Thursday, April 7, 2011

Julian's Celina Tio gets through the first challenge on Top Chef Masters

Posted By on Thu, Apr 7, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Tio squeezes lemons in the Top Chef Masters kitchen.
  • Tio squeezes lemons in the Top Chef Masters kitchen.

The third season of Top Chef Masters premiered last night, and much like the beautiful, over-the-stove, time-lapse camera shots that briefly flitted onscreen, everything felt a bit rushed. There's a new host, Curtis Stone; a new judge in critic Ruth Reichl; and a new format -- one chef goes home every week. And, frankly, they haven't quite figured out how to put the pieces together.

Still, Julian's Celina Tio managed to advance, despite failing to plate her dish in the first quick-fire challenge. And when the show gave the 12 chefs time to breathe, they proved that they could be entertaining.

Quick-Fire Challenge: Three minutes into the show and we're off and cooking. That's what I like about Top Chef: Theoretically, it's less about reality drama and more about what's happening in the kitchen. The show takes a page out of Chopped and unveils 12 "mystery boxes," each with one ingredient. The chefs go head-to-head, competing against the chef standing next to them. The twist is, they'll have 20 minutes to cook and must use both ingredients.

This leads to unfortunate pairings: chicken liver and popcorn, sardines and dragonfruit, cockles and Marmite (which apparently can only be made into Marmite soup with cockles or cockle soup with Marmite), black licorice and peanut butter, frog legs and cottage cheese, and canned corned beef and marshmallows. That final pairings belong to chef Tio and chef Suvir Saran, the unquestioned breakout star of the show.

Tio fails to plate her dish in time.

"It looks like dog food on the plate," Tio says, before electing to send the judges an empty dish. She's not the only one, Naomi Pomeroy has nothing to serve, and chef John Currence leaves off the cottage-cheese ranch that was meant to accompany his buffalo frog legs. 

Mary Sue Milliken and Traci Des Jardins, who have the women's equivalent of a bromance, turn in the top two dishes. Des Jardins' duo of salads with peanut butter vinaigrette top Milliken's fried cottage-cheese patty. Des Jardins receives immunity and $5,000 for her charity, La Cocina. 

Elimination Challenge: In keeping with the lightning-round aspect of the show, Top Chef Masters decided to make "Restaurant Wars" the first challenge. The challenge that typically signifies that cheftestants have made it to the midpoint of the cooking show is front and center. Does this mean that Franchise Wars is coming in week five of the 10-week show?

"We'll all open several restaurants. But with all of these personalities opening a restaurant together, it will be a totally different experience," Tio says.

The winners of the quick-fire are put on the red team (Mosaic), while the losers are the blue team (Leela).

"My small table looks like a joke somebody's grandpa would tell. Two Indians, two Americans, a Canadian and a Portuguese guy walk into a bar," chef Hugh Acheson quips. 
 
Mosaic seems organized with Des Jardins in the front of the house, while Leela is floundering with Pomeroy deciding to seat the entire restaurant at once, just as she does at her own place, Beast. Could this be the classic reality ploy of presenting one team as unflappable and the other as headed for disaster?

"Every Indian man needs a woman to take care of him," Saran jokes, as Milliken feeds him an apple slice from her prep table.

"Except you," Milliken fires back.

"I need two," Saran says. 

It's quiet and composed on the Mosaic side, where the judges are joined by author Danyelle Freeman. The chefs of Leela appear to be at the breaking point over Pomeroy's decision to seat the entire dining room in one fell swoop.

"If my maitre d' sat every table at once, that would be his last night at work," Stone says.

Tio's pistachio cake and honey semifreddo are said to have "problematic plating."

In a poor twist, the diners decide who win. The critics preferred Mosaic, but the diners gave the nod to Leela. The producers and editors did set us up. Alessandro "Alex" Stratta's celery root, potato and spinach fricasse is named the top dish. Chef John Rivera Sadler on team Leela is lucky as his undercooked lamb (and apple slices with labels still on them) might have earned him a ticket home.

Milliken is nearly done in by a lack of unsweetened chocolate and reliance on an old favorite. But her dry cake is deemed better than an overly salted, massive scallop served with shrimp and grits by Acheson. He's the first to go.

"It's exciting but exhausting," Tio says. And I couldn't agree more. I hope the show settles into a more comfortable place with fewer chefs to eliminate in the coming weeks.

Line of the Night/Zen Advice for Life
: Less is more. When you become a master, you make magic from nothing. -- Suvir Saran.

Top Chef Masters is on Wednesday nights on Bravo at 10 p.m.

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