Where ‘Top Chef Masters’ Went Wrong

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For two seasons, Top Chef Masters was the civilized, fun palate-cleanser to the cutthroat Top Chef, and with its humble star-ratings and gentle competition, it proved to be a fun lark for everyone involved. In its third season, however, the show has undergone a revamp, which has left viewers complaining of boredom. Almost every Top Chef fan I’ve spoken to over the past several weeks has admitted that they hate the new season, and some have even announced that they’ve removed it from their DVRs. Now with just one episode left, we must ask how did this once excellent spin-off fall so far?

Full analysis after the jump…

The Good

The season hasn’t been without strong points. The producers thankfully kept the ornery James Oseland around to keep things interesting. Also, Ruth Reichl is a welcome addition as she brings years of culinary experience to the proverbial table. The challenges have been fun, albeit crazy at times, and on a personal level, I really, really liked that the producers aired a clip of me saying “Tender… perfect” as I stuffed my face with a quesadilla on one episode. But that has more to do with my own ego rather than the show’s overall success.

The Bad

The new format.
For its first two seasons, Top Chef Masters employed a tournament-style format wherein each week, chefs competed to advance to the finals round. This meant that sadly, some world-renowned chefs would fall by the wayside after only one week, but that was okay. The structure gave Masters an original hook — one that separated it from the original Top Chef.

Now, however, that structure is gone, and the show is virtually identical to Top Chef. One might think this would serve Masters well as it gives the audience more time with the contestants, but in reality, it’s a massive backfire. Let me explain: Top Chef obviously casts for people who have culinary chops but also those who would make for good TV. Big personalities are definitely part of the mix, and it helps keep the competition show exciting as it whittles down its players. Masters, however, is not about the personalities. It’s about the pedigrees. While some of the chefs may be jovial or jokey or a bit loud-mouthed, they pretty much are all about the cooking. They simply don’t have the personalities to carry a cutthroat Top Chef elimination format — at least not for a full season. If there’s a fourth season, I say return to the old format.

No more stars.
One of the fun and distinctive attributes of Top Chef Masters was the star system. Judges and diners would award the chefs stars, which would ultimately determine who would go home and who would stay. It was a fun, funky twist on the Top Chef judging, and for those of us watch at home, we could enjoy some guesswork as to how many stars any given judge might anoint a chef. Alas, the stars are now inexplicably gone, and so is the charm of Masters. Now we just have normal judging, which wouldn’t be so bad, except…

Not loving the new judges.
James Oseland is a character full of flowery turns of phrase. However, his supporting cast lacks the sort of authority we expect on a show dedicated to Michelin star winners. Recurring judges Alan Sytsma and Danyelle Freeman are an obvious ploy to reel in younger, hipper viewers — blatant, unnecessary nods to the food blogger world — but they feel like small tots compared to the likes of Oseland, Reichl, and former regulars Gael Greene, Jay Rayner, and of course, Gail Simmons. A show about master chefs deserves to have a panel full of master critics. The disconnect of having these massively accomplished people being judged by, uh, Restaurant Girl, feels a bit inconsistent with the mandate of the show. Next season, send the fresh faces to Top Chef. Give us back Gael Green.

Minor quibbles

Get a better table.
There is perhaps no better visual testament to how Bravo has undermined the judging process than by looking at the miserable critics table we’ve been stuck with this season. Week after week, our judges are found huddling around some minuscule piece of furniture, often sitting at weird angles and looking way too cramped. Throw them a bone and let them back to the big table, Bravo.

No more Curtis Stone
No chef is more oversaturated in the media than Curtis Stone. He appears on every reality show on television, and yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen him cook a single thing. Okay, okay — he does have cookbooks; so I guess he knows a thing or two. But there is something unlikable about the guy. Perhaps it’s an arrogance? Yes, that’s it. Curtis comes off as charming but cocky, which feels inappropriate in the presence of the much more accomplished chefs he’s judging. Sure, he’s ten times more comfortable on camera than previous host Kelly Choi, but the Choi-bot had a certain likability in her awkwardness, much like another robotic Asian hostess I’ve been known to adore…

Curtis is certainly not the reason why Top Chef Masters has stumbled this season, but if the producers decided to recast the role, I wouldn’t complain.

What have you thought about the season? How would you improve it?

22 replies on “Where ‘Top Chef Masters’ Went Wrong”

  1. I almost feel sorry for the contestants. I mean, cooking in a microwave? Really? These ridiculous tasks are only compounded by the weak judges. Mary Sue Milliken shouldn’t be judged by a food blogger or Curtis Stone any day of the week. It is appauling to me that the show creators have the gall to even think this is acceptable.

    Maybe I’m an exception since I enjoy cooking and food, etc and admire the chefs competing.

    Alls I’m sayin’ is that Wylie Dufresne wouldn’t be putting up with this shit. And, I wouldn’t blame him!

  2. I gave up on this season awhile ago, and I agree with every point you make. From restaurant girl to Curtis Stone to the new format, it just couldn’t maintain my interest.

  3. Put it this way: the most interesting part of Top Chef Masters was your cameo – with sound! But I gave up on the season right after that episode – and I’ve never given up on any TC incarnation.

    Agree on all points; the format doesn’t work with “just chefs” and the judges have been abysmal. that kid who interned for Oselund – I mean, he INTERNED for him so why the heck is he now judging world class chefs with his Playmobil hair. I hate that dude.

    And really, several of the challenges were jsut frustratingly stupid. The microwave one, the mobile home one; that’s no test of their abilities, it’s a test of their patience. And that’s stupid.

    No way would celebrity Chef Tom Collichio deign to compete in this mess.

    Oh, and that final 3 lady (not Mary Sue) looks like The Leprechaun. And that’s no fun to watch.

  4. I find CS one of the best things of the show since there isn’t much else. You’re right about the season. But, I’m still watching.

    1. I want to know as well. I’ve been watching sporadically since I despise the changes too. The only good thing they did was to keep James Oseland. I want to see him verbally smack Curtis Stone to the floor.

  5. I’ve got no problem with Curtis Stone. You’ve never seen Take Home Chef? He whipped up some good looking stuff on that show.

    I agree on the format. Bring back the stars. My biggest pet peeve is probably the quality of the challenges. Fast food? Bunsen burners? Those were more suited towards TC than TCM. I can’t see Susur Lee or Marcus Samuelson putting up with some of those ridiculous challenges. I’d like to see a challenge where they’re all given the same ingredients and told to come up with something specific (3 course meal, etc).

    1. Totally agree. The last episode I watched was the fast food and what a bore. I want to see these chef’s create food, not cook and serve a drive-up window. I have 5 episodes backed up on my DVR and haven’t the desire to watch it.

  6. Curtis Stone is human ambien. He is as underseasoned as Floyd’s dish – bland. No one liners. No witty quips. Not even a mumbled accent to make fun of (I am looking at you Camila Alves). I would gladly take back Kelly Choi at this point.

    @sg – Traci Des Jardins. And now I can’t UNSEE her as The Leprechaun. Thanks.

    hb

  7. LOVE Curtis Stone. Hated the previous host. Everything I’ve ever seen Curtis cook on tv has looked delicious, fresh and (maybe?) not too unhealthy

  8. I used to record everything TC, whether it be the regular show or Masters. Now, I’ve had it off of DVR since about the 3rd week. The judging, the judges, the challenges…where can I start to describe the horrible changes that destroyed what was once my favorite show? I won’t be watching this crapfest again unless it goes back to the original format. I don’t even read the recaps anymore. It’s just that bad.

  9. I’m still watching it (leprechaun FTW), but I agree that it hasn’t been as good this season. Curtis is ok, but after watching him previously on the Celeb Apprentice I just can’t get over the fact that I think he’s an arrogant prick. A cute prick albeit, but it subtracts from his talents here. I agree that the show would be better if the challenges better suited the merits of the competitors, as did the judges.

  10. On a side note….how the hell can you spend 15 minutes talking to a family member through a screen and NOT recognize their voice? Baffling.

    1. Seriously! Naomi didn’t recognize her own father? And the other dude’s sister even had an Indian accent? Clearly these people hate their families.

  11. I am OBVIOUSLY in the minority here, but I love that they went to the same format as TC. I thought the star thing was boring and ridiculous. I hated it!
    Also, Curtis is so scrumptious, I’ll watch him on every show he’s on. YUM.

  12. You hit the nail on the head here: “However, his supporting cast lacks the sort of authority we expect on a show dedicated to Michelin star winners.” These chefs are not being judged by their peers. They’re being judged by their inferiors (no offense, B). It speaks highly of the chefs that they did not quit the minute they saw what lightweights (other than James and Gael) were determining their fates.

    Competing on a full season requires a huge time commitment, and while there are definitely some big names on this show, they could probably get an even more well-known cast if they didn’t require each contestant to participate in ever episode. That’s another reason the tournament style worked better.

    Also, Curtis Stone is the worst. He is a black whole who not only has no personality himself, but vacuums the personality out of the other judges. Looking like a Ken Doll is not enough to make up for his lack of charisma.

    I HATE this season.

  13. James Oseland is creepy and horrible. I can’t stand the part where each critic delivers a pithy line to each chef before they announce who is cut. Curtis Stone is fine. Too many nobody guest judges and inane, boring challenges. Have they even had one challenge where the chefs could just cook their own food? I have no idea what each of them specializes in and no idea who they are as chefs, excerpt Mary Sue (?) seems to cook Mexican and Tracy makes a lot of salads.

  14. I hate this season too. It’s depressing. The challenges are horrible. Too many gimmicks and not enough focus on the food.

    Restaurant Girl and Curtis Stone belong in gap ads or something that’s not related to cooking.

    These are NOT master chefs. Unless they’re mastery falls in the category of being achingly boring.

    Nothing against the military or charities, but what the hell do they have to do with a cooking competition? I don’t need the producers cranking up the sentimentality like they have. It’s annoying.

    Oh, and she doesn’t look like a leprechaun or Yoda. She looks like Willow.

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