It was only a matter of time before Bravo's hugely successful competition series "Top Chef" would spawn a spin-off that incorporated the same cutthroat challenges and kitchen drama. In "Top Chef Masters," which premieres tonight, 24 world-renowned chefs are pitted against each other in hopes of winning a $100,000 prize donation to the charity of their choosing. The first six episodes consist of four master chefs competing until one is deemed the winner. Then, the six winners of each episode will compete in the final four weeks until one is crowned "Top Chef Master." While "Top Chef" hosts Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio will make appearances on the show (as well celebrities such as Neil Patrick Harris, Zooey Deschanel and all past "Top Chef" winners), "Top Chef Masters" has a new host in Kelly Choi, who talked to our Jim Halterman about the new series.
Jim Halterman: How did you get involved with "Top Chef Masters?"
Kelly Choi: I produce and host a restaurant show called "Eat Out NY" and ["Top Chef" Executive Producer] Dave Serwatka saw me doing that and he called me one day and said 'Hey, I'm at Bravo. Can we fly you out to LA and meet with the production company?' So it just kind of happened like that out of the blue and I was beyond flattered to think that someone from Bravo was watching my restaurant show where I pick all the restaurants and cook a dish with the chef. I love food, I love restaurants in New York and I was enjoying that and then something so big... I was ridiculously excited to have the opportunity and to have someone call me like that and have me come out and meet with [production company] Magical Elves.
JH: That's the kind of call you want to get, right?
KC: Yeah, I know! It was amazing and I'll never forget that!
JH: In the first episode, the judges in the first Quickfire Challenge are none other than Girl Scouts, which was so much fun to watch. Can we expect a lot of playfulness like that with "Top Chef Masters?"
KC: I think so, yes. The Quickfires are always blind taste testers, which are great because they have no idea who is cooking. It's super fun in and of itself because the chefs are watching the comments as it unfolds but the tasters don't have a clue so they're very honest. It's very visceral so they're just commenting and reacting as soon as they put it in their mouth and you can't get a better reaction for a chef than that. You have these 24 world-class master chefs who have kind of, in a sense, seen it all. They're cooking day in and day out and they're creating fantastic food for their customers and clients and they know how to make a great meal under pretty much any circumstance so we have to throw them these weird situations. For example, with Girl Scouts or weird time restraints to push their boundaries and see what they can do under odd circumstances. I had so much fun with it and it's great to see these guys create what they do.
JH: One of the things I love about "Top Chef" is that these chefs often come in and their egos can get in the way. Will we see some of that with these more seasoned chefs?
KC: Well, I think the intention of the chef in and of itself is different because they are not trying to open a restaurant. They have restaurants; they have many. They have a reputation and they're doing this for charity and that sets you on a different path. I wasn't able to stay on set with them as they cooked - I wasn't allowed to see that - but what I felt was, of course, these guys have so much respect for each other and they help each other when they can but what's really great about it is they push themselves so hard and you really feel their love and their energy and passion for what they do and that was really cool about having them on set. We see drama on a different level.
JH: And these master chefs are not immune to making mistakes as we see in the premiere episode, right?
KC: They're human just like regular chefs and like everyone else. In a way, because they are world-class chefs, to kind of reduce them to cooking for Girl Scouts is not the usual clientele. It's not like the big spender. It's a whole different mindset so, in that way, the challenges give them a different audience that they're totally not used to doing. Different time restraints and, also, some of these chefs haven't picked up a knife and haven't had to chop vegetables in years. I heard a lot of "My hand hurts from chopping up onions" or "I was crying from the garlic!"
JH: Are the critics � including yourself � more harsh in their judging because these chefs are at the top of their profession and are well known in their field?
KC: Before production began I was thinking to myself how would I critique these guys because they are master chefs and they've been doing this a long time but I think when it came down to the moment of critiquing the food, everyone just reacted very honestly. It was very in the moment. If you think about it, just eating anything, you have an immediate reaction � this is too salty or this is tasty. Even if we thought we would behave a certain way, nobody held back ever during critics' table. I never got the sense from being with [judges] Jay [Raynor] and Gael [Greene] and James [Oseland] that anyone ever held back at all. It's very honest and it doesn't matter whose food it was. The cool thing about it was that when we presented our reactions to the chefs, they were really very humble about listening to our comments. I thought that they might not necessarily agree but they were all very willing to hear what we thought and really took it to heart; it was really touching.
JH: Because Padma Lakshmi is such a fixture on "Top Chef" are you ready for the comparisons that people will jump to now that you're hosting?
KC: I'm sure that's natural because, of course, she set a precedent with the amazing work she's done on "Top Chef" but I think people will see the differences within the two shows. I think that will quickly fall away. I think we have our own kind of character and our own vibe going on "Masters" that is really different from "Top Chef." She's awesome, she's gorgeous, she's an amazing food lover but we're very different and I think people will feel that and appreciate our cast as opposed to "Top Chef" and love both for different reasons. There's room for all.
JH: You created "Eat Out NY" and now you're hosting "Top Chef Masters." How would your kitchen talents be if the cameras were turned on you?
KC: I love to cook and I'm always making stuff but I can't wait until it's all done. I'm always eating as I go. I don't have a repertoire of foods that I make all the time but I know what ingredients that I like and I'm not afraid to mix what the average person might think is a weird ingredient with things. I like cinnamon in my savory soups and I like sage in my dessert. I think because I don't have formal culinary training or background I don't have these preconceived notions of using this for a sauce or this for a soup or dessert so I'm just ready to cross-pollinate and join different ingredients in anything.
JH: Have you had to bump up your exercise regimen because you've been eating more on the show?
KC: Ya know, not really. I'm a big believer in when you really love food and really respect it for what it is... of course, we all love what we do and when I find something I really like I want to eat it over and over again but it wasn't difficult for me. I probably gained a few pounds but honestly I wasn't too worried.
"Top Chef Masters" joins Bravo's schedule tonight at 10:00/9:00c.