Two of competitive culinary television's favorite sons face off in the inaugural episode of Top Chef Duels.

By John Vilanova
Updated August 07, 2014 at 03:01 AM EDT
Nicole Wilder/Bravo

Top Chef Duels

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Over the course of 11 seasons, countless spin-offs, and an empire that has produced a series of cookbooks and an online culinary school, Top Chef has outlined a set of culinary cardinal rules: Don’t volunteer to be executive chef during Restaurant Wars. Don’t overcook the risotto, undercook the bacon you’re wrapping your scallops in, or put anything inedible on the plate. Don’t touch another chef’s mise en place or, for that matter, another chef. And be careful with dessert.

If we’re to believe dozens of chefs who’ve sat down for interviews in the stew room, the reason “doing desserts” can be so tricky is that it requires a completely altered mind-set. Desserts require precisely measured portions, and upsetting the careful culinary chemistry can prompt a pouting Padma to tell you to “pack your knives…and go.” In the same vein, when a cheftestant moves too far outside of his or her comfort zone, messing with the formula for no good reason, things like CJ’s roasted broccolini and Dale’s butterscotch scallops result in spectacular—and memorable—failure. If you screw with the recipe, you risk disaster.

Although Top Chef Duels doesn’t deconstruct the competitive cooking formula honed in the fires of pizza ovens and sponsored appliances on Bravo, it is at least an alternative plating to an already successful offering. The franchise has maintained stable ratings throughout its eight-year-run, but Magical Elves—the company responsible for bringing us the HosLeah romance, “Team Europe,” and the case of the missing pea puree (and for bringing Jimmy Fallon chicken pot pie courtesy of a hootie-hooing Carla Hall)—has consistently workshopped new ideas while keeping the main courses intact. And in the interim before season 12 later this year, Duels is a fusion of familiar concepts that is more of a second helping than it is Just Desserts.

The format retains much of Top Chef‘s recipe, with two cash-prize quickfires serving as the appetizer course before each week’s main elimination duel. After nine head-to-head matchups, the victorious chefs unite for a yet-unclear mega-finale, where the three-headed monster of Wolfgang Puck, Gail Simmons, and Curtis Stone will decide the combatants’ fates. It’s a fair tribunal, to be sure, but without Padma, Tom, and last season’s surprisingly awesome “Uncle Emeril,” the judges’ table lacks a bit in culinary gravitas. It just doesn’t feel like real Top Chef without Tom’s bald head and Padma’s well-coiffed one.

Like the new toys many celebrity chefs are earning for themselves with all that TV cheddar, Top Chef Duels is a high-tech, chrome-outfitted wonder, with a sparkling new kitchen, fancy new camera tricks like slow-motion slices and high-speed plating. It’s as food porn-y as it gets and a welcome addition for anyone who enjoys watching fruits squelch, flame erupt, and meat sizzle.

NEXT: The Gastronomic Grapplers

The first pair going head-to-head is a worthy one: the series’ favorite son, self-proclaimed”Top Chef OG” Richard Blais, and its “first molecular gastronomist” and perhaps its greatest anti-hero, Marcel Vigneron. Throughout appearances on their respective seasons and Top Chef All-Stars (which Richard won), they’ve proven to provide two of the series’ most distinct culinary points of view. Each first appear older and wiser, but once the chef coats come on, they’re back to their usual selves.

Unlike on the flagship show, where quickfires are a surprise, the chefs know their opponent ahead of time and can select the parameters of their respective challenge to play to their own strengths. Both chefs could be called “cerebral” at best—or head cases at worst—and each crafts a task that is more concerned with messing with his opponent than best showcasing their own food.

So of all things, a dessert battle starts off the series, with two noisy-looking offerings. When Richard plated two massive piles of foam, it seemed like a death knell (foam’s Top Chef winning percentage is probably on par with that of the Washington Generals), but Wolfgang spends enough time ripping Marcel’s cashew cake apart (physically… like with his hands) that Dickie Blais takes round 1.

Richard’s burger challenge—or “Burger heaven,” to Wolfie—is also a bit of a dud, but it does begin to drum up some of the culinary conversations that the show sometimes wades its way into. In this case, it’s excess versus concept on the burger battleground. If anything, it seems like Richard chose this challenge as an intellectual exercise: He seems convinced that he’s built the best-possible burger, conceptually. Why even judge? But alas, Marcel’s fried-egg-fedora-wearing indulgence-bomb wins over the Canadienne and Austrian judges and knots up the scores. That’s America, Richard.

With all the new bells and whistles, a final challenge that stimulates the senses seems a fitting conclusion, though I can’t remember a time when Smell-O-Vision seemed more necessary for optimal viewing. Visually misleading dishes have been done to death on the show, but heart-of-palm-as-bone-marrow and chicken-liver-mousse-as-cherries are a nice change-up from the usual suspects (though both chefs should’ve been docked points for their faux caviar and Marcel should’ve lost even more for “scallops,” the oldest trick in the fake-food playbook).

As the diners dug into their dishes, the “old-favorites” nature of these two competitors reminded me of why the show can so successfully bring back past contestants to draw knives again. Between Richard’s self-doubt and Marcel’s menthol-scented self-sabotage, it’s a quintessential formula in a shiny new sauté pan. Of course Richard’s pasta machine isn’t working, and Marcel is snipping at his sous chefs. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

In the end, Richard’s more-cohesive “forest floor” menu wins out, though Marcel’s dragonfruit dessert is the showstopper in a battle that had to have been incredibly close. The real winners here, though, are the viewers because this honestly felt like some of the more sophisticated cooking the show has ever seen. Both chefs executed menus, and the food looks expensive in an unapologetically Iron Chef: America type of way. Somehow I doubt we’re going to see a vending machine quickfire this season.

Top Chef first aired in 2006, right as America was embracing the latest wave of haute cuisine and learning the difference between Chef Bobby Flay and Chef Boyardee. The show has since taken its rightful seat at the head of the culinary TV table, but in keeping the essential ingredients and adding some newly sourced sparkle, Duels is a nice refresh on a menu that maintains its signature dishes. Or, for everyone except Richard Blais, it’s a nice fat fried egg sitting atop a slab of grade-A meat.

Follow me on Twitter: @JohnVilanova

Episode Recaps

Top Chef Duels

Celebrity chefs Curtis Stone and Gail Simmons decide the best chef as two past contestants go head-to-head in each episode.
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