Mary Sue Milliken called it "my evil vacation." John Rivera Sedlar considered escaping to Paris.
Professional chefs are used to cooking under intense pressure, but the two Los Angeles restaurateurs battling in "Top Chef Masters" underestimated the gastronomic challenges — particularly the ruthless time pressures — that awaited them in the just-launched new season of the culinary competition.
Milliken (Border Grill, Truck) was nearly eliminated in last Wednesday's premiere episode for a chocolate cupcake that was dismissed as insipid by the judges, while Sedlar (Playa, Rivera) sent out a rack of lamb that was not only nearly raw but also featured a garnish flecked with produce labels. "I served 55 perfect lambs," Sedlar said over a recent downtown lunch with Milliken. "And then the last five went out to the judges."
Unlike the regular "Top Chef" series, which is cast with up-and-coming line chefs and the proprietors of unfamiliar restaurants, Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" is populated with some of the country's most celebrated cooks. Past participants include Campanile's Mark Peel, Frontera Grill's Rick Bayless, wd-50's Wylie Dufresne and Milliken's own kitchen partner, Susan Feniger.
But the dozen experienced chefs enjoy few of their usual comforts. On the show, they work in unfamiliar kitchens without their typical team of sous chefs. Rather than stroll the front of the house, they are dicing onions, reducing sauces, grilling meats, plating food. And they must often imagine, prepare and serve a dish in less than half an hour.
Having watched Feniger race against the clock in the previous "Top Chef Masters" season, Milliken didn't want to sacrifice quality for expediency and initially balked at participating.
"I've been doing this a long time," Milliken said. "I want to put my heart and soul in everything I cook, and sometimes you can't do that in 12 minutes. There were times when the time was so constraining it was ridiculous. There are certain ways you ordinarily cook that you can't do."
Said Sedlar: "It's about racing. It's not about cooking."
The chef, who said he's "never done a competition" and originally imagined that he "was just going to cater a party with my chef friends," had other concerns about appearing on the show. "I think it can ruin your reputation," he said of an epic fail in such a public forum. (In the season opener, several chefs couldn't even plate a dish in the opening Quickfire challenge.) "I think it can destroy a 35-year career in one program."
Sedlar and Milliken said that though they were impressed by their competitors' skill — the rivals include Naomi Pomeroy of Portland's Beast, Traci Des Jardins from San Francisco's Jardinière and Alessandro Stratta of Las Vegas' Stratta — they sometimes felt that they were squaring off against young athletes who had prepared for "Top Chef Masters" as if it were an Olympic sport.
"I think that they train. I think that they have a coach. They lift weights. They hone their knife skills," Sedlar said. "They have people investigate who the competition is."
As will be seen in an upcoming episode, Sedlar was opening his new restaurant, Playa, at the start of the five-week "Top Chef Masters" shoot. "I had everybody working double-time," Sedlar said. When he saw how the restaurant's marketing campaign was unfolding without his guidance, "my blood was starting to boil" but he couldn't leave the show to deal with it. That's when he considered fleeing to France.
Milliken, clearly a bit more unflappable, decided to leave her restaurants in Feniger's hands and even moved into the "Top Chef Masters" contestants' hotel for much of the production, hence her description of it as the "evil vacation."
"I immersed myself in it," Milliken said. "And I never looked at the other 11 people as someone I needed to beat."