Top Chef Masters Week 2: Even The Pros Get Nervous

by | June 16, 2009 at 4:15 PM | Top Chef Masters

Hungry for a heaping of raw talent, cultivated competitors, and seasoned expertise? Fill that craving with week two of Top Chef Masters, the summer spin-off featuring world renowned chefs battling it out for the title of Top Chef Master, and a grand prize awarded to the charity of their choice.

See bios of all the chefs competing in Top Chef Masters

Last week kicked off the competition and saw French chef Hubert Keller advance to the next round. The five other chefs that win their respective episodes will join him in the finals, including one of the following fine foodies we’re about to meet this week. There’s Wylie Dufresne, who regular Top Chef viewers will recognize as a past guest judge (how the tables have turned!); California cooking connoisseur Suzanne Tracht; Graham Elliot Bowles, a young Chicago phenom; and Elizabeth Falkner, a rare breed pastry chef who specializes in the genre that usually stirs groans from Top Chef competitors. Will it give her an edge here? Fancast spoke to Falkner, and the rest of the group, about their turn in the reality hot seat.

Unfortunately for Falkner, it seems that the big pastry challenge was last week, where Keller soared, allowing her fellow competitors to breathe a united sigh of relief.

“I was actually like, bring on the pastry!” Falkner said of her hopes for the competition. But, “after that second show, I was like why wasn’t I on that [first] one?”

For the rest of the group, it was a lucky break. “I practiced a lot of different past scenarios and definitely will admit to dreading anything that was going to be dealing with pastry,” Bowles admitted, to which Dufresne added, “I will definitely second that.”

Real Top Chefs get nervous about cooking? Who knew! In fact, Bowles wasn’t only anxious about desserts, he was just plain anxious. “I was definitely nervous going in to the competition not knowing who I was going to be facing. And of course wondering if you’re going to cut your finger off and just look like a complete douche bag in front of a million people,” he said.

But he did it in the name of charity. For Bowles, who runs Graham Elliot in Chicago, and was the nation’s youngest four-star chef with perfect reviews, it was for the American Heart Association, and a “no brainer.”

“I thought any chance to help out through cooking, we wanted to be a part of,” he said. Tracht, echoed his sentiment, and admits being a fan of the show helped sway her. “As soon as I heard that it was for charity, and it was for Top Chef Master – and I’d seen the show and really liked it, and I’m not one for TV – I think it was hard for anybody to say no,” she said. Tracht, who owns two top California restaurants – Jar and Tracht’s – and has been nationally recognized in the media in addition to being inducted into the Fine Dining Hall of Fame in 2007, will be playing for the JFS/SOVA Community Food and Resource Program.

She and Falkner are only two of just four women competing in this series with 20 male chefs. Skewed much?

“I think that there’s a lot of women in the industry but it still can be more of a male dominated industry,” Falkner admits of the obvious lack of female presence. “But I think that’s just because it’s pretty physical work and in the case of the Top Chef Masters, or even Top Chef, you’ve got to really like the culinary side and the competition at the same time. You’ve got to move quickly and it really is like a sports activity, you’ve got to almost train for it, both culinary and physically,” she said. “I’m always like yeah, bring it on, I love this kind of stuff.”

Falkner, whose pastry prowess is showcased at her San Francisco restaurant, Citizen Cake, will be competing for The Edible Schoolyard, an organization that promotes healthy connections between food and the environment.

Then there’s Wylie Dufresne, a James Beard nominated chef and owner of one of New York’s most popular restaurants, wd~50, which acquired its unique name from the combo of his initials and the eatery’s street address. It was awarded a Michelin star in 2006, one it’s retained through 2009, and he’ll be playing for Autism Speaks. He also joins the competition as a player; it’s unfamiliar terrain from his guest spots at judge’s table. And wouldn’t you know, it’s not always as easy as it looks, even for the pros.

“It was hard work. It certainly gave me a perspective of what it’s like for the contestants when they go through the long haul,” he said. He also admits to being “concerned” over being judged by New York food critic Gael Greene. “Gael is certainly a tough one and you can always go either way with her.”

And then, of course, there’s the fun part, of making good food, cooking with colleagues, and, oh yeah, “crushing the opponent,” joked Wylie.

In a bit kinder, or perhaps more serious words, says Falkner, “we had our own camaraderie and challenges going on in our episode. I think the strength of this particular series is that we’re really getting to see some of the best chefs in the country and how their personalities really come out in their food.”

Dufresne can agree with that. Partially anyway. “I thought our foursome was good fun. It’s too bad Graham cheated so much, but other than that it was a lot of fun.”

Surely he’s joking. Right? See for yourself this Wednesday, June 17th, at 10 PM on Bravo.