Top Chef Masters — A dark (and giggly) horse joins the race

And then there were six.

After weeks of whittling, we’re down to the masters of “Top Chef Masters.” The show’s format allowed us to meet 24 of the country’s best chefs, competing in groups of four, for a chance to make it to the final four episodes and win $100,000 for charity.

With last night’s crowning of our final master, we’re finally here, and the peek into the minds and personalities of the folks who make the United States’ best food was an interesting view. We’ve met chefs who seem to deserve their deity-like praise (Hubert Keller and Rick Bayless), watched top names melt like spoiled %^!#! sorbet (Wylie Dufresne and Ludo Lefebvre) and figured out that most of us common folk have a leg up on these culinary superstars when it comes to shopping in a grocery store and using a microwave.

The final master? The awesomely likable Art Smith, who charmed his way to a two-star win over the honorable Jonathan Waxman.

It was probably one of the best competitions to date, mainly because the group was so diverse and defined. Jonathan is a master of masters who trained celeb chef Bobby Flay. He also trained competitor Michael Cimarusti, who was looking a bit sheepish about being in the competition with his former boss, even though he’s an award-winner himself. Then there’s Roy Yamaguchi, who was more entrepreneur than chef, judging by the fact that he has more than two dozen restaurants but can’t find cheese in Whole Foods. And finally there’s Art, who put the “soul” in “soul food” and gained acclaim as chef to Oprah Winfrey and President Obama.

Pretty fun group, no?

Even more fun was the elimination challenge: Make a meal using seven of 11 ingredients picked for you by another competitor.


A challenge like that could be totally prime for sabotage — like buying all canned ingredients or no proteins — but these people are masters, and they certainly showed it. Instead of spiraling into the depths of reality show back-stabbing, all four chefs carefully chose the best ingredients they could find for each other.

The only moment of apparent strategy was when teacher Jonathan bought no seafood for prodigy Michael, a man who made his name on surf rather than turf. No drama, though, which was only more proof that Michael, though young, belongs with this group.

The four cooked for the judges — “Top Chef” regular Gail Simmons sat in this time for Jay Rayner — and a very nervous and brown-nosy group of culinary students clearly were hoping this dinner was an interview for the show’s next regular season (which begins Aug. 19). Call me crazy, but I don’t think anyone in that group nabbed a big break by spouting off the kind of stuff learned in a classroom and not a kitchen.

However, I may not be crazy in believing that Art might be a dark horse in the final phase of the competition. Not only does he have the skills, he has the heart, humor and honesty of similarly lovable Bravo personalities who made it to show finales: Carla from the last season of “Top Chef” and the giggly Chris March, a crowd pleaser from the third season of “Project Runway.” In fact, Art, is nearly an even mix of the two. He has Carla’s “food is love and love is food” attitude with Chris’ naughty laugh. And more than that, he’s competing for not just a beloved charity but one that he actually created: Common Threads. Talk about motivation. And he wears black, too, which helps with the whole “dark horse” motif.

But it’ll take a lot to beat the other super-talented chefs who made the final stage of “Masters”: Hubert Keller, Rick Bayless, Suzanne Tracht, Anita Lo and Michael Chiarello.

Looking forward to our first tasty treat of REAL competition next week.