If you have been paying attention to all of the ads and the commercials on Bravo, you’ll already know that the Top Chef series is back (and we’re hoping you’ve watched). This time, there’s a twist: 24 well-known, seasoned chefs go head-to-head and compete in challenges just like they’ve put the contestants from past seasons through, all to win money for their charity of choice.

Top Chef Masters is a bit different than the original show, though. Instead of sticking all 24 of the “masters” in an apartment and make them eat, sleep, booze, and live together, four of them at a time compete in an episode. I was thoroughly surprised when I saw this – they didn’t mention that in the previews, but I can understand why this was done. (Do you really think these chefs are going to give up the reins of their uber popular restaurants and two months of their lives just for a TV show? Though I would liked to have seen a Hosea-Leah hookup scenario between, say, Roy Yamaguchi and Cindy Pawlcyn.)

The scoring is also different: they can receive a possible total of 25 stars- 5 from the quickfire challenge, 5 from the diners’ scores in the main elimination challenge, and 5 from each of the three judges. The chef with the most stars at the end wins money for their charity and gets to come back to the final round, where the six winners will compete against each other. The official site says, “The six winners of each episode will then meet up for the final four weeks when one person will get eliminated each episode until the finale where one winner is crowned Top Chef Master. The winning chef will receive $100,000 for the charity of their choice.” Interesting.

Where are Tom, Gail, and Padma, you ask? Bad news: they’re not judging or hosting this season, though Tom does a little “talking head” segment to describe and inform the viewers about each chef contestant, and I’ve seen a snippet of Gail being a guest judge of some sort. The new host is Kelly Choi, a food journalist and host/producer of foodie shows in NYC. (Another hot, ethnic chick- do I see a pattern?) The judges are well-known food critics: Gael Greene (of New York Magazine), Jay Rayner (of The London Observer), and James Oseland (editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine). I’m assuming they picked critics with some street creds to do the judging, instead of chefs, like Colicchio, because they didn’t want chefs judging their peers. Or more like: the chefs wouldn’t want to judge fellow chefs.

For episode one, the “cheftestants” are: Michael Schlow from Boston (Radius, Via Matta), Hubert Keller from San Francisco (Fleur de Lys, The Burger Bar), Christopher Lee from New York City (Aureole, Suite & Tender), and Tim Love of Dallas/Ft. Worth (Lonesome Dove Bistros). Four heavy-hitters, each representing different style of cuisine.

Their first challenge is the Quickfire, and its what many chefs fear most: dessert. You see, some chefs aren’t too keen on the Pastry Arts (I say some, not all). Some of them find it too fussy or don’t like dealing with the sweeter side of food. (I can relate). Michael Schlow made this very apparent and stated that he doesn’t like to do desserts and hates baking. So he chooses to bake a cake – smart move. The challenge was to create a dessert in 60 minutes and it was going to be judged by four Girl Scouts. Some might say this would have been easy, but I think it was more of a challenge to try to make something that a kid would like. They’re so used to cooking fancy schmancy dishes with crazy sauces and garnishes for high-paying customers and restaurant critics; they actually had to get out of their comfort zones and be innovative in a different way for this one. Highlights: Love’s “chicken fried strawberry” from his strawberry trio, Lee’s French toast with caramelized bananas on a stick, and Keller’s meringue swan and whipped cream mouse (kids love animal-shaped foods – good move, Keller). Oh, and Love slugging back the tequila shots for his nerves.

For the elimination challenge, they had to think outside of the box and get outside of their comfort zone again. The challenge: cook a three-course meal for the judges and student diners at Paloma College (a Lib Arts school in Cali) with 2 hours to prep and cook. The catch? They each had to prep and cook in a student’s dorm room, using only a toaster oven, a hot plate and a microwave to cook their dishes. Most of the chefs admitted that they didn’t even own a microwave, with Keller adding in his slick French accent, “I thought it was to dry the newspaper in.” It was amusing to see these chefs with amazing restaurants and beautiful kitchens in their restaurants hunched over dorm room desks, dressers, and mini refrigerators to prep and cook their meals. Highlights: Keller going all MacGyver-style by cooling and re-warming his cooked pasta in the shower (his mac and cheese with prawns, a.k.a.: shrimp, dish looked amazing and didn’t do so badly with the judges); Lee using popcorn as a garnish; and Love mistaking the freezer for the cooler (thus freezing all of his groceries, including the kale) but putting out some tasty dishes nonetheless; and Schlow, a.k.a.: Schlowmo, overcooking his pork dish but putting out a decent cabbage soup.

All in all, Top Chef Masters feels a lot different than its counterpart, but I don’t think we should judge it so harshly too soon. I like to compare to it Bravo’s current fashion design show, The Fashion Show – it’s not quite Project Runway, but it doesn’t try to be and it’s a good show in itself (I apologize if you haven’t seen or don’t like The Fashion Show).

So who won? Like I’m going to give up the spoilers and not make you listen to our Podcast (if you haven’t already watched the show). Check it out and tune in again next week for more ranting, raving, and reviewing of Top Chef Masters.

Listen here.

Don’t like the new host and judges? Can’t figure out the culinary terms used on the show? Leave us comments or questions below, and we might address them in our next podcast session.

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