'Top Chef Masters' Recap: Of Buffets and Skin Grafts

The contestants split up for a Vegas-sized challenge -- and the first to be cut does it the hard way.

Top Chef Masters returned to Bravo last night for a fourth season of proven chefs vying for a $100,000 prize paid to the charity of their choice. The setting: Sin City, Nevada. The host: Aussie hunk Curtis Stone (pronounced KEH-tus), who delivers blinding smiles with his whiplash-inducing twists.

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The twelve cheftestants include offal specialist Chris Cosentino, Taco Bell consultant (and former judge on NBC's America's Next Great Restaurant) Lorena Garcia, Thierry "The Chef in the Hat" Rautureau, eminent French and Asian cuisine specialist Takashi Yagihashi, dueling blonde lovers Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, and Princeton-educated biochemist-turned-chef Patricia Yeo.

Then there is Chicago pro Missy Robbins, newly svelte and sassy Southener Art Smith, Mexican specialist Sue Torres, Midwestern James Beard Award-winner Debbie Gold, and Top Chef All-Stars judge Kerry Heffernan. Rautureau, Smith and Gold are all returning Masters contestants, suggesting finding top-tier chefs who are up for a grueling reality show might be something of a casting challenge.

A Quickfire Challenge requires the chefs to pair themselves off, and Curtis deals them two "ingredient" cards each, with which they must create a dish: langoustines and quinoa; black garlic and flank steak; duck breast and peaches; prime rib and catfish; brandy and honeycomb; and, finally, pork tenderloin ... and bologna. 

Despite not sounding the least bit appetizing, the trio of card dealer judges chose Chris and Patricia's prime rib and catfish dish, and the two are granted immunity from the Elimination Challenge, which required everyone to split into two teams and prepare a pair of buffets to feed a small army of Las Vegas performers.

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One frantic shopping spree to Whole Foods later, the chefs return to cook. But Curtis has scratch-off lotto cards, which reveal their fate: cut cooking time, team swapping, and, in the case of lucky Art and Debbie, immunity. But the twists keep coming: Two more cards force the teams to switch their menu themes entirely to Mexican and Indian flavors.

As Art heads back to Whole Foods to purchase more ingredients for the Red Team, teammate Missy slices her hand while speed-slicing zucchini. It's a deep, nasty cut and a doctor later tells her she'll need a skin graft surgery. She returns later to the stew room to announce she won't be competing further, as she needs a whopping six months to heal properly and her career comes first. It's sad turn of events, but Curtis promises her a spot in next season's roster.

With one hour to prepare their buffets, the chefs slice, dish and sautee away, the Red Team sweating extra hard because of Missy's absence. To their credit, they complete her zucchini dish for her. The food is laid out in time for a stream of hungry showgirls, mimes and pirates, as well as the judges: returning James Oseland and Ruth Reichl and newcomer Krista Simmons.

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At the judges' table, the panel decides the Red Team's Mexican buffet is the hands-down winner. Chris's dish is deemed the best, winning him $16,000 for his charity, in addition to the $10,000 he won in the Quick Challenge. Blue Team's Indian food falls well short of the mark, however, and Sue's dry chicken, though encrusted in very Indian-like spices, is dry. Her failure to marinate her poulty in yogurt ultimately sends Sue packing.

Such is the way of the Masters.