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TV Tonight: Top Chef Masters

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The business of food is the business of brand extension. If you have a successful restaurant, next comes the cookbook. The cooking show. The Vegas branch. The casual-bistro spinoff. The line of frozen dinners. 

In that spirit comes Top Chef spinoff Top Chef Masters, debuting tonight on Bravo. If you are hoping for Top Chef Masters to be an equivalent experience to the drama, comedy and food porn of Top Chef itself—as I originally hoped—you will be disappointed. But if you think of it as the frozen-wood-fired-pizza-version of Top Chef—nothing like the original restaurant experience but a quick fix to tide you over until you get back—it may do the job. 

Masters, if you haven’t heard, has been billed as a special installment of Top Chef, but with celebrity restaurant chefs instead of aspiring newcomers. This is not exactly true. Masters assembled a roster of top-flight chefs, including names like Wylie Dufresne and Rick Bayless. But these guys—mostly guys, unfortunately, that’s the restaurant biz still—have businesses to run and things to do. They’re not going to carve out a few weeks to live in a Top Chef house and knock out one exhausting challenge after another.

Instead, for six episodes, four chefs each compete in a pair of cooking challenges, and one winner is declared per episode. Then the winners square off in a final. The challenges itself are much like what you’d see on an episode of Top Chef; in the premiere, for instance, the four chefs have to cook for college students, using the rudimentary tools available in a dorm room. You get the food porn, the invention and the constantly ticking clock. (You do not get Padma Lakshmi, however: she’s replaced by yet another cook/model, Kelly Choi, and judges like Tom Colicchio are relegated to guest status.) 

Inevitably, though, you lose something. You lose the serial drama that comes from a weekly elimination, as certain contestants prove to be contenders and dark horses emerge. You lose the gradual revelation of each person’s style, strengths and weaknesses. You lose the interpersonal dynamics and team-building trials of the group competitions. Instead, you get a highly simplified, abbreviated cooking contest. Look, it’s not like I expected or even wanted to see Rick Moonen getting drunk in the Top Chef house or celebrity chefs hooking up and bitching about each other’s egos. But what we end up with is something more like Iron Chef, without the theater and bizarre ingredients.  

But more important—at least in the first episode—you lose any sense of real stakes. Everybody, we hear on Masters, is great. They might have a slip-up or a run of bad luck (note to contestants: relying on the freezer in Top Chef rarely turns out happily), someone might win and someone might lose, but everyone cooks really really well. From both the judges and the civilian food tasters in the first challenge, there’s hardly a negative comment about any dish.

Now, this may be accurate. These are pros, after all. It’s entirely plausible that they produced killer food across the board. But it’s also true that these are respected chefs with established careers who are doing the show a solid: by and large, they did not really need to do Masters. So I have to wonder how willing the producers would be to bite the hand that sautes for them by having any competitor come across badly. 

So will I watch Top Chef Masters anyway? Probably, yes. Because the original establishment, Top Chef, is closed for the season, and I don’t like waiting. Masters is a transparently quick fix, and it comes across a little warmed over. But sometimes, you’ve just gotta eat something.