Top Chef Masters: The Pros Dish On The New Spinoff

by | June 8, 2009 at 8:22 AM | Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, TV News

What happens when you arrange for 24 of the nation’s most famous and respected chefs to compete against each other in trés hot challenges making haute cuisine? You get mouth-watering creations, positive attitudes, and serious camaraderie!

See a photo gallery of all the pros competing this season

That’s the recipe for Bravo‘s latest kitchen competition series, Top Chef Masters, debuting June 10th. A spin-off of the network’s ‘Top Chef‘ hit, this tasty variation replaces the amateur wanna-bes with world-renowned culinary superstars facing off in signature Quickfire and Elimination Challenges. The six winners will go head to head in a “champions” round until one “chef-testant” is left with the $100,000 prize for their charity of choice and title of Top Chef Master.

The premiere episode features Hubert Keller, the French foodie who owns the San Francisco and Las Vegas renowned restaurant Fleur de Lys, as well as Burger Bar and SLeeK; Christopher Lee who runs Aureole in New York; Tim Love, the Texan Cowboy behind The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro and The Love Shack in Fort Worth, and Michael Schlow, a former baseball star who traded bats for burners with his restaurant Radius in Boston.

Are these chefs feeling the pressure? The first four competitors dished to Fancast, and they promised it’s all just for fun and a good cause.

Watch favorite moments from ‘Top Chef’.

“The way we entered the competition was definitely not to prove ourselves,” Keller explained. “I think we did enough in our career for where we are today. Every restaurant that we have we are definitely competing with other peers in different restaurants. It’s true there is risk involved, but having our own restaurants, we’re running risks everyday, right?”

The feeling was mutual among the other chefs who agreed the charitable benefit far outweighed any reputation risks.

Added Love, “Of course your staff always wants you to bring home the win. But the risk really is nothing compared to the reward when you go into something like this for a charity, to make a change in somebody else’s life. The competition itself for me kind of took a backseat. I think everybody that enters the competition is pretty much a winner, otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen us. ”

See a ‘Top Chef’ photo gallery.

As for Schlow, he may have gone in because of charity, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t nervous. “I am a fan of the show but we work hard and have crazy hours, and so we don’t get to watch a lot of television. Bravo sent us DVDs of prior Quickfire challenges so that we’d be really well versed in the show, which is nerve-wracking enough once a week, but I sat down and watched the entire 25 all in one night and then I had a panic attack. It’s gut wrenching.”

How the tables have turned! Ironically, Keller has appeared as a judge on past seasons of Top Chef. “I was participating in three different seasons, and the first Top Chef was also filmed at Fleur de Lys,” he said. “I must say it’s something that I could not have turned down. You get a feel of how it actually is when you’re in their shoes and competing.”

But don’t expect nerves to get the best of them. These are the pros after all. Said Love, “We get judged everyday in our restaurants. So being judged by others, I don’t really think it’s new for anybody.”

Though the judges table may look a bit different than last time you tuned in to Top Chef. Familiar faces Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons are all absent. For this installment, food journalist Kelly Choi hosts, with Gael Greene, New York Magazine’s former famed restaurant critic, James Oseland, Editor-in-Chief of Saveur magazine, and British journalist Jay Rayner serving as judges.

Tough crowd right? Maybe not as bad in comparison to some real life diners who’ll partake in critiques. The debut episode features a Quickfire challenge judged by a group of very honest Girl Scouts.

“That dang red head Girl Scout, man, we wanted to 86 her from the start,” Love said of one of their judges. Jokes Lee, “she was the arch-nemesis. I kind of let it go, but I had a couple of sessions to talk to a couple of people about her afterwards.”

When they’re not facing picky children, they’ll also be critiqued by celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Zooey Deschanel, as well as past Top Chef winners, on challenges where they’ll cook on a budget outside of their comfort zones. For that first episode, that means making a three course meal in a dorm room. We don’t want to give anything away…but you may never look at a shower in the same way again.

The competition will be fierce over the next few weeks with chefs like Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill), Wilo Benet (Pikayo), John Besh (Restaurant August), Graham Elliot Bowles (Graham Elliot Restaurant), Michael Chiarello (Bottega Restaurant), Michael Cimarusti (Providence), Wylie Dufresne (wd~50), Elizabeth Falkner (Orson), Ludo Lefebvre (Ludo Bites), Anita Lo (Annisa), Rick Moonen (Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood), Nils Noren (French Culinary Institute), Lachlan McKinnon Patterson (Frasca Food & Wine), Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill), Mark Peel (Campanile), Douglas Rodriguez (Alma de Cuba), Art Smith (Table Fifty-Two), Suzanne Tracht (Jar), Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto), and Roy Yamaguchi (Roy’s Restaurants).

Intimidating much? Lee thinks so. “You know who scared me? The silver fox, Mr. Hubert Keller,” he said, referring to Keller’s long, wavy, hair.

“They all have incredible resumes,” said Schlow. “I respect each one of my colleagues and they each brought something different to the party and any one of them could have won. And I wouldn’t say there was anyone that walked in that made me think, “Oh no, that’s the winner for sure.” I thought that everybody had an equal chance.”

One name is noticeably absent from that roster. Where’s regular head judge – and famous restaurant owner – Tom Colicchio in all of this?

“That would have been a no-win situation,” Schlow surmised. ” If Tom won the show, then people would say that it’s slanted and it’s unfair. And if he lost, he loses credibility as a the head Top Chef judge.”

Okay so he’s got a point. Not that Lee really cares. “Too PC!,” he fired back. “He should have done that; I wanted Tom, man, that’s why I did jump in this I want to know what that red head would have said about his dessert!”

This isn’t the Top Chef we’ve all been trained on. There won’t be complaining, or crying, or hooking up. Hard to believe it’s still a reality show, no? But there will be talent, expertise, and damn good food. Keller himself was actually the first chef to be invited to cook at the White House for Bill and Hillary Clinton. “I was basically the first guest chef and was preparing some healthier versions of dishes,” he recalls. “It’s very intimidating to enter the White House and be asked to prepare lots of dishes. The next day actually, the First Lady was watching over what’s happening in the kitchen, and said, ‘The President wants to see you tomorrow in his office.’ I never expected the President would have actually take the time to see me in his office!”

Though the invitation shouldn’t have come as much of a shock; he’s a James Beard lifetime achievement recipient, and worked under master chef’s like Paul Haeberlin, Roger Verge, Paul Bocuse, Jacques Maximin and Gaston Lenotre. But would you ever guess he highlights on the side as a DJ?

Lee started out at New York’s Jean-Georges and Daniel, and also served as chef de cuisine at Oceana under Neil Gallagher and at The Striped Bass in Philadelphia under Alfred Portale and later became executive chef.

Schlow was the 2000 winner of the James Beard Award for “Best Chef in the Northeast” and his restaurant Radius was named “Best New Restaurant” by Food and Wine. Guess giving up being a baseball pro wasn’t such a bad idea after all. “The funny thing about baseball is I was very, very good but it was not my passion. I was pushed into it, but it was not something that I just loved and had to do for the rest of my life. I am so lucky to have found cooking; it is my passion, it’s my life.”

Out of these first four, Love is the only self trained chef without formal schooling or mentorship under a celebrity chef. “I’ve never worked for anybody like Jean Georges or anybody famous like that,” he said. “And when you work with three tremendous chefs like I worked with on the show, it’s really cool just to watch what everybody does, and learn new techniques.” He’s also known for his boisterous personality and cooking style. Work in his kitchen and be prepared to take a few tequila shots.

“Cooking is I mean, shoot, it’s – that’s the greatest job in the world. It’s long hours, but other than that, who cares you know? You’re partying with your friends everyday.”

To which Lee interjected, “It shows, man, you take shots on the line.”

“Just because you’re unable to, that’s not my problem. You know what I mean?” Love retorted. “I’m having fun everyday, man, I can tell you that. There’s no doubt about it.”

There’s also no doubt that Top Chef Masters will be a fun and delicious spin on an old favorite.

Watch what happens on Bravo, June 10th, and 10 PM.

Go to Bravotv.com for more information.