which he has to design a dish around Mindy Kaling’s favorite romantic comedy. How would you feel?
This week on Top Chef Masters, the flaxen-haired Busy Philipps (Kim Kelly to all you Freaks and Geeks fans), appears among the chefs, heavy with child. And this unborn spawn is in no mood to make vapid chitchat with Curtis Stone. He is hungry, you see—dangerously hungry.
“Give him your dishes,” stammers Philipps, the mighty force within her womb causing her to shake and spin about the soundstage. “He wants LA-inspired food, and no, I’m not talking about Wolfgang Puck sh*t. He wants tacos and brownie sundaes and beef and broccoli and OH, MY GOD, this child must be sated or we shall all perish.”
And with that, Restaurant Wars is declared.
“They don’t make small condoms at Restaurant Depot.”
Sue Zemanick spends the episode getting battered about by the male members of team 72 and Sunny—a pretty clever name for a California restaurant, though the mood in the kitchen would better be described as Two Below Zero and Pissy. Doug Keane and Sang Yoon boss around Zemanick like she’s some beer wench at Medieval Times rather than the lady in the American Express commercials—her only solace comes when Yoon sets her up nicely to crack on his minimal manhood.
Things between Keane and Yoon start off pretty good. When the two friends get together, “it’s like Beavis and Butthead” chortles Keane, but then, tout d’un coup, Butthead is screaming at the rented waitstaff who are probably—this is a sad thought—aspiring reality TV people who spend their days loitering around Walmarts until Andy Cohen’s third cousin shows up in a pickup truck and drives them to the last remaining Barnes & Noble where Teresa Giudice is crayoning her name in the pages of a book about gluten-free cupcakes that she didn’t really write. Not even steely Keane can stand by and watch his buddy lob F-bombs at these broken people. These people who pretend to attend book signings for the Real Housewives of New Jersey. These people who dream of getting their untoned arms critiqued on Millionaire Matchmaker. Who could yell at these poor people about not wiggling the plates? Has Yoon no mercy?
In the end, David Burke is the only one who manages to make it through unscathed, working the front of the room like some famous Irish poet pre-blackout at the pub. Women want to date him. Men wonder if they might serve as Bert to his Ernie. Gail Simmons is putty in his little red fingers. To top it all off, Francis Lam compares Burke’s panna cotta to a hot French kiss. It’s all adding up to a big victory for old Burke, but in the end, the judges go with Yoon and his curs’d beef and broccoli. What gives, man? It seems Butthead just can’t lose.
“My dish is a little more avant garde.”
Meanwhile on team Artisan—I know, the name is not good—Voltaggio finally drops the Lancelot routine. Faced with the full force of Restaurant Wars, and a total lack of cooperation from his muggle teammates Lynn Crawford, Jennifer Jasinski, and Puss in Boots (Neal Fraser), the ’Tagg finally summons his metaphorical dark army. While the other Artisans bumble about, fussing over brownie sundaes and topping citrus salads with mushrooms like first-year students at the Olive Garden culinary school, BV travels down the winding stone stairs of his mental sorcerer’s lair, where he and a team of invisible minions concoct a magical potion that looks to the average Modernist Cuisine reader like a conceptual take on cobb salad with salmon but has powers far more mysterious than any Nathan Myhrvold purports to possess. We watch as Ruth Reichl takes a bite of this supernatural dish, swoons audibly, and then suddenly is lifted airborn. For a moment Reichl disappears from view, but then there she is! A winged raven darting among the rafters—recognizable only by the sideswept bangs that remain tilted just so across her bird brow. Released from the shackles of the gravitational pull, she hovers for a moment on Voltaggio’s solid shoulder as if to thank him, then disappears into the night sky—spry and small and finally, finally free.
Oh gosh, Lindsay Price. I remember you from the early 90210 days, when you had to play the impossible-to-believe part of Janet Sosna, a young woman who gravitated toward Steve Sanders for purely (ohmahgod, barf) sexual reasons. Anyone who grew up in the ’90s knows the only real reason for a lady to hang out with Steve Sanders was a) to get within pheromone-whiffing distance of Dylan, or b) in hopes that Kelly Taylor might toss you a pair of last week’s dangly earrings. Anyway, that whole thing was sordid and gross, and I’m much more on board with Price’s new role: devoted fiancée to Aussie host Curtis Stone.
In episode four, the soon-to be Mrs. Stone stops by the TCM set to help scheme a surprise engagement party for her sunkissed future spouse. Cohosting this shindig: none other than Saveur EIC James Oseland, who even throws on a purple sweater to honor the Grimace-fur garment Stone blinded us with during last week’s episode.
As we’ve discussed before, TCM’s principal problem is that the stakes of the show are so low. To drum up that much-needed drama, Bravo producers have so far turned to skydiving, shrimp heads, and—talk about a deal with the devil—a surprise visit from Kathy Lee Gifford.
This week they dropped any pretense of subtlety and just asked the team from daytime drama Days of Our Lives (yup, Days is still on) to come judge the food. Because of course a group of dead-eyed soap stars who survive on Benzedrine and broken dreams are qualified to evaluate dishes crafted by the country’s most accomplished chefs.
Let’s get this out of the way: Overall, there was far too little Bryan Voltaggio in the second episode of TCM this week—I almost welcomed the weekly commercial spot where the Frederick native shills for almond milk. (Or is he selling appliances? I can’t remember. What I do know is: You can make almond-milk gazpacho really fast if you have a blender.)
Anyway, the good news is that endlessly entertaining James Oseland took up a lot of that not-Voltaggio time, uttering lines like, “Come inside my body” and, “This slaw tastes a little ‘food court.’” There was also some rando Kathy Lee Gifford action and a guest judge appearance by talented writer Francis Lam, a sugarplum of a person who is almost as cute as Odette Fada trying to ESL her way off of the chopping block.
On to the recap.
“I’m gonna punch him in the face.”
Episode two begins in medias res, with our beleaguered sous crew gritting their teeth through the mis-en-place Quickfire—a Top Chef mainstay in which contestants go head-to-head to see who can prep stuff the fastest. Only this is one weird mis indeed. The ingredients are: rack of lamb, squid, celery root, and—oy, vey—pomegranate. Have you ever tried to get the seeds out of a pomegranate when your livelihood was on the line? Have you ever even made it through eating a pomegranate without becoming soul-crushingly bored by all that seed removal? Me neither. It’s a truly evil mis-en-place choice on the part of the Bravo producers.
Sang Yoon’s number two, Ted Hopson, finishes first, his work deemed satisfactory by our hunky Aussie host, Curtis Stone. Then Hopson rolls up the sleeve to reveal . . . a pomegranate tattoo! Nope, that’s not an autocorrect error. I didn’t type “naked lady” and wind up with “pomegranate”. This guy’s so into seedy tree fruits, he had one indelibly carved into his body. I wonder what inspires someone to get a pomegranate tattoo? Somewhere in the story is an ex-girlfriend who did a lot of Bikram yoga and made blender gazpacho out of almond milk.
To borrow a quaint expression from one super-stressed-out sous chef seen cantering through the Top Chef Masters kitchen: “Holy mackerel!”
Season five of Masters, which debuted Wednesday on Bravo, was a cornucopia of twists and reveals—smart move for a show that has historically struggled in the who-cares department. This time around, producers have packed the program with built-in drama by incorporating chefs’ employees into the games. Each master was told to bring along a sous chef, presumably to assist him or her during the culinary challenges. What the Masters weren’t told: Basically the entire outcome of the show rests on the hunched shoulders of their overworked underlings. For instance, when a sous chef wins a Quickfire, his boss gets immunity in the elimination challenge. And when sous chefs perform poorly, their employers pay the price with various “obstacles” during the challenges.
As this information sinks in throughout the season premiere, the Masters make a LOT of jokes about how they are totally going to fire their sous chefs if they mess up. Cut to a huddle of saucer-eyed, tattooed toque assistants pretending to laugh. “Hahaha, not like I need my job or anything! Thanks, Bravo!”
Let’s explore episode one.