Thursday, June 18, 2009

Top Chef Masters

This week, I caught up with Bravo's Top Chef Masters, in its second week. A spinoff of Top Chef, "Masters" features 24 well-known chefs competing to win money for charities of their choice. The show inherits the original format, with a "Quickfire" challenge followed by an "Elimination" challenge. Three food critics (including the editor of Saveur magazine) serve as the main panel of judges, but each challenge also has its own set of additional tasters. Often the challenges incorporate ridiculous tasks like using a vending machine as a source for ingredients, or impose difficult conditions on the participants, like cooking in a dorm room.

I'm not a big fan of television or reality shows, but I do find Top Chef entertaining. Yet, it occurs to me that despite the fact that food - the heart of the show - relies most on taste and smell, these two aspects are entirely absent for viewers. So, how is it still possible that food translates to something interesting on tv?

For me, the show's attraction comes in other ways. There's the curiosity to see what kind of characters these chefs are, having only, for the most part, heard their names or read about them (Wylie Dufresne, of New York's WD-50 and known for molecular gastronomy, is intense and curses a lot!). And, believe it or not, there's the added level of understanding of food the show brings - matching a visual for ingredients and techniques to things I may have heard of but never seen; learning about why and how different foods and flavors do or do not work together. It's fascinating to listen to the chefs' thinking processes behind their choices.

It's also just amusing to see professional chefs confronted with problems or their own mistakes (like putting all your ingredients into a freezer instead of a refrigerator) and watching how they improvise or come back from that. On a much more basic level, it's not unlike how I sometimes attempt to substitute ingredients when following recipes without having all the exact items or equipment.

This series lacks some of the punch of the original Top Chef, but so far, is still fun nonetheless. Eighteen chefs currently left in the competition. Stay tuned!

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