Photo by Nicole Wilder/Bravo
There have been some serious changes made to Top Chef Masters this season. First of all host Kelly Choi has been replaced by the omnipresent Ausie Curtis Stone. Legendary food critic Ruth Reichl will sidle up beside her comrade James Oseland at the Judges’ Table. And the format of the show has completely changed. In a recent conference call interview Stone, Reichl and Oseland talked about the new set-up, their celebrity guests and what they would be eating if they could eat anything in the world.
Stone opened up about the latest installment of Top Chef Masters, saying, “This season we really mixed it up. We changed the format and all the chefs were in the show together and in the previous seasons there was… tournament [style] and two of the chefs went through. But in this one we followed the format of Top Chef where all the chefs begin and in each episode, one chef’s eliminated. So I think that that really increased the pressure compared with other seasons because as a chef myself, and knowing what it’s like to enter these competitions, the last thing in the world you want to do is to see the final curtain fall in episode one.”
Stone does understand the stresses of being a famous competitor on a reality TV show. He spoke about his own decision to participate on The Celebrity Apprentice following a conversation with David Arquette, “I said ‘Oh, why not. It’ll be fun.’ And I thought it would be fun until I wound up in a room with Bret Michaels and Bill Goldberg and Sharon Osbourne and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I actually quite enjoyed the experience. It was like playing a game every day. It was something different and we’d have to sit across the table from Donald, of course, and listen to him swing his axe.”
That time in the boardroom helps Stone look at what the TCM competitors are going through from a different angle. He acknowledged, “It gave me a real perspective on how the contestants were feeling in this competition because you’re standing there thinking, ‘Am I going to look foolish here? Is he going to destroy me?’ And just like with these guys, it’s their credibility on the line and they’re doing the best they can. But we give them some really unbelievable circumstance to cook under on Top Chef Masters and, no matter how great these chefs are, we really make them show that mastery through their cooking in the limited time we give them and all the rest of it. So I could really empathize with them.”
Luckily for Stone he can sympathize without having to be executioner. He confessed that he was glad he didn’t have the power to tell the chef’s that they were fired, “I was privileged to eat their food and give comments on it. In a way, I felt fortunate that I didn’t have a say in what actually happened. It was up to the critics to decide.”
And those choices are definitely not going to be easy. Once again the caliber of cheftestants is extraordinary. The list includes one of the Hot Tamales Mary Sue Milliken, the “father of modern Southwestern cuisine” John Rivera Sedlar and the James Beard Foundation’s 1995 “Rising Star Chef of the Year” Traci Des Jardins.
But when asked who she’d like to see compete in the future, legendary critic Reichl remarked, “Of course [I] want to see everyone do it because I think it’s just so amazing. You get to know people in a new way watching them in this atmosphere and it’s very intimate. And some of these chefs are people I have known for a very long time and at the end of the season I felt so much closer to them and had such a feeling of insight into how they work. Some of the people that I’ve known forever — I would love to see Wolfgang Puck do this. And I would love to see Grant Achatz do it and Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller and Lydia Shire would be great on this show.”
Oseland tossed out one more possibility. “I’d like to see what Pierre Gagnaire does with like a fast food kind of challenge… let alone the insects.”
For now Top Chef Masters fans can expect a great turnout from the current slate of cheftestants. Oseland divulged, “I swear, it’s a completely awesome season. The format switch-up… really did make a very profound difference to what the chefs were cooking, how they interrelated with each other… how they just were involved with the whole greater process.”
He continued, “The chefs ultimately became more comfortable because we were giving them the chance over the course of multiple episodes to become more comfortable; to get familiar with the kitchen, to know where the salt was kept, to know that even for instance that the kind of salt that’s used in the Top Chef Masters Kitchen is a course grained kosher salt versus a really more fine milled kosher salt. So we weren’t tasting food that was like suddenly totally aggressively awfully salty.”
In fact that one seasoning was the downfall of the first eliminated contestant, Hugh Acheson. But those chefs that made it past episode one will get an opportunity to cook for some pretty special guest stars this season.
Stone discussed a highlight of the season, “We had Christina Hendricks on one of the episodes with her husband [Geoffrey Arend] and we actually had the chefs cook this incredible cocktail party for them. And it was so interesting to listen to their experience on set and what the food of the ‘60s was like, and then having them around this food from the ‘60s all the time. And then for us to relive it and go back in time as well. That was really fun.”
Oseland seemed to be a bit awed by the woman behind Joan Harris, “The thing that really blew me away about Christina Hendricks was what we learned in the course of sharing this really gorgeous meal with them is that she and her husband, her husband was there as well, are serious cooks. They’re not gobblers. They’re like serious, serious cooks. We were talking serious cooking technique and serious dishes that they’ve eaten and that they were going to cook even that weekend. That was just a complete revelation. Who knew? You wouldn’t have necessarily connected those dots but how wonderful was that.”
Reichl was impressed, too. “Also you do have to say that Christina Hendricks, who on Mad Men is the most beautiful woman in the world, is even more beautiful in person. And it’s a little scary to have her talking about being up for four hours, making puff pastry and things. Because she’s not only beautiful but she serves these extraordinary meals. It was very intimidating.”
Curtis also revealed a surprising fact about Kelis, the “Milkshake” singer, who appears in an upcoming episode. “We didn’t realize that she was actually a trade qualified chef. She’d gone to the Cordon Bleu and it’s so interesting. These celebrities come on board and we’re sort of in awe of them and they’re totally in awe of the whole Top Chef franchise and wanted to get their photo in front of the Top Chef Masters sign and it was really cute to see.”
We could have listened to the TCM talent talk about food for hours but time was limited. We did learn one thing — if you’re ever looking for away to wrap up an interview with three world class foodies, all you have to do is ask one simple question. If you could be eating anything, anywhere in the world right now at this moment, what would it be?
Stone jumped right in to describe his perfect meal, “I’d be in the south of France and I’d be eating some sort of mousse [langiere] or clams or something like that right on the water.”
Reichl chimed in, “I would be in Santa Barbara eating sea urchins by the sea.” While Oseland said he would be “in Jakarta, Indonesia eating coconut rice flavored with lemon grass and ginger wrapped up in a banana leaf along with some chili paste and a beautiful piece of just fried chicken.” Then he added, “God. That’s a good question. Guys, let’s have lunch. Can we take a break?”
Catch all of the delicious action when Top Chef Masters moves to its regular time this Wednesday, April 13 at 10 p.m. PST/9 p.m. Central on Bravo.
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