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Top Chef Masters: Season 2, Episode 1: Pajamas & Tuxedos

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To thoroughly enjoy the epic glory that is Top Chef Masters, please welcome Lia Bulaong to the stage, who's here every week to take us through season two.

top-chef-masters-s01e01-2.jpgOh Top Chef Masters, where the stakes are lower than regular Top Chef as the contestants already know the sweet taste of success, and the host is a C-Rate Padma knockoff, I'm so glad you're back for a second season to demonstrate exactly how producers can wring the tiniest amounts of drama out of what is pretty much the most laid back reality show competition ever.

And so here we are once again on the Top Chef Masters set, with Kelly Choi in a red jacket, jeans, silver shoes ensemble that looks so *affordable* that it's quite possible the show's stylist purchased the entire thing at Forever 21 for sixty bucks. This week's contestants, all new to Top Chef Masters, are: Govind Armstrong, Jimmy Bradley, Susan Feniger, Tony Mantuano, Ana Sortun and Jerry Traunfeld.

For the Quick Fire Challenge, the chefs choose pots which turn out to have colored aprons in them to assign teams and we end up with the following randomly-assigned and yet classically archetypal pairings: Jimmy and Govind (the bros), Susan and Tony (the odd couple), and Ana and Jerry (the dull ones). We don't even know what the challenge is yet and already Tony is nervous because he thinks Susan has a good sense of humor and you have to be serious to win! Which is kind of, you know, sexist bullshit because obviously Susan has been running successful restaurants (plural) in Los Angeles for decades, so it's not like she's not a SERIOUS CHEF, but whatever.

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So anyhow, Choibot tells them they're going to Chinatown to shop for ingredients. Tony is worried because, as an Italian chef, it's "not my forte" which is confusing since I'm pretty sure non-Chinese people (Including chefs! 'Cause Chinatowns always have good cheap produce!) manage to shop for ingredients in Chinatown and make whatever they want to make every single day. In the car on the way there, Govind is very 2009 and suggests they do pork belly, which Jimmy immediately nixes because they won't have enough time; Jerry wonders if they might not be shopping for ingredients but actually be doing the Quick Fire there; Susan is confused because they keep driving by stuff and then oh, no, they pull into a gas station. They've been tricked! Choibot explains this is a retread of a challenge from Top Chef Season 1 and they have to make their dishes from ingredients available at a gas station. Govind is bummed because "we'd already worked out a great Chinese menu." Choibot says they will be making food for the band The Bravery and ZOMG! Wouldn't you know it? Our most senior contestant, Tony, is an improbable fan—he says, "The Bravery has been on my iPod for a few years now." And I'm immediately pleased that Very Old Red Faced Dude not only knows what an iPod is but actually has one, and wonder what other up to date technologies he engages with—is he on Facebook playing Farmville like all my friends' parents? Watching episodes of Knight Rider on Hulu? Is he SEXTING?

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Govind walks into the gas station convenience store, makes like Britney Spears and heads straight for the Cheetos! He and Jimmy pick up some macaroni & cheese, consider V8, and then Jimmy makes a crack about how "we just feed them cat food." They both cackle. Ana is going around grabbing things that are "familiar;" Jerry comes to her with an alarmingly large plastic bottle of Clamato and says they can make broth from it. Ana: "And then we've got pork rinds." Jerry: "For crunch." A true melding of the minds! Susan and Tony are grabbing fresh fruit and I'm irrationally terrified these two very accomplished chefs are going to make a fruit salad. Everyone goes to pay and practically everything they've picked out comes in boxes.

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Back in the kitchen and Govind and Jimmy are making? Cheetos macaroni with grilled Slim Jims. Um, eww? Jimmy opens the bag of Cheetos and holy crap, the Cheetos are an atypical glowing neon red instead of the usual glowing neon orange. They look unreal and frighteningly radioactive, like something only Bender could safely handle on Futurama. Jimmy says, "I started to make the cheese sauce and lo and behold, I actually discover they're fiery hot Cheetos," and I realize that it doesn't exactly engender trust that we have two chefs shopping for ingredients TOGETHER and apparently neither one is capable of actually READING? A quick googling makes it clear that Frito-Lay's marketing people know what they're doing and that the packaging of regular and Fiery Red Cheetos, while clearly related, are also obviously clearly distinct products. So Govind and Jimmy are making a freakishly red cheese and Susan is excited, because she's Susan. She and Tony are making bread pudding and Tony is worried about the bread, because it's regular white bread and he's worried it won't do what he wants it to do. He says, "it's smoke and mirrors gourmet."

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Ana and Jerry are making a rice cake with romesco sauce, only because they're using Clamato they are being clever and calling it "clamesco." Jerry asks her if she's tasted the stuff, so Ana tries the Clamato and makes a face. Jerry says, "I think our dish tastes really good, it has interesting spices and it looks very refined." Dude, you guys made a rice cake, and the way you plated your dish makes it look like bread pudding. I was confused for a minute and thought it was Susan and Tony's dish, which actually IS bread pudding, but no.

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Susan says her dish is tasty "but is not pretty" and she's NOT KIDDING. They do a close up and the bread pudding just looks straight up nasty. My friend Jessica describes it as "chunky dog food or a creepy large-sliced tartare" and we both gag.

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Govind says, "As I'm plating I'm definitely feeling a little embarrassed to actually put so much love into Cheeto mac and Slim Jims, but it tasted good." and my friend Jessica loses her shit and I have to pause the DVR for her tirade. She says, "That's bullshit because that's the exact kind of food that Govind cooks. He makes cuban sandwiches and burgers. You can pretend that if you use higher quality ingredients, it's different, but it's basically: fat tastes good. Put something really fatty with starches. Add cheese. That's Govind's cooking, and that's what he's doing right now. Isn't the thing he's really famous for a short rib grilled cheese?" I resume play and put her in a time out as Jerry looks over at the Cheeto mac and thinks it's scary looking, "it's something i would have a hard time eating."

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Back from commercial and wow, The Bravery sure uses a lot of hair product! Maybe an entire pharmacy shelf's worth between the band. One of them has a culinary degree and I wonder if he's managed to pay off the debt yet. Probably not. Another guy is wearing a hat, indoors, at a table, and I instinctively hate him. Susan and Tony's dish is a maple bread pudding with caramelized bananas. Susan says, "It's scary to see these inexperienced kids tasting and criticizing, when I can't defend my dish." The Bravery's self-proclaimed dessert guy likes it. Jimmy and Govind's dish is Cheetos macaroni with grilled Slim Jims and a tomato soup that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. One guy declares his love for Slim Jims, another (clearly the genius of the group) observes "they don't sell mac & cheese like this." The band is impressed by the radioactive color of the macaroni, but I can't help but notice the neon red of it doesn't look good at all with the tomato soup. Plating FAIL. The hat douche says, "To me, mac & cheese is always an exploration in bland? so I'm really impressed how much they were able to get out of that." Govind is pleased and takes credit for using the Fiery Hot Cheetos even though we totally already know that was an accident! Another bandmember says, "The sauce is my least favorite part. It tastes like sauce out of a can? from a gas station." and suddenly Govind is offended and wants him to get over it.

Ana and Jerry's dish is a crispy rice cake with "clamesco" sauce, a spin on the classic spanish romesco sauce. The band: "Very original, I can't say I've tasted anything like this before." "You have to keep reminding yourself this is gas station food, because this to me is something that you can expect from a nice restaurant." All such nice things and then the hat douche rains on their parade by saying he thinks it's a little bland. Jerry is pissy and says it's "because it's probably he's so used to eating the high salt, high fat foods that they make in a convenience store." O SNAP.

Ana and Jerry receive three stars, Jimmy and Govind three and a half, and Susan and Tony get four, so they win ten thousand each for their respective charities but no advantage in the next round.

So now we're back on set, waiting to hear about the elimination challenge and the body language on exhibit is so interesting—Susan and Tony are standing pretty close together while the other four all look tense, each standing a foot apart from their partner. No wonder our odd couple won! Choibot tells them they're working in the same pairings again and no one looks especially pleased except maybe our Quick Fire winners, which should tell you something. They're told they have to make two things each, served on one dish, for couples on a first date.

Susan is all excited again, a) because she's Susan and b) because Tony has cooked for Obama, her favorite president. And then we get a few shots of her walking into Whole Foods to shop and I realize, bless her heart, she dresses like a TODDLER. She could have giant Pampers under her pants and you'd never even notice!

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Jimmy and Govind are picking out meat together, like all good bros do, and Jimmy says, "we're not going with chocolate and peanut butter, so we have to put our thinking caps on." Jerry mispronounces "Peking" like "pecking" (which is so far the most interesting thing he's done all show) and my brain hurts so hard I forget what happens until suddenly Tony is explaining how because he's made dinner for the First Couple and they were pleased, clearly he is qualified to make food for diners on a first date. I'm pretty sure first daters don't have specially dietary restrictions only someone who has cooked for a First Date can meet, but whatever. Then he says, "If you realize you're in love on the first date, you're not hungry. Not for FOOD." and gives us a dirty old man grin and I cringe.

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At checkout, Govind is nervous. He says, passive aggressively, that Jimmy is "hilarious" because he's looking for chapstick at the checkout—has Jimmy never been to Whole Foods? They only have ORGANIC chapstick, buddy—and then trots out the classic "only person you can trust is yourself" line, which is my second favorite reality show cliché after "I'm not here to make friends." Does Govind watch America's Next Top Model?

We're back in the kitchen and Jerry says, "Being in a timed competition like this really reminds me of my first cooking job out of culinary school. I had to perform really well or be fired." Which is, you know, SO unlike any other job in the history of job-having. Thank you, Jerry, for your insightful insight. Jimmy explains how a variation of the seared lamb carpaccio helped him turn his girlfriend into his wife, saying "If the diners make a love connection, maybe we make a love connection with the critics." Somehow I don't think the latter is going to be a problem, given that Govind is hot and Gael Greene is a judge and is, well, Gael Greene. Tony, after his initial apprehension is now on Team Susan: "Being paired with Susan is terrific. She's extremely creative in ways that I'm not." TV always loves an odd couple! Susan explains how she wooed her partner of 15 years at one of her restaurants: "I couldn't figure out what to cook for her because she didn't eat shrimp or garlic or ANYTHING." She ended up using cocktails, saying "I must've been trying to get her drunk."

Jimmy is worrying that the diners won't appreciate raw lamb, so he sears his carpaccio. Govind complains that he's working super hard, doing five different things and Jimmy's barely doing anything. Oooo, is this season finally going to get catty? Jimmy says people think it's easy to make a cold dish, but that it's not true, says he believes in simplicity and invokes Coco Chanel's mantra of always taking one thing off before you leave the house. Ana, sounding completely unconvinced and unenthused, says, "Jerry and I set out to make something exotic. We find that really romantic." Lady, if you're not convinced, I'm not convinced.

Susan is worried about her shrimp overcooking because she's pouring hot sauce over it. Meanwhile, Jimmy is confident that he and Govind will do well because their dish is the most harmonious, and says Susan and Tony's dish "is not harmonious at all"—and now that he's said that, I'm pretty sure Jimmy and Govind didn't win this episode because Top Chef, like most every reality show, gets off on showing us acts of complete confidence that turn out to be completely unwarranted. Hubris is such a great plot device! And now we learn that even plating salads is stressful: Susan worries that Tony is throwing the salad onto the plate and Govind has no idea what Jimmy's doing but disapproves he's cut it so close to the wire.

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Cut to shots of awkward couples on their first dates and then the judges table. Gael Greene appears to have jammed a raven onto her head. Jimmy explains that Govind has gone out to the judges with the food because he's got to stay back and finish plating for the diners, but let's keep it real—Govind went out because while Jimmy has a certain Jon Stewart appeal to him, again, Govind is hot and Gael Greene is Gael Greene.

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James Oseland is dressed like a hipster Mr Rogers, Gael Greene is looking at Govind like she's ready to eat him because she probably is, and Jay Rayner appears to be practicing magic during his off time as a warlock. If his purple jacket is not corduroy or velvet, it really should be. James can't get over the fact that he likes this raw lamb, raw lamb, and wants us to know this is raw lamb, raw lamb. Choibot seems honestly gobsmacked that ZOMG it actually tastes good LOL WTF. Everyone is enamored with the act of picking up lamb chops and eating them on a first date, especially Gael Greene, who "thought it was a sexy idea." Of course you did, Gael. Of course you did.

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Jerry comes out and explains that because the theme is romantic, he and Ana thought it would be fun to cook with flowers. And I nearly fall asleep, because seriously, romance = flowers? Is that really the best two accomplished chefs can come up with? But then again considering how boring they've been all episode long, we should be just be grateful he and anna didn't make it a double extra snooze by picking flowers AND chocolate.

Everyone flips out over Jerry's duck. The music changes to a happy upbeat sound so you know it's true! And then all of a sudden we get sad music and concerned judge faces and Gael Greene says she doesn't know how to eat Ana's dish in "a polite, gracious way." Oh dear. James says, "It's like this part of the date wore her pajamas on the first date and this guy dressed up. It just doesn't quite match." Ouch!

Susan comes in, all hippy earth mother smiles, with her bracelets halfway up her forearms, and declares her and Tony's plate to be "the love potion". It is clearly the prettiest plate of the night. Jay says he "wouldn't kick this pasta out of bed," and Choibot, in a sad attempt to riff, says she'd invite it back to bed. Their faces all change to magical delight when they start eating Susan's shrimp and scallops. And then everyone gets uncomfortable because Jay and James start flirting:

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Jay: "One of the really great things that food on a date can do is bring two people together in that intense moment of them agreeing on something."
James: "What about disagreeing? I think disagreeing can be really hot."
Jay: "Never gonna happen."
James: "Hope springs eternal."

Back from commercial and it's the adorable human interest segment! Susan is talking about how Govind worked in one of her restaurants when he was 16 and says, "I saved him from getting in trouble in high school." Govind says he had the biggest crush on Susan at the time: "I'm 16, hormones are just out of control, and she's got pink hair and earrings all the way down her ear and bracelets all the way up. Very much turned on by that. Um, but it didn't really work out for us." Giant smile.

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And now we're at the critics table. Kelly asks Jimmy and Govind if they enjoyed working together and Jimmy says, "Ebony and ivory." Really, guy? He explains they've made an opposites attract kind of dish because, you know, otherwise no one would ever figure out that raw meat and cooked meat are opposites. James tells Jimmy his carpaccio was a revelation and Gael Greene tells Govind it was a good idea to have them eat his lamb chops by hand. Tony explains his team's idea: take diners on a trip to Malaysia, and then follow it up with a trip to Italy. It was pretty and looked liked it tasted good, but: huh?

Jay asks Susan about whether she thinks her shrimp was overcooked (she does), and says he would've drunk the broth out of the bowl except he was too polite. Gael Greene tells Ana her dish should've been cut up. Jay tries to make Jerry nervous by saying that duck breast is hard to do? but that he executed it well. Then they send the chefs back stage and they start in on the booze. We see that Top Chef Masters craft services provides them with copious amounts of red wine and two kinds of flavored Stoli.

Gael Greene manages to sex up the truffles in Tony's pasta: "I thought it added an earthy sensuality to a fabulous dish." James says his favorite dish is black pepper crab, which Susan's dish was a riff on, and Gael Greene says she loved it. They discuss that Susan knows her shrimp was overcooked and decide that Team Susan and Tony made something terrific for a first date, "a narrative on a plate."

On to Jimmy and Govind. James raves about life changing carpaccio yet again, in case we still haven't figured out that he is usually grossed out by lamb carpaccio but ZOMG Jimmy's was just SO GOOD. Jay liked the idea of eating with fingers but thought the lamb chops were "blah." James ends things with a backhanded compliment and says Govind's cauliflower couscous was his favorite thing on that side of the plate, which means: not the lamb chops. Susan Feniger and Tony Mantuano win.

— Lia Bulaong

· The Chefs of Top Chef Masters Season 2: A Field Guide [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Coverage on Eater [~EN~]

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