Two Top Chef Masters experience the most "bizarre" battle yet.
Credit: Nicole Wilder/Bravo

For a “reality” show, there isn’t any real dramatic hook this week on Top Chef Duels. Neither contestant has harmed the other in any grievous way. Neither is sniping at the other from the closed confines of the stew room. There’s no beef—Kobe, wagyu, or otherwise. That’s because there doesn’t need to be.

Since Top Chef: Masters premiered in 2009, it has drawn a cadre of established chefs who, for the most part, have become famous for the personality of their flavors rather than their personages. Cooking in general has gained mass media attention—particularly when Michelin gets involved—but Top Chef: Masters seek the aforementioned stars rather than see them. They’re far more interested in fine dining than Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

Even compared to its more-famous antecedent, Top Chef: Masters ignores many of the brioche-and-compound-butter tropes of reality television. Masters get a pass—they’re not really expected to cultivate drama once the cameras roll. Instead, there’s dignity and respect within the kitchen. They’re rooting for one another, or so the production team would have us think. And what it often lacks in reality-style fireworks, it has made up for in captivating cuisine.

But there’s still a duel to be fought, and this week pits French-Asian stylist Takashi Yagihashi against the latest somewhat-absurdly Curtis-credentialed “godfather of American cuisine,” David Burke. The two are old friends; situating the two of them in a Manhattan bachelor pad must’ve produced some awesome TV dinners.

Though I have a hot-and-cold (or sweet-and-sour) relationship with celebrity chefdom, Andrew Zimmern is one of the good guys. His Bizarre Foods, which debuted in 2007, introduced new edibles to an increasingly brave American public at just the right time. No matter your stance on the farthest corners of global cuisine, watching the guy eat an eyeball and justify it has been a pleasurable (and positive) experience for eating well in the States. Once I saw those round-rimmed glasses, I knew we’d be in for a treat.

For dinner this week is a pair of quickfires that get at the Masters ethos—each chef chooses cooking that lands in the other’s culinary wheelhouse. Sure, the $10,000 isn’t as much of a motivator for these two chefs (the contested funds on Top Chef Masters go to charity), but here we see a more welcome, less cutthroat approach. The win-at-all-costs mentality is ditched in favor of the desire to beat a friend at his own game. There’s no strategizing. Just eggs.

NEXT: A culinary egg-stravaganza

David Burke has more than a few signature dishes—in the buildup, I was hoping for an Angry Lobster—but eggs are, as he says, “a great medium to express a chef’s artwork.” Burke’s a mural painter of sorts: his big, splashy ideas splay across space and have a sort of urban-sophisticate permanence. For a less-established chef, cooking the egg custard inside of its shell might seem an old trick. But in this case, Burke helped popularize it, and his “sexy” watercress flan custard served en-shell with a ragu of bacon, mushrooms, asparagus, and carrots with fisherman’s toast looks like the classic.

He’s most-jazzed about the toast—a deep char-flavored black bread with nori and lemon zest—and describes it as the dish’s “wow” factor. I get that he’s been cooking the custard for decades, and to some extent the challenge almost pigeonholes him: What other egg dish could he serve? I was concerned when he said the toast was the part of the dish he was the most excited about. Each of the judges give it fine marks, though, explaining the densely layered flavors and the uniqueness of the supplementary toast. What do I know?

Compared to Burke’s plates, chef Takashi-san’s French-Asian style is more refined—a pointillist project, if you will, that draws upon diverse cuisines of his region and synthesizes them into something great. As part of his egg duo, he creates his take on a classic that’s been around much longer than Burke’s, preparing chawanmushi within his eggshell and topped with sea urchin and caviar. Alongside that, he serves a “hot spring” (slow-cooked) egg with cold udon noodles and natto, a fermented soybean delicacy that is, as Gail says, underrated and slimy. That’s a combination I don’t necessarily ascribe to, but Zimmern’s impressed with a duo of dishes that actually compliment each other, and he and Gail vote for Takashi.

David’s challenge is equally equanimous: cook crab three ways. He jokes that he hopes to overload Takashi with work, but again, there’s little pretense for drama here between the two chefs. There’s little time for anything but cooking, really, as each competitor has to prepare their three dishes in 30 minutes. For David, that means another specialty, his salty pretzel-crusted crab cake, paired with spicy mango crab and citrus salad with chili sauce and a Jersey-inspired, strikingly orange crab-and-beer soup.

Takashi’s offerings—a sunomono (cucumber salad) with seaweed and crab meat, simplistic jumbo lump crab with cocktail sauce, and a crab miso—are more understated, but also seemingly more refined. For as much as New Jersey’s loud, brash coastal life infuses the David Burke dining experience, Takashi draws upon the flavors and sensibilities of a world away. And while I’m not exactly sure what Curtis means when he says that Takashi has “intellectualized” the crab, the plates he’s producing stand out without trying to. Though Gail votes for David, Curtis and Andrew choose Takashi.

One thing that’s nice about an all-Masters challenge is the ability to source unusual products, and once Zimmern appeared, I figured we’d be in for something bizarre. It’s a win-win for the episode (and the judges): At best, these experienced toques have cooked with the strange ingredients before, and at worst, they’ll figure out what to do and still produce solid food.

The revelation of the foods leads to plenty of laughs, and it turns out that neither David nor Takashi has cooked with sea squirt, armadillo, or black sapote. In fact, Takashi’s never even seen an armadillo (or, as David observes, a subway rat with a hard shell) before.

Gastronauts Ben Pauker and Curtiss Calleo have been helping New Yorkers eat adventurously for eight years (apparently) and will be judging alongside an old Top Chef: Masters favorite, James Oseland. The most shocking spin-off returner, though, is Zac Young, the fairy-dust-sprinkling pastry chef who finished fourth on the inaugural season of Top Chef: Just Desserts. Even he’s on his best Masters-level behavior, but he’s right… desserts IS stressed spelled backward!

NEXT: Battle bizarre

For better or worse, once the plates begin to emerge from the convivial kitchen is that Burke is, to a large extent, doing “his food” with the required dishes subbing-in for other proteins or highlights. After a few courses of variations of existing David Burke dishes, a sea squirt Benedict just doesn’t seem all that exciting, even with potato pancakes as English muffins and the squirts as the Canadian bacon. Though a ragu of sea squirt with ramps sounds delicious, and the precariously perched plates bear David’s culinary signature, it’s just not the level of risk-taking or experimentation that anyone was looking for.

Takashi, on the other hand, prepares a first course that synthesizes the cuisine of an entire region, but still maintains his identity. Sea squirt rolls are the star of a plate that draws from China (doubanjiang, or fermented bean paste), Korea (gochujang, another pungent paste product), and Japan (miso) in Takashi’s understated-yet-generous style. He even “asked a spot prawn to help.”

Though Andrew preferred David’s offering, the “Gastronauts,” argue that Takashi’s was more “brave”). This can be a common over-criticism on Top Chef; all that should matter is who offered the best food.

Despite Takashi’s clear advantage in the eyes of the judges, David’s armadillo, bacon, snail, and pigeon meat pie cooked in red wine with dry cranberries, crushed pigeon sauce, and fresh-baked biscuits looks like the best food of the week. It’s rustic and comforting even through the TV screen. Though the Gastronauts are quick to criticize it—citing textural one-note-ness—it seems like the judges’ favorite plate of the night, particularly when compared to Takashi’s trio of armadillo offerings.

Counting David’s tripartite challenge, the chefs were asked to prepare a minimum of seven dishes this week. Takashi made 10. At least one was bound to fall short of the super-high standards they’ve set, so it’s not surprising that sautéed armadillo was the “meh” note alongside red wine-braised and blood sausage-filled offerings.

Five episodes in, we’re starting to see more and more emphasis on pastry chefs. Granted, the challenges call for complete three-course meals, but outside of satisfying the judges’ sweet teeth, there isn’t much utility in judging desserts. The chefs don’t make them on their own time, and the pastry chefs themselves aren’t the ones competing. But then again, dessert has never really found a home on the normal show (remember the cake Hung served in the season three finale?), and at least with pastry chefs on board, we’re getting composed desserts that actually succeed, but how wrong can you can go with a chocolate-y persimmon?

David’s golden chocolate dome with brown butter sapote ice cream, peanut butter ganache, and sapote mousse is pretty, but it still feels like an alternative version of a “David Burke dish” rather than a Top Chef reinterpretation. And although Takashi’s dish doesn’t really seem all that special, he clearly conforms to the challenge by plating a black sapote rice pudding with sapote cake, macaron, and ice cream.

Ultimately, the “epic” nature of David’s cuisine proves inescapable, and his style shines through more than the ingredients he needed to highlight. Though his food isn’t “dramatic” in the reality TV sense, in the battle of Masters, Takashi-san’s understated dignity and approach—even with some of the strangest ingredients the show has ever seen—earn him a well-deserved victory and trip to the finale.

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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