Top Chef Masters changes: One step forward, two steps back

This season, Top Chef Masters made a number of changes to its format. Overall, they have not helped what was already a great show.

Let’s start with the good. Curtis Stone is a far better host than Kelly Choi, though he is overexposed and sometimes irritating (we know you’re a chef, too, you don’t have to keep reminding us). And the format, which just borrows from its parent series, is an improvement over the first two seasons’ tournament format that got rid of compelling personalities way too rapidly.

The problem is that every other change has hurt the series.

The judging has gone severely downhill. The judges used to score dishes with numerical stars, and that was an excellent way of illustrating subjective judgement. It was so great I thought–and still think–Top Chef should adopt that system. It gives us a clearer idea of what the judges think and how different chefs compare, and we can understand exactly why someone gets eliminated. But this season dropped it in favor of the format where the judges decide in a secret conference.

That’s less significant than the fact that the judges themselves have been a mess this season. Last night’s episode made that clear: James Oseland was joined by guest critics Gael Greene and Gail Simmons, and they were far better than Alan Sytsma (James’ former intern, seriously) and the other kids who have occupied the critics’ table for most of this season, now that Gael and Jay Rayner have been removed as full-time critics.

Gael proved she belonged with two sentences: “I didn’t have an affair with Elvis. I had an hour with Elvis,” she said. By the way, Jay told Eater he was fired because producers didn’t want two non-American accents on the panel, which I hope is a joke. He was not Gail Simmons good as a judge, but he and Gale were the better of the three permanent judges.

Tangent: What is up with the critics’ table being a tiny little table at which each critic has to turn their head 180 degrees to see the chefs? It makes them seem less like judges and more like people who are about to be in need of a massage.

The two most important components of Top Chef, the contestants and the challenges, have been hit or miss. This group of contestants may be well-known to New York foodies, but is far less recognizable to viewers like me, whereas the first two Masters seasons largely featured chefs I knew and recognized from media coverage and from their appearances as guest judges on the show. Not this group, even if they are better than the average regular season contestant pool. Perhaps the show has just reached a point where they’ve hit the big, big names who are willing to test themselves on TV. (If that’s true, producers should bring back season one and two chefs who got knocked out in the first round after participating in just two challenges.)

The challenges themselves have been hit or miss. The general idea is to challenge the chefs with extreme constraints, but this season, those constraints have often ended up stripping down the chefs’ ability to be good at what they do.

For example, the fast food challenge was a great concept. But why not let the chefs know what they’re doing before they bought food? Preparing and serving out of a fast food kitchen is enough of a handicap and demonstrates adaptability well enough that they did not need an additional obstacle. It’d be nice to just see them cook, which we did see last night, though the whole proposal theme made me, like Hugh, want to puke instead of eat. (Public proposals in which one partner surprises the other should always, I think, end in humiliation for the disrespect they demonstrate to the surprised person and to the general principle that a relationship is about equality, not one person making a huge life decision for the other and then seeking approval in public. But I clearly am in the minority here.)

Top Chef Masters was, for a time, better than its parent. Now it’s dropped to the bottom of the pile, as Top Chef Just Desserts was a far superior spin-off. It’s still superior to most other reality TV competitions, however. And because the format is inevitably subjected to season-to-season fluctuations, the show can certainly recover–especially if it goes back to some of the things that made it great to begin with.

Top Chef Masters 3: B

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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.