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'Top Chef Masters,' Episode 2: The 'Lost' Dinner

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Contestants

Graham Elliot Bowles
Graham Elliot, Chicago
Known for mixing high and low cuisine, probably most famously in his Pop Rocks–dusted foie gras dish. Also known for becoming the youngest 4-star chef in the U.S.
Charity: American Heart Association

Wylie Dufresne
WD~50, New York City
A proponent of "molecular gastronomy," Dufresne is known for inventive dishes such as his signature eggs Benedict—short tubes of puréed egg yolk served with English muffin crumb–crusted cubes of hollandaise.
Charity: Autism Speaks

Suzanne Tracht
Jar, Los Angeles, and Tracht's, Long Beach, California
Known for her pot roast, which she teaches people how to make in twice-monthly classes.
Charity: JFS/SOVA Community Food and Resource Program

Elizabeth Falkner
Citizen Cake and Orson, San Francisco
One of the most famous pastry and dessert chefs in the U.S. and winner of Bon Appétit's 2006 Pastry Chef of the Year. Known for her teetering, spiraling, architecturally stunning desserts.
Charity: The Edible Schoolyard

The Quickfire Challenge: Vending Machine Cuisine

A rehash of the infamous Season 2 vending-machine amuse-bouche challenge, in which contestants had to make a bite-size hors d'oeuvre using crap from vendos. With five seasons of the original Top Chef* to draw on it's interesting to see how producers riff—like bringing back contestants from the first instance of this challenge, including Ilan Hall, whose vending effort Dufresne rated low as guest judge.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Bowles: Candy bars, ham and cheese sandwich, orange soda. "I need to win the entire competition. I get s*** all the time from people for using these type of ingredient in my cuisine." Making: Tuna salad with lime-juice-pickled shallots and orange soda frothed and flavored with lime leaf, lemongrass, and ginger.

Dusfresne: Chooses potato chips, peanuts, ham and cheese sandwiches. Making: Grilled cheese sandwich with crispy ham Dr Pepper reduction with beer nuts.

Tracht: Fritos. Making: Fried shallot rings dusted with Frito flour, with reduced Dr Pepper aioli.

Falkner: Dr Pepper and beef jerky. Making: Dr Pepper–braised beef jerky with orange juice–lemon–horseradish ice cream.

Interesting. The vending machines are generic and not heavily branded, as I expected they would be. (Remember the Glad wall of original Top Chef fame?) Although the use of Dr Pepper from three of the four chefs leaves you wondering of the MD of sodas isn't a sponsor of this episode. (Scratch that—a commercial for Dr Pepper during the episode tells me that it's probably no coincidence the cola's being cooked with here.)

Winner: Tracht. She gets the full five stars. An upset of sorts for Bowles and Dufresne, whose experimentation and deconstruction of familiar dishes seemed to give them a leg up going in to this challenge.

The Elimination Challenge

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Too bad the chefs didn't have Dharma Initiative bags like this one when they went shopping at Whole Foods. Photograph from TomorrowGirl on Flickr

Hey! Isn't Bravo owned by NBC Universal? So why is ABC show Lost getting cross-promotion here? The Elimination Challenge is Lost-related. The chefs must cook "island ingredients" without the aid of the Top Chef pantry, instead relying on a list of Darma Initiative–approved canned and preserved foods. They're cooking for writers and producers of the hit show.

Wylie: "I've never seen Lost. I'm a little lost right now." You and me both, Wylie. I've never seen it, either. (OK. I lied. I've seen a few episodes of Season 1 and then stopped watching in frustration. I just don't get Lost.)

Bowles: Cooks a maki roll with tuna and dehydrated pineapple; tuna niçoise; and tuna à la plancha—"a culinary tour around the globe."

Dufresne: Cooks roasted chicken with poached egg; beets with dried corn; and pantain purée. He gets out the immersion circulator to cook the eggs and will apparently riff on the chicken and the egg. "Humor and whimsy is important," he says.

Tracht: Cooks risotto with uni, clams, and prawns; wild boar strip with oyster-beer sauce; and a mango-corn salad. "I'm going to incorporate as much as I can from the table."

Falkner: Cooks ancho-beer-braised boar loin; coffee-scented poached boar loin sous vide; and yam-papaya pudding.

The Verdict

Wow. The chefs really had to cook for a buttload of people. And the folks from Lost look like total nerds. But they love Top Chef, so they can't be all that bad—they claim to talk about it at the water cooler on Thursday mornings. "There's been a big dip in quality of Lost since Top Chef, actually," a writer who looks like David Cross says.

Winner: If you didn't see the spoiler going around earlier today, let it be known that Suzanne Tracht cleaned up handily. I loved watching the mild rivalry between Bowles and Dufresne (and it seemed like the show might have been playing up that aspect to move things along and throw in a red herring), but I was happy that Tracht won. She was sort of unassuming and soft spoken and quietly kicked ass while the other chefs hogged the spotlight. I admit that I didn't know much about her going in to this episode, but I really like her. I bet that pot roast class of hers will be packed for months to come now.

What did you think of the outcome?

Belated Observations

You know, I actually missed the premiere episode of TCM (I caught up via online recaps), but I have to say I really like it. Because all the chefs are peers and seem to respect each other—with just the hint of friendly rivalry, like that between Bowles and Dufresne—there's none of the trumped-up tension and bullshit that accompanies the original Top Chef. It was a pleasure watching chefs at the top of their game cook some highly inventive dishes under pressure.

I also thought Kelly Choi was fine as host. She's been taking a beating here on SE in comments as well as on other blogs, but I don't see what's so bad about her. People have pointed to her physique and questioned whether she actually eats and/or enjoys food, and to that I say, sure she's skinny, but I've known lots of rail-thin people who are hearty eaters and just have fab metabolisms (and I hate them for it). And I'm sure she likes food—otherwise why pursue it as part of a TV career? As an emcee to merely move things along, she's perfectly adequate—the show's editing takes care of most of the forward motion, anyway.

Anyway, it's been fun recapping tonight. See you next time!

*Since we're going to be talking about Top Chef Masters and the original Top Chef I think we're going to need some abbreviations. TCM is obvious, but for Top Chef I've been toying OTC (Original Top Chef), TCO (Top Chef Original), or, a nod to Trek, TCTOS (Top Chef: The Original Series). Which do you prefer? I'm leaning toward TCTOS.

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