Rick Bayless wins near-perfect Top Chef Masters as Vegas season throws out twists

Top Chef Masters ended its first season perfectly last night, with the three remaining chefs–Rick Bayless, Michael Chiarello, and Hubert Keller–creating four-course meals based upon their lives as chefs. Rick Bayless, who owns Topolobampo, a restaurant in Chicago “that’s a favorite of the Obamas,” won the $100,000 prize for his charity, the Frontera Farmer Foundation.

They were judged by the three critics, plus Top Chef‘s real judges (Padma, Tom, and Gail), and the five winners of the regular version. As best I can tell, Bayless won because he caused the critic judges to have orgasms while eating his food. “I was just shivering all over,” Gael Greene said, while Jay said he’d lost his Oaxacan black mole virginity and asked the other critics, “can we, instead of discussing it, just make strange gutteral noises for a few minutes?” In the final judgment, Gael said, “you set off sky rockets tonight.”

Before it concluded, Top Chef Las Vegas freaked me out within the first half-hour of its 75-minute debut. Perhaps I was just spoiled by/used to Top Chef Masters and its mostly relentless focus on nothing but great chefs tackling food challenges, but in the first 30 minutes there was little food except in the relay race, which just highlighted how weak some of the chefs’ skills are.

On top of that, it felt like producers were going all MTV on us, throwing in a bunch of twists and combustive personalities, as if they were trying to mimic other, lesser reality shows. Teams working together! Teams competing against each other! Random immunity unrelated to actual cooking! Cash prizes! The ability to give up immunity! I’m all for changes and graceful evolution–look at Survivor for the perfect example–but it was a lot and it came quickly, and too much seemed unlike Top Chef. In addition, there was the fact that so many of the contestants know each other, which seemed off, and/or a way to shortcut to conflict.

But the show recovered. Most of the rest was about actual cooking and food prep, and nothing else. Once they presented their dishes, the regular judges reminded us why they are the real masters (although I miss the star scoring method). Tom seemed to have more attitude than usual, perhaps just because I’m used to tamer judges–I mean, critics–but it was all good.

The “this season” preview was the highlight reel Bravo showed critics, and it emphasizes interpersonal conflict instead of food competition, but hopefully that’s a season’s worth of conflict in 30 seconds, and the rest will be about competition between talented people, because that’s why Top Chef really works.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.