It's hotter in the kitchen this time around on Top Chef Masters.
In Wednesday's third season premiere, three of the 12 master cheftestants will fail to complete their Quickfire dishes (failures made all the more painful because the chefs are paired off in head-to-head combat). The group is then immediately hit with a round of Restaurant Wars.
Bringing out the contestants' competitive edge is just part of an overall revamp to the Top Chef spin-off, which arrives following viewership declines between the first and second seasons (2.2 million viewers vs. 1.6 million). Gone are host Kelly Choi, critics Gael Greene and Jay Rayner, the five-star rating scale and the tournament-style elimination. The masters are still playing for charity but, by design, they'll feel more of the intensity felt by those who compete on the flagship series.
Executive producer Dan Cutforth tells TVGuide.com how and why they turned up the heat on this season, which premieres Wednesday at 11/10c on Bravo.
What's the story behind replacing host Kelly Choi with Curtis Stone? Kelly is definitely very knowledgeable about food, extremely connected in the food business and has a wonderful palate but Curtis has been trained under some of the very best chefs in the world. I've had the pleasure of eating Curtis' food on a few occasions and he's a really fantastic chef, and having that perspective, which obviously none of the critics have, he has very important contributions to make to the discussions. I won't say he's not able to heavily influence the critics and make them see things in ways they might not always have seen them. [Stone can also be seen as one of the investors on NBC's America's Next Great Restaurant, another production of Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz's Magical Elves.]
Will he have a say in judging as well, the way Padma Lakshmi does on Top Chef? No, he doesn't get a say, specifically, in who stays and goes. The thing with Top Chef Masters is that the panel is made up of "critics," not "judges." These are people whose job every day is to rate food. That hasn't changed. The two groups who weigh in on the food on Top Chef Masters will continue to be the critics and the diners.
You've also nixed the five-star scale scoring, in which contestants received individual scores from each critic. Now, the critics as a group will simply choose their least favorite dish. Well, there were things we liked about the star ratings but ultimately it was quite cumbersome. If it was a single one-to-five star rating [from the entire panel, as opposed to one from each critic] that would be easy to understand, but for various reasons we couldn't really do that. Now, instead of assigning a value to each dish, the critics are deciding which was least successful. It just made more sense to have the critics come to a consensus over who should be eliminated. It also goes with the other big change we made to the format, which is that is now straight elimination like Top Chef.
What are the advantages to following the regular Top Chef format, which has swapped in for the tournament-style heats of the first two seasons? The great thing about not having the heats is we have a smaller number of chefs who you get to know better. I think that makes a big difference. You can build and invest in the chefs you see in the first episode because you know you'll see them in every episode before they get eliminated.
Did having one big group playing over the stretch of several weeks change the tone of the show at all? Typically, the cheftestants on Top Chef Masters are a lot more collegial than the bloodthirsty competitors on Top Chef. A collegial atmosphere is a really good way to describe it because they really do enjoy each other's company, they enjoy learning from each other. But I also think chefs, no matter where they are in their career, are a competitive breed, they relish the opportunity to test their creative skills in this kind of way. I think a lot of the tone is the same, but our tweaks add a little more competitive edge. The stakes, in a way, are higher because they all know they can get eliminated early. There's more edge to the proceedings.
Yes, the premiere begins with a mystery box face-off... and then goes right into Restaurant Wars! Harsh! There's a lot of drama this season. Those chefs who made it to the end were absolutely drained afterward, certainly physically, but also emotionally. These chefs are competing for charities they have very personal connections with, so when they don't succeed they not only feel disappointed for themselves but also the charity they could have raised more money for.
Tell me about landing former Gourmet editrix Ruth Reichl — and why Gael Greene and Jay Rayner are no more. (I already miss Gael and her many hats!) We were actually really happy with the panel of critics we had assembled, but you always want to keep evolving and keep things moving... That said, we wanted to reflect the new reality of food criticism, which is that food blogs and online criticism are a huge part of the restaurant business now. So critics panel will also include people from sites like Grub Street and RestaurantGirl.com.
As for Ruth, she is someone we wanted to work with for a long time. She happened to be available while we were shooting — not all the episodes, but several of them. All of us are in love with her. When you talk about someone whose opinion really carries weight, I mean, there was a palpable gasp in the kitchen when the chefs found out Ruth was going to be one of the critics. And she gives it to you straight. She does not sugarcoat her criticisms, but at the same time has a charm about her and was an absolute delight to work with.
And you're not going to miss Gael too much because she will be back for a few episodes this season. She's not gone. Gail Simmons [who hosts Top Chef Just Desserts] will also be back for a couple of episodes and Padma will be there for one.
Critics table is done a bit differently now, too. We changed up the way we shoot critics table. We have a more, I wouldn't say more relaxed, but a slightly more informal setting. Right after the meal, the chefs come out and then and there find out what their fate is immediately.
I spy creepy crawlers in the trailer for the rest of this season. Is Andrew Zimmern on the way? People all over the world eat insects as a source of protein, and they're also quite healthy to eat. We thought it was a fun twist on the reality show cliché of eating bugs going back to Fear Factor, Survivor and Amazing Race. I've never seen anyone cooking with them on a show like that and making what looks like very delicious dishes with them. It was one of those moments where the chefs were actually in shock — it's hard to surprise people on Top Chef after however many hundreds of challenges we've done, but this really did floor them. But I have to say, they picked their jaws up off the floor and made some amazing-looking dishes.
Amazing looking? I must say, I did not sample them (laughs). I will say Curtis did.
Only Curtis? Are critics allowed to chicken out? I don't want to reveal too much. We do always have guest and celebrity diners for the Quickfire challenges. So they, alongside Curtis, ate the bug dishes.