‘Top Chef Masters’: The unraveling of Wylie Dufresne


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By the second commercial break, I had lost count of the number of F-bombs dropped by one of the country’s preeminent molecular gastronomists, wd-50 chef-owner Wylie Dufresne.

He was an angry, discombobulated man after the Quickfire Challenge, in which the contestants were asked to create an amuse bouche from items found in a vending machine. He was running around, he was sweating, and he was cursing while assembling, or reassembling, a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich with a Dr Pepper reduction.


Adding insult to injury, the judging panel was made up of former ‘Top Chef’ contestants, including Ilan, who producers were kind enough to remind us, was criticized by Dufresne in Season 2 for ‘too soggy’ bread.

My, how the tables have turned. You could almost imagine the show’s alumni watching Monday’s episode, smirking to themselves: ‘Yeah, you think you know, but you have no idea...’

Just more evidence that even the creme de la creme, and the chefiest of chefs, can be undone by the pressure cooker of reality TV competition. Running a kitchen is one thing; cooking on the fly, in a strange kitchen, for judges, is another. Dufresne, like Michael Schlow last week, didn’t seem ready come game time.

He did pull it together in time for the Elimination Challenge, of course, but because of the show’s two-part scoring system, even a come-to-Jesus win wouldn’t stand up to his more even-minded competitors, including the night’s winner, L.A. chef Suzanne Tracht. It didn’t help that the writers and producers of ‘Lost’ were there to judge his experimental cuisine...

The challenge? Create a menu from island fare -- read boar -- and Dharma-initiative-preserved foods. Nothing fresh.

Apparently, ‘Top Chef’ has been a detriment to ‘Lost,’ according to Executive Producer Damon Lindeloff, who joked that the quality of the ABC drama started to go down when the writing staff became hooked on ‘Top Chef’ watercooler talk. Heh. Still, the Losties seemed game. Maybe just not game enough to marvel at Dufresne’s humble-but-perfectly-prepared chicken and custardy poached egg. Certainly not when they had already been served Graham Elliot Bowles’ fatty tuna three ways and Tracht’s smorgasbord of ‘island food’ -- boar, sea urchin (in risotto!), mango salad and yams -- that managed to somehow co-exist in harmony on one plate.


Even there, it was Bowles who gave the night’s winner, Tracht, a run for her spot in the next round. At first glance, it seemed as though the self-dubbed punk rock chef and the season’s youngest competitor, was at a serious disadvantage. He’d be up against real pedigrees: Dufresne, Elizabeth Falkner, a serious pastry chef recognizable from having competed in several of Food Network’s baking competitions, and award-winning Tracht, chef-owner of Los Angeles’ modern chophouse Jar.

But on ‘Top Chef,’ playing fields are instantly leveled by the constraints of the challenges, and Bowles’ solid technique very nearly got him past Tracht. Judge James Oseland even pronounced his seared tuna one of the best he has ever seen. And he has seen quite a bit of food.

In this competition of giants, it’s truly anyone’s game.

-- Denise Martin