Over the course of 11 seasons, countless spin-offs, and an empire that has produced a series of cookbooks and an online culinary school, Top Chef has outlined a set of culinary cardinal rules: Don’t volunteer to be executive chef during Restaurant Wars. Don’t overcook the risotto, undercook the bacon you’re wrapping your scallops in, or put anything inedible on the plate. Don’t touch another chef’s mise en place or, for that matter, another chef. And be careful with dessert.
If we’re to believe dozens of chefs who’ve sat down for interviews in the stew room, the reason “doing desserts” can be so tricky is that it requires a completely altered mind-set. Desserts require precisely measured portions, and upsetting the careful culinary chemistry can prompt a pouting Padma to tell you to “pack your knives…and go.” In the same vein, when a cheftestant moves too far outside of his or her comfort zone, messing with the formula for no good reason, things like CJ’s roasted broccolini and Dale’s butterscotch scallops result in spectacular—and memorable—failure. If you screw with the recipe, you risk disaster.
Although Top Chef Duels doesn’t deconstruct the competitive cooking formula honed in the fires of pizza ovens and sponsored appliances on Bravo, it is at least an alternative plating to an already successful offering. The franchise has maintained stable ratings throughout its eight-year-run, but Magical Elves—the company responsible for bringing us the HosLeah romance, “Team Europe,” and the case of the missing pea puree (and for bringing Jimmy Fallon chicken pot pie courtesy of a hootie-hooing Carla Hall)—has consistently workshopped new ideas while keeping the main courses intact. And in the interim before season 12 later this year, Duels is a fusion of familiar concepts that is more of a second helping than it is Just Desserts.
The format retains much of Top Chef’s recipe, with two cash-prize quickfires serving as the appetizer course before each week’s main elimination duel. After nine head-to-head matchups, the victorious chefs unite for a yet-unclear mega-finale, where the three-headed monster of Wolfgang Puck, Gail Simmons, and Curtis Stone will decide the combatants’ fates. It’s a fair tribunal, to be sure, but without Padma, Tom, and last season’s surprisingly awesome “Uncle Emeril,” the judges’ table lacks a bit in culinary gravitas. It just doesn’t feel like real Top Chef without Tom’s bald head and Padma’s well-coiffed one.
Like the new toys many celebrity chefs are earning for themselves with all that TV cheddar, Top Chef Duels is a high-tech, chrome-outfitted wonder, with a sparkling new kitchen, fancy new camera tricks like slow-motion slices and high-speed plating. It’s as food porn-y as it gets and a welcome addition for anyone who enjoys watching fruits squelch, flame erupt, and meat sizzle.
NEXT: The Gastronomic Grapplers