Top Chef Masters Season 5 premiers tonight, and there's a lot of L.A. up in that show. For one thing, it was filmed here. For another, there are a number of L.A. chefs competing. And Los Angeles Magazine's dining editor Lesley Suter is one of the show's judges this season (though I think they want us to call them critics).
I got a sneak peek at the first episode, as well as a couple of episodes from the brand new web series that runs concurrently with the show, Battle of the Sous Chefs. Here's a taste of what we're in for this season.
There's a huge amount of star power on this season of Masters, as usual. And also as usual, it seems as though the bigger the chef, perhaps the less time they've spent recently in the kitchen. This is no surprise, but it does make for an interesting dynamic, whereby the lesser-known chefs who are still on the line every night have quite an advantage over those with empires. It's the type of thing where a chef can say "I'm a legend" in one breath and then admit that it's been so long since he's shucked oysters he really can't remember how in the next.
Everything else will seem totally familiar about this season -- product endorsement 21 seconds in, outrageously and increasingly over-the-top challenges -- except that the Battle of the Sous Chefs web series plays an absolutely huge part in the narrative arc of the larger competition and show. It's hard to tell if this is brilliant or a wee bit of the tail wagging the dog. Each web episode, the winners and losers of the sous chefs challenge either give their chefs giant advantages (like, immunity from being sent home) or crippling disadvantages.
The first web episode of the sous battle is already available on Bravo's website, and I suggest you watch it before the first regular TV episode because if you wait until after, you'll already know the outcome.
And I have to say, I found the entire sous chef battle more than a little disconcerting. The sous chefs who thought they were being given the honor of helping their bosses and mentors are actually being put in the position of dictating the fates of the people who pay their salaries. Top Chef -- all Top Chef variants -- are in the psychological warfare game, but this feels unfair, as though the people playing were duped. There are plenty of "jokes" about the sous losing their jobs if they mess up, and one chef in particular (*cough, cough, Sang Yoon*) keeps saying "I'm not kidding." The look of absolute terror on these chefs' faces feels more real, and therefore much sadder, than any fakey reality TV drama that's usually part of these shows.
Hugh Acheson, sporting an awesome chefs jacket, acts as singular judge and mentor to these sous chefs on the web series, poking around while they're cooking, tasting and judging seemingly alone. The whole thing feels a little rushed and bare bones for something that matters so much to the bigger, slicker Masters competition.
As for the meat of the actual show, there are plenty of theatrics and twists in the first episode, as well as the chefs acting like the treat of a lifetime is a very scary burden (acting like little wussy cry babies, in other words).
The show airs at 10 p.m. tonight on Bravo, and the second web episode of Battle of the Sous Chefs will be on the Bravo website immediately after.
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