This week’s Top Chef Masters has an international palette. We’re not talking about the dishes – not yet anyway – but the chefs competing. There’s Wilo Benet, who hails from Puerto Rico, French chef Ludo Lefebvre, Rick Bayless, who specializes in Mexican fare, and Cindy Pawlcyn, who’s as American as they come, and learned from cooking icons Julia Child and James Beard. Though those credentials shouldn’t come as any shock, this is called Top Chef Masters for a reason, after all.
So, foodies, you may be asking yourself at this point, how did Bravo line up such start studded kitchen talent? There must have been coercion, diva demands, or the lure of camera time, right? Hardly! Let’s let Benet, a star chef commissioned to cook by the governor of Puerto Rico, and who owns a restaurant within the Puerto Rico Museum of Art, explain shall we?
“I think I answered [yes] because they invited me,” he said simply in a press call with Fancast. What kind of A-lister is that, so easygoing and available? A charitable one, actually. Take note young Hollywood. You may recall that this session of Top Chef isn’t for any grand prize. These chefs have already achieved fame and stature; they’re playing for $100,000 to the charity of their choice. Which is why Benet followed up his previous comment with, “And I love the idea about just putting my skills to work for other people, especially a great cause.” Which, in his case, is the San Jorge Children’s Foundation. “I have a special interest in everything having to do with children when it comes to charity,” he said.
For Lefebvre, all the coaxing he needed was assurance there would be no group housing or stab-you-in-the-back antics of classic reality TV. “I’d just make sure it was not really like a real reality show and make sure I don’t be in the same room with all the other chefs, you know what I mean?” he said in his thick French accent. And in case you couldn’t decipher that entirely, he went on to say, “I mean I don’t want to be in the same bed with Rick, Cindy or be in the same room or share the same bathroom. It was not really like a real reality show for myself.” Fortunately, that was not the case this go around, and he’d be able to contribute to C.H.A.S.E. for Life, a charity that teaches CPR, a skill he considers “very important.”
Pawlcyn even overcame camera shy feelings. “My husband was just like honey, you’ve got to do it. So normally I would say no and hide and not go in front of the camera,” she said. “I didn’t really have to win because I knew I’d get something for the charity. But I’m really glad I did it because I got to know these three great chefs so much better.” And contribute to Clinic Ole, a charity in Napa Valley that helps provide health insurance. “They have just done a fantastic job in the valley with all of the different migrant workers in lower-paying jobs that don’t offer insurance. I really like the fact I could pick my own charity to feature. It was really special.”
Of course, it also helped that these four pros happened to be huge fans of the original series, too.
“I often make the joke that after a 14-hour shift all having to do with food and restaurants I come home, take a shower and turn on a TV show that is based on food,” Benet said. For Pawlcyn and Bayless, it’s a weekly tradition in their restaurants. “The front of the house, and the back of the house, and I think it’s because of my involvement this year, but they’ve been talking about Top Chef all along. It’s one of their favorite TV shows,” Pawlcyn said. “But now that they know I’m part of it, I can’t get them to stop talking about the dishes and how they did this and what do you think of that? And it’s got a very interesting dialogue going on in our restaurant.”
Adds Bayless, “It’s the exact same thing in our restaurant. And it’s kind of Monday morning quarterback where everybody is getting together after on Thursdays and they’re all talking about they should have done this, why did he chose that, why did she go there? And it’s pretty hilarious to have been in the middle of it and know the blinding quality of what’s going through your mind at any given moment.”
They won’t dish on what exactly they’ll be doing in their challenges (they’re reality TV vets already!), but they are spilling some advice for future Top Chef contestants.
“Stay on your toes. Keep it simple,” Pawlcyn offers. Well, that’s helpful, no? Bayless, on the other hand, goes with pure honesty. “There’s almost no way to prepare for it,” he said. “Always go with your initial reaction because the challenge itself is going to put you out of your comfort zone.”
Which is exactly what happened to Pawlcyn this week. “I was nervous about what we got until we got it. So I kind of jinxed us,” she said of the mystery challenge. Luckily for Benet, whatever transpired was just fine when compared to the vending machine challenge from week two. “As I am watching [that] episode I’m going like wow. Good lord. Thank you for not having this one on my show because that would have been another whole layer of complication.”
Bayless, who was competing in support of Frontera Farmer Foundation, a charity his restaurant, Frontera Grill, founded, considered it all a learning experience that even translates back to his kitchen. “Every time we go into menu planning these days it seems like I’m always bringing up something that I learned from Top Chef Masters.”
Pawlcyn agrees. “I started looking at the Puerto Rican food when I got back and I’ve been reading a lot of French books because of Ludo. And I’ve been doing a lot of Mexican because of Rick. And that’s basically what I’ve been cooking since I’ve gotten back because the guys got me all fired up about it.”
She also considers them such good new friends that she’s proposed a spin-off of the spin-off, to “start a Top Chef Masters club and hold it in everybody’s restaurant. I’ll open up Mustard’s [Grill] for us this year if you guys want to come,” she offered to the group.
“Yeah, but no competition okay?” Bayless asked.
“No. We can cook for as long as we want or as slow as we want and whatever ingredients we want in a real kitchen,” she said.
“Love that idea,” said Ludo. To which Bayless nudges, “I think we should do it in Puerto Rico though.” And Benet bites, “Name the time and we’ll do it.”
And there you have it; Top Chef Masters cooking together in perfect harmony. And all born from a reality TV show, who knew such a thing was possible? Check out these new bonds for yourself when Top Chef Masters airs on Bravo, June 24th at 10 PM, and see who moves on to the next round.