And we're back with Aussie tall drink of water Curtis Stone offering 12 award-winning chefs the chance at up to $250,000 for the charity of their choice. They'll be judged by Saveur Editor-in-Chief James Oseland and renowned food critic Ruth Reichl. Unlike the previous two seasons' heats, this go around, all the chefs will go head-to-head, and one will be sent packing each week. Kind of robs me of the chance to say, "If you can't take the heats..."
The chefs enter the kitchen. We first get to know John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, who thinks this competition is going to take everything he's got. Next up, Suvir Saran of New York's Devi, who quips that his good looks and elegance will help him through. Los Angeles restaurant Playa's John Rivera Sedlar thinks it's an achievement just to be invited to join the competition, while Alex Stratta of Vegas-based Stratta is relying on a wing and a prayer. The chefs continue piling in sizing each other up. Many are surprised to find their oldest friends among their competitors. Then Five & Ten's Hugh Acheson of Atlanta makes a flailing Black Swan joke. Stick to your day job, buddy.
After all the chefs have arrived, Curtis welcomes them to this 10-week roller coaster ride, which starts... now! He tells them they'll be competing schoolyard style against the chef standing next to them. He directs their attention to a shelf stacked with boxes containing various mystery ingredients. Each chef will choose a box and then has to incorporate the ingredient from not only his/her box but also from his/her competitor's box. Each pairing will result in one winner, with the best dish overall winning $5,000 and immunity for the chef who made it.
The chefs' 20 minutes starts immediately. Celina Tio of Julian in Kansas City, Missouri, is facing off against Suvir Saran. She got canned corn beef, and he got marshmallows. She says it's her worst fear come true. Suvir goes so far as to say he's insulted by these ingredients but has to prove that he's a master by making the most of a craptastic situation. Among the other horrid options are sardines and dragon fruit. They've been doled to Hugh Acheson and Beast's Naomi Pomeroy from Portland, Oregon. Naomi says she's worked with sardines before and isn't intimidated to rock a dragon fruit-sardine salad. That makes one of us, sister. Meanwhile, Alex Stratta and Tabla's Floyd Cardoz of New York drew cockles and Marmite (vegetable extract). Stratta's all, "I'm gonna spread that bitch on bread. What?!"
Across the kitchen Traci des Jardines of San Francisco's Jardinière is less-than-thrilled to combine peanut butter with licorice, which she detests. She plans to flout the gamesmakers by making two separate salads. At another station, John Currence and Mary Ann Milliken of L.A.'s Border Grill Restaurants and Truck are cooking frog legs and cottage cheese. Mary Sue thinks Mississippi boy John has an advantage with the frog legs. Curtis announces five minutes remaining, and the heat is on. It comes down to the wire for most, except Naomi and Celina, who don't finish their plates. John also realizes he forgot to include his cottage cheese component and calls this blunder "a big wake-up call."
Judgment time. Curtis welcomes James Oseland and Ruth Reichl to critique the food. It's intimidating for all, but Floyd hopes he has it in the pocket since he previously received a three-star rating from Reichl. The first pairing is Mary Sue's fried chili cottage cheese cake meunière against Currence's buffalo frogs' legs that should have come with cottage cheese ranch. Oseland says there's not enough oomph, and Mary Sue wins this round. Next up, Suvir's corned beef-marshmallow chaat versus Celina Tio's empty plate. Suvir wins by default, despite the "loathsome" texture of his dish. Moving on! The "spot-on" texture of the celery in Hugh's pan-seared sardines with dragon fruit salad wins handily against another empty plate, this time from Naomi. The judges are disappointed the chefs didn't step up to the plate (har har), and Naomi is personally mortified not to put on a good showing in her first quickfire.
The next challenge pits Alex's cockles and leek soup with Marmite against Floyd's similar Marmite soup with cockles. A rare Marmite fan, Oseland doesn't think the vegetable extract shows up enough in Alex's dish, so Floyd takes it. Finally, Traci's duo of salads (celery salad with peanut butter vinaigrette, plus licorice and orange salad) competes against John Rivera Sedlar's bacon licorice and peanut butter hors d'oeuvres. Despite Traci's blatant disregard of the concept of the challenge, she wins over Sedlar because his dish is nothing more than glorified drunk food, according to Oseland.
When it's time to announce the winner, Curtis doesn't waste a moment in calling out Naomi and Celina for failing to plate their dishes. Too bad, so sad. Reichl and Oseland announce their favorite dishes included Mary Sue's fried cottage cheese and Traci's salads. And the $5,000 winner is Traci! Cheaters do prosper! Traci tells us she is competing for La Cocina, which provides commercial kitchen space and technical assistance to low-income entrepreneurs who are launching, growing and formalizing food businesses.
Curtis prefaces this week's elimination challenge by saying that not only is it one of the most anticipated and dreaded challenges on Top Chef but it's never been done before on Top Chef Masters. It's restaurant wars! Celina acknowledges that this should be an easy challenge for these cooks, who each have at least one restaurant launch under their respective belts. But, she says, coordinating this many people's visions (and egos) is going to be the real challenge. Curtis tells the chefs that won today they will make up the Red Team, while the losing chefs will comprise Team Blue. Currence worries the losers are going to be kicked while they're down. Curtis adds that each chef must be responsible for a dish, and the diners will decide the winner.
Blue Team. Naomi thinks her experience as a single mom and restaurant owner will make her a good team leader. She thinks the team can overcome the influx of diners by adopting a communal eating style like the one she uses at her own restaurant. Over on the Red Team, Hugh proposes a New American restaurant named Mosaic because their group is culturally and culinarily diverse. Traci volunteers herself to work front of house since she has immunity and immediately wishes that Manhattan-based chef George Mendes of ALDEA would chill out.
Each team splits into groups of three for 45 minutes, with one group spending up to $2,000 at Restaurant Depot and the other visiting Whole Foods with a $1,500 budget. Traci immediately aligns herself with teammate Mary Sue. Meanwhile, Hugh sets his sights on some scallops that he knows are too big, but he chooses them anyway. Can somebody say anvil?
The teams return to the kitchen for two hours of prep, during which Team Blue decides on their name: Leela. Alex is already concerned about the communal seating plan and the amount of dishes they have to prepare, but he powers ahead with a celery root, potato, and spinach fricassee starter that will be joined by Currence's sweet potato and peanut soup. For mains, Sedlar is making rack of lamb with jicama, apple, and lime salad, and Sue Zemanick of Gautreau's in New Orleans will serve halibut and scallop with pearl onions and artichokes. Their meal will end with Naomi's flourless chocolate torte with Grand Marnier and Celina's pistachio cake and honey semifreddo.
The mood is jovial over at Mosaic as Floyd prepares short ribs with steel-cut oat risotto, and George slow poaches salmon. Traci will serve warm bread salad with artichokes and burrata. Hugh's sea scallops will be accompanied by grits. On the sweeter side, diners can choose from Suvir's berry and pear cobbler or Mary Sue's chocolate cake.
As the chefs continue prep, Alex tells us that his charity FasterCures has personal significance because they specializ