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When it comes to food competition shows, I don’t think it’ll ever get better than the purity of a Chopped episode, but Bravo’s Top Chef has always been the king of the longform. So it’s somewhat jarring to have the veteran series scaling back for the gimmick-filled new show Top Chef Duels, in which former competitors and champions return to the Top Chef kitchen for one-on-one contests leading up to a 10-chef battle in the finale. But less people means less time dealing with petty personal drama, and more time on food. Oh, these meals!
Because fans should be familiar with everyone on the show, the focus really is set on watching these talented culinary headliners creating magical meals for their judges, including host Curtis Stone, Gail Simmons and Wolfgang Puck. This first episode pits burger czar, restaurateur and Top Chef All-Stars champion Richard Blais against molecular gastronomist and former host of Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen Marcel Vigneron. Egos are big here, but the skillsets are bigger, and there is a great amount of smacktalking as the episode moves forward.
Here’s how the show works: of each episodes’ three challenges, the first two are chosen by the chefs themselves, allowing for seemingly equal advantages, while the third is a multi-course duel. The last one is ostensibly the only one that counts, as it’s the chef’s ticket to the finale; the first two dishes are purely for prize money and to allow viewers the chance to see Simmons eat a giant burger with her hands.
Marcel’s choice for a challenge is to create hot and cold (temperature) dishes on the same plate, while Richard makes it all about creating recognizable hamburgers. (They raise a cloche to reveal pre-cooked versions of their choices, making me wonder who cooked those examples, when they cooked them, and who gets to eat them.) It’s the sense-based three-course duel where they really ramp up the quirkiness. Curtis explains the first course must fool the eyes by looking like one food while tasting like another, while the second course needs to be aromatic enough for the judges to eat while wearing a blindfold. The third course is all about mouthfeel, so the dishes have to include several different textures that appeal to touch.
For this third round, Curtis brings out respected chefs Paul Liebrandt, Josiah Citrin, and Homaro Cantu. To be expected, it’s almost as much fun watching the judges talk amongst themselves as it is watching Marcel and Richard battle it out. Ogling Wolfgang Puck’s off-center blindfold was a tiny episode highlight for me. But in the end, of course, it’s about who the better chef is, and we already found that out when Marcel was defeated not only in Season 2 and on Top Chef All-Stars, but also on Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef. But still, he keeps trying, and that’s what counts, right?
I quite liked the episode, and not only because of how amazing it is to hear Curtis Stone say “en garde.” Having the chefs pick their own challenges is an interesting spin, even if it doesn’t amount to much in the end. One change I couldn’t quite come around to was the rampant use of slo-mo and sped-up camera tricks while the chefs were cooking. The overhead shot of the plating utilized speediness to great effect, but it does nothing for anyone to watch Marcel dramatically take a pan off of a stove or pour nitrous oxide into a different container. Did Zack Snyder produce this?
This season of Top Chef Duels will feature battles between David Burke and Takashi Yagihashi, Stephanie Izard and Kristen Kish, and a whole host of other head-to-head match-ups. Honestly, every episode is a treat for longtime Top Chef fans, and they'll also showcase guest judges like the Brooklyn Nine Nine cast, Divergent actress Shailene Woodley and musician Pink.
So come to Bravo every Wednesday night for your weekly dose of hunger pains, and be sure to keep a notebook nearby so you can write things like “kimchi ketchup” down as you watch.