The beauty of Top Chef Masters is that its battle-tested chefs tend to turn out reliable, good-looking dishes. The tragedy of it is that some of the drama of regular old Top Chef—young, sometimes relatively raw talent self-immolating and tearing itself apart—is lost.

That said, episode 2 of Top Chef Masters season 3 featured a sparkly bit of self-destruction and some welcome conflict. Read on for the rundown. Spoiler alert: This episode review is basically one giant ol’ spoiler.

The quickfire challenge is to make meatballs using hand-held meat grinders. Either the meat grinders are the world’s worst, or the chefs are seriously out of their element—there is what feels like a 10-minute montage of fumbling, failed attempts to secure the meat grinders to the table. Most of the chefs give up and just use them like SaladShooters.

The guest judge is pop star Kelis (“Milkshake”) whose qualification is that she did some catering at some point or something. As she assesses the various dishes, her somewhat limited food knowledge faces the withering criticism of the chefs, who seem to score some reasonable points—she criticizes Floyd’s meatball grinder for being too salty, but neglects to pair the salty meatball with the salt-free bread as intended; she then dismisses Floyd’s defense of the dish by saying that the meatball should stand on its own, which is sort of like saying the “too dry” peanut butter should have stood on its own without the jelly in a PB&J, which is dumb.

John’s Vietnamese meatball wins the challenge, which seems fine, as it looked reasonably tasty.

The challenge is a Mad Men-themed “reinventing the terrible food of the 1960s” affair, and the chefs are given dishes ranging from beef Wellington to ambrosia salad. Christina Hendricks is there as a sort of guest taster. Cleavage features prominently in many shots, but not so prominently that viewers feel understandably uncomfortable. Her husband the semifamous actor is also there, and he insightfully says that all the food from the 1960s was “gross.” He seems like a very talented man, along the lines of Sir Alec Guinness.

Unlike the first episode of the series (a remarkably low-intensity “Restaurant Wars” that was more like “Restaurant Pillow Fights” or “Restaurant Whittlin’ Contests”), character emerges a bit in this one, assisted by an inhumanely small kitchen.

Hugh (back from the dead after contestant John Rivera Sedlar resigns, citing a personal emergency) flips out on the waiters, acting like a total jerk. Keep your eyes peeled for more toolish behavior from him down the road.

Floyd grouses endlessly about being stuck with the ambrosia salad, seemingly missing one of the great, unstated themes of Top Chef: The contestant “stuck” with the worst-seeming dish actually has the lowest hurdle to clear, and an even half-decent effort seems heroic. Of course, he might be Whiny Like a Fox, burnishing his Poor Me laurels with every declaration of how terrible and mysterious this ambrosia stuff is.

Sue fails to plate most of her dishes due to a crowded kitchen and a “help everyone plate their dishes” martyr complex and actually melts down a bit, which is genuinely moving. Suvir comforts Sue, and later, at the judges’ table, praises her selfless generosity in an admirably White Knight fashion. More on this later, when it turns creepy.

Floyd’s “poor me” ambrosia (reinvented with fresh fruits and a mango “fondue” dip) wins much praise.

John’s oysters Rockefeller riff blows away the judges; James Oseland declares that he’s never had a version that exquisite.

Mary Sue (with Japanese-inflected deviled eggs described by Oseland as “delightfully unctuous”) winds up winning the day.

Sue’s unfinished and not terribly well-realized duck a l’orange triumphs (in the negative, “getting her kicked off the show” sense) over Alex’s boring bread pudding and Suvir’s weird mystery-meat veal Oscar.

Suvir gives the departing Sue a “please don’t go” hug from behind that is uncomfortably close to an extended grope, and she calmly moves in the opposite direction until he breaks it off. Poignant on a number of levels.

See more articles