Cable TV is larded with food, cooking, and eating shows. They can range from Food Network’s Ten Dollar Dinners With Melissa d’Arabian to Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, productions that center on cheap shopping or cheap gastronomic thrills. The class act in the televised food genre was thought to be Bravo’s Top Chef, but in recent seasons, it’s become a showcase for expletive-spewing tattoo victims more familiar with truculence than truffles.
These are all reasons to welcome back Top Chef Masters, now in its second season. It inverts the usual reality-TV competition show. Instead of desperate amateurs or semipros trying to establish themselves as fascinating television personalities, these are well-established professionals who tend not to be needy for camera fame. Instead, they want to beat the molasses out of their peers. What I’m saying is, Top Chef Masters is that rarity: It’s mature reality TV.
But mature doesn’t mean not fun. In the very first episode of the second season, one of my favorite Quickfire Challenges asks the chefs to make a good meal from food purchased solely from a gas-station quickie mart. I got to feel superior to the chef team that didn’t know the difference between a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and regular Cheetos (hey, I take my small victories where I can find them), and took pleasure in the fact that the judges that first week were the rock band the Bravery — which was nicely random. (Their qualification? Their touring schedule compels them to spend a lot of time at gas stations.)
The series isn’t perfect, of course. Host Kelly Choi is both cheesy and grating: a cheese grater who seems even less interested in eating the food set before her than Top Chef‘s Padma Lakshmi, the queen of tiny bites. Of course, Choi can’t help but come off as wan when placed beside cooking television’s most amusing bunch of judges, including Jay Rayner, who possesses that effortless British glibness; James Oseland, who smiles broadly but doesn’t mind making cutting comments; and the divine Gael Greene, who’s never met a meal over which she couldn’t sprinkle some amusing babble (”the audacity of your lamb carpaccio!”).
One chef I’m rooting for is Susan Feniger, she of the wide smile and spicy palate, although she could be voted off by the time this sees print. And I’m glad to see the series bring back some of last season’s more interesting competitors, such as Rick Moonen, whose sunny disposition does not disguise a tough competitive streak. When Moonen tells an esteemed colleague to stop ”whining,” it carries more dramatic weight than Paula Deen at a corn-dog festival. B