Top Chef Masters: All in the Family

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Gypsy chef, ninja, kung-fu master. Susur Lee is all of these things and more. Photo: Kelsey McNeal/Bravo

In this week’s episode of Top Chef Masters, we welcomed the return of estrogen to the kitchen after last week’s all-male installment, learned several ways not to serve fruit, and realized that the judges no longer care about the show’s rules. Competing for the final two spots in the champions round, five chefs making their series debuts faced a Quickfire challenge from season one to create the “perfectly styled” fruit plate, followed by yet another catering challenge to feed the cast and crew of Modern Family. (Seriously, can they just let these chefs serve their food from a real kitchen, instead of out of chafing dishes?) Overall, drama was low, food quality was high, and Kelly Choi said even less than usual. Grab a fork and let’s dig into the best and worst moments from last night’s show.

This Week’s Competitors: Jody Adams, Debbie Gold, Maria Hines, Susur Lee, and Rick Tramonto

Hero: It took us a while to warm up to his big ego and mixed cultural metaphors, but Susur Lee ultimately won us over with a huge comeback that proved you don’t need a James Beard award to be Top Chef Master. After he received the lowest score in the Quickfire for a misguided, overcomplicated fruit plate, Susur was none too pleased. “What the fuck is that?!” he responded. “I’m very pissed off but that’s good, actually. That makes me very motivated.” Motivation, plus a call to his seemingly awesome wife (“Shut the hell up. I don’t wanna listen to that bullshit,” she apparently told him when he called to whine) helped him go on to win the elimination challenge with a record-breaking nineteen-and-a-half stars, an all-time series high. With his roasted curry chicken, served with polenta and tomato chutney, he bested his four competitors, all of them Beard winners, by at least fours stars. We’d like to think he derives his culinary powers from his ponytail and the bling he wears on his ear.

Villain: The chefs were all genial this week, forming a drama-free and likable group. Thus we must single out the show’s producers as this week’s most loathsome party. Trying to stir things up on what is one of the most laid-back competitive reality shows, the producers upped the ante by allowing the Quickfire winner to advance to the champions round. That would have been acceptable if the challenge had been worthy of that prize, but fancy fruit plates are an insult to the chefs and the audience. That Jody advanced to the next round for an undercooked tart only makes this decision worse.

Biggest Braggart: “My food has changed the Chicago culinary scene,” claimed Rick Tramonto. Knowing more than a thing or two about the Windy City’s dining scene, we know this not to be the case. Making it worse was Gail Simmons’s over-the-top shill: “If you’re in Chicago and not eating at a Rick Tramanto restaurant, you’re probably eating in the wrong place.” What would season-one winner Rick Bayless have to say about that?

Biggest Technical Flub: Undercooked pork is no laughing matter, but the Modern Family cast had a good laugh at Debbie’s expense anyway. One guy’s meat was so tough that he had to cut through the plate in order to get some sustenance. (See video below.)

Fatal Flaw: Rick’s stew of white beans, escarole, and sausage looked good enough, but he mistakenly advertised his beans as “truffled.” Apparently judges and Hollywood types alike get excited by the prospect of the heady delicacy in their food, because they all spent a lot of time searching for truffles and complaining about the lack thereof. It turned out that Rick had only used white truffle oil, and sparingly at that. He was punished for it with his scores. If he'd used the real thing, he would be the winner.

Unintentionally Hilarious Moment: Presumably prompted by their off-camera interviewers, each chef took a stab at describing how “modern” their family is. Poor Maria was clearly reaching, though: “I’ve been with my partner, Bahia, for, I think, ten years now, and we have two dogs.” Sorry, but two ladies and a couple of dogs do not a modern family make.

Worst Presentation: Discussing his fruit-plate strategy, Rick said, “I want it to be like a Dalí or a Monet or a Picasso, where you look at the art and you know right away who it is.” That’s a good intention, but the finished product was a mess on a plate. The judges called it “playful,” but his use of a Versace cup and “culinary inspiration cards” pretty much went against the simple elegance of a fruit plate and looked like something you’d expect in a Las Vegas hotel.

Confusing Cross-Promotion: We’re big fans of Modern Family and were happy to see the cast here, even if they weren’t at their funniest. Still, it’s more than a little strange that a hit series shown on ABC, a competitor for Bravo’s parent company, NBC Universal, would get so much positive airtime here. Was the cast of Parenthood unavailable?

WTF Moment: If you happened to be watching without the aid of DVR, you would have noticed, a little more than halfway through the hour, a preview for next week’s episode. And if you were watching carefully, you would have noticed a huge spoiler when they revealed Susur’s presence there, which eliminated the minimal tension remaining in this week’s competition.

Worst Judging Decisions: We applaud Susur’s food in this episode, but there’s no way it should have won given the guidelines put forth: to create a meal that could please everyone in a family and make it modern. His dish, too spicy for some and too unusual for others (“Some of this is a little exotic for me,” groaned one crew member), fell far short of these requirements. It must have been delicious if he earned such a high score, but why bother coming up with guidelines if the only judging criterion is how delicious something is? Or did the producers intervene because Susur makes for good TV?

Best Susur Lee Quote: “Critics give you a clap, or they’re gonna give you a slap. But maybe they do not understand different culture. Those kind of thing really bugs my ass.”

Fun Fact: Susur runs around the kitchen with his shoes off. “Being a chef is like a ninja,” he explained. “You have to be so fast and so quick, and you have to be free. I feel like I’m the kung-fu master.”

Standings:
Winners: Jody Adams and Susur Lee
Eliminated: Debbie Gold, Maria Hines, and Rick Tramonto

Next Week: Wedding Wars return to torture the eight cheftestants in the champions round.