Top Chef Masters premiered last night and featured two local chefs in Susan Feniger (Border Grill, Ciudad, Street) and Govind Armstrong (8 oz.), with the show itself taking place in our own fair city. The premise of the show is fairly simple: take six accomplished chefs from around the country, have them compete in a quickfire challenge and an elimination challenge, with the two winners from each group progressing forward into one last battle royale at the end of the season. If you win a quickfire, you get $5,000 donated to your charity of choice. If you win the elimination, it's $10,000, plus the chance to move on and compete for the $100,000 grand prize.
So what happened? The chefs were randomly placed into teams of two, then carted off to Chinatown to go shopping. Yet while teammates were planning their Chinese menus, the inevitable curve ball showed up, and they realized that they had to do all of their shopping in a Chinatown gas station, after which they would prepare food to be judged by the band The Bravery. You know, because nothing is more exciting than taking really talented chefs, giving them terrible ingredients, then having them cook for people who are used to eating carrot sticks and lukewarm hot dogs in a dressing room in Topeka.
But the chefs trudged forward. Armstrong, paired with Jimmy Bradley (Red Cat, NYC) to make Cheetos macaroni with grilled Slim Jims and tomato soup, topped with Slim Jim bread crumbs. Though Bradley, due to not being in 6th grade, wasn't an expert Cheetos shopper, and accidentally purchased the flaming hot variety, resulting in a rather frighteningly colored candy-red macaroni. The chefs were then able to watch their food be judged by the musicians on a television screen, who were not wholeheartedly enthusiastic. Their criticism led the noticeably grumpy Armstrong to say “Who the fuck are these guys anyway? But also, look at what I'm cooking for you. It's Cheetos and Slim Jim. Get over it.” The judges gave them 3 1/2 stars.
Ana Sortun (Oleana in Cambridge, MA) joined with Jerry Traunfeld (Poppy, Seattle) to create a crispy rice cake with clamesco sauce (Clamato-based romesco). The judges found the sauce bland, which the chefs seemed to brush off as an example of their food being judged by people without particularly discerning palettes. The dish earned them 3 stars.
Susan Feniger was joined by Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia in Chicago), who holds the claim as the favorite chef of the Obamas. Said Feniger, “Tony cooked for my favorite president ever, Obama.” This pair pulled together a maple bread pudding with caramelized bananas, which most judges seemed to appreciate, though one in particular thought the dish was a tad sweet. The team earned 4 stars, and the win.
Then it's Elimination time, and thankfully, the task was somewhat less constrained. Their challenge: remain in pairs, and cook a romantic duo dish for 30 couples on their very first date. The chefs seemed rather pleased to be able to shop at Whole Foods. Here, we also got a fun little tidbit from Feniger, who said “My partner now of 15 years, I actually wooed her at one of my restaurants. But I couldn't figure out what to cook for her because she didn't eat shrimp or garlic or anything. So I think I wooed her with some of our fantastic cocktails. I must have been trying to get her drunk, I don't know.” For her side of the plate, she created black pepper shrimp and crabs, while Mantuano prepared a homemade pasta with a mild tallegio cheese, mushrooms and truffles. The judges–Gail Simmons (Food & Wine), James Oseland (Saveur), Jay Rayner (author, The Man Who Ate the World) and Gael Greene (NY restaurant critic)–all seemed rather pleased with the dish. The only knocks were that Feniger's shrimp was slightly overcooked and that James Oseland thought the tallegio was a bit overwhelming to the palate. But all in all, a powerful convergence of two different styles, not unlike a good first date.
Sortun and Traunfeld decided to cook with flowers, with Traunfeld preparing a lavender duck breast with red cabbage, pomegranates and golden beets. On Sortun's side was crisp duck leg in vermicelli with orange blossom smoked cinnamon almonds. Oseland compared them, through his trademark pursed lips, to a date where one dressed up, while the other arrived in pajamas.
Team Armstrong/Bradley made a duo of lamb, with Armstrong preparing a chop with cauliflower couscous, Swiss chard and a pomegranate reduction, balanced against Bradley's seared lamb carpaccio with a baby arugula and herb salad. Armstrong: “I'm getting all this hot food ready to go, I'm like, running around making these reduction sauces and roasting off racks of lamb, blanching the chard and stewing the onions… and not to talk shit about Jimmy, but it's like, you know, all he was really doing was making the salad. It's like, you sear off some lamb, stick it in the fridge, then you toss some greens. I think that's about it.” So… not to talk crap about Govind Armstrong, but he was definitely talking shit about Jimmy. Later, Armstrong expressed frustration with how late Jimmy was plating his salad.
Oh right, the food.
The judges enjoyed the carpaccio more, saying that it was less tough and more flavorful. But they did appreciate Armstrong's direction to eat the chop with their hands, because “it's sexy.” This episode also shattered the record for most times a group of chefs and restaurant critics said the word “sexy” in an hour of television.
But before we got to hear the final scores, we got to watch some incredibly awkward moments of people on their first dates being asked how it went, while they mostly lied through their teeth (“No, no… she's great. Thanks Bravo.”). But we also had the opportunity for a fun little anecdote about Armstrong's high school years spent working for Feniger at City Restaurant. “I had the biggest crush on Susan Feniger. I'm 16, hormones are just out of control and she's got pink hair and earrings all the way down her ear and bracelets all the way up. I was very much turned on by that, but um, it didn't really work out for us.”
Finally, word came down. Bradley/Armstrong earned a total of 12.5 stars (out of 20), Sorton/Traunfeld nabbed 15, and Feniger/Mantauno claimed victory with a commanding 16.5 stars. Everyone seemed to express real pleasure in the experience as a whole, and Armstrong seemed genuinely happy for Feniger take home the win. But the best part actually came at the very end, when they showed clips from upcoming episodes, where we see our first glimpse of our own Ludovic Lefebvre, as he runs through the kitchen saying “Fuck me!” They then cut to another audio clip of Ludo, who did not progress through the first round last year. “To come back, and to lose one more time? No. Cannot happen.” Then we get a glimpse of Rick Moonen getting rather upset with Ludo, accusing him of “bitching and moanig, complaining like a girl. Get over it.”