Recap: 'Top Chef Masters,' Season 5, Episode 1

We meet the contestants and hop out of an airplane

In the season premiere, the chefs had to skydive before cooking.

And so we begin!

The premiere episode of Top Chef Masters' fifth season introduced us to more under-the radar chefs than previous seasons’ superstar showcases, but it’s still clear that there’s a deep well of talent here. Here’s the lineup of chefs that will be competing for $100,000 for the charity of their choice this season:

Franklin Becker, The Little Beet, New York City
David Burke, David Burke TownhouseDavid Burke PrimeDavid Burke Primehouse, New York City
Lynn Crawford, Ruby Watchco, Ruby Eats, Toronto
Odette Fada, Formerly of SD26, New York City
Neal Fraser, BLDThe Strand House, Neal Fraser & Co at Vibiana, Los Angeles
Jennifer Jasinski, RiojaBistro Vendome, Denver
Douglas Keane, Formerly of Cyrus, Sonoma County, Calif.
Jenn Louis, LincolnSunshine Tavern, Portland, Ore.
Richard Sandoval, Richard Sandoval Restaurants, Los Angeles
Bryan Voltaggio, VOLT, Frederick, Md.
Herbert Wilson, Sushi Samba, Las Vegas
Sang Yoon, Father’s OfficeLukshon, Los Angeles
Sue Zemanick, Gautreau’s, New Orleans

David Burke is likely the most easily recognizable name in the list, from the assortment of restaurants bearing his name in New York, with Michael Voltaggio running a close second thanks to his second-place finish in Top Chef behind his brother, Michael. But there’s really not a dud in the whole bunch: Sang Yoon runs two of Los Angeles’ hottest restaurants, Douglas Keane’s restaurant has two Michelin stars, and two of Becker’s sous chefs (Mike Isabella and Kevin Sbraga) went onto Top Chef glory.

To add a little more spice to the proceedings (and to drive "second screen engagement," surely), each chef has chosen a sous chef to bring along, who will be competing in competitions aired only online. If the sous chefs do poorly it’ll work to the contestants' disadvantage; if they do well, it’ll work to their advantage. The sous chefs got to work, but we only got to see a few seconds of their challenge before being directed to watch the rest online.

While they cook, Stone informed the chefs that they’d be skydiving into their Elimination Challenge. They got two hours of cook time if they decided to jump, but only an hour if they choose to drive instead, a deal that Burke jokingly called "blackmail." Every chef except for Keane decided to jump, but ironically Keane’s sous chef, Drew, ended up winning the off-screen challenge, providing him with immunity.

The skydiving seemed to go off without a hitch, and I must admit it was pretty awesome seeing Burke and all these other chefs about as out-of-character as possible. But with the adrenaline still pumping, it was time to cook.

The chefs sprinted down to their bare-bones stations, where they had to use the same ingredients that were used by their sous chefs in the earlier challenge. Several of the chefs discovered that they didn't have sharp knives, however, which was the disadvantage that their underperforming sous chefs earned them.

Here were the dishes served to the panel that included Gail Simmons, James Oseland, Lesley Suter, and a parachuting squad:

Franklin Becker: Olive oil-poached halibut with creamed leeks, onions, and scallions
David Burke: Shrimp with smoky white bean hummus, warm vegetables, and candied lemon vinaigrette, topped with arugula salad
Herb Wilson: Grilled mango-cucumber butter and red pepper gazpacho (which was supposed to be topped with a fried oyster that didn’t make it onto the plate)
Lynn Crawford: Maple-marinated beet salad with bacon and egg vinaigrette

The judges were impressed with Lynn’s salad, and found David’s shrimp too "shrimpy" and too heavy on the hummus. Franklin’s halibut was a little bland, but they loved the flavors that it came with. As for poor Herb, they were disappointed that they only got a sauce, even though it was tasty.

Jenn Louis: Clams with bacon, lemon, and fregola sarda, and cabbage salad with lemon vinaigrette
Sue Zemanick: Mahimahi and pepper escabeche with roasted corn and tomato basil butter
Bryan Voltaggio: Aromatic roasted carrots with pine nut praline, arugula chimichurri, and golden raisins
Sang Yoon: Spice-rubbed pork with Vietnamese caramel gastrique and fresh chiles

A lot of Jenn’s clams didn’t open, but what they got tasted good. The pork that was cooked well (a lot of it was undercooked) tasted good, and Bryan’s carrots were full of flavor and "sexy," according to Oseland. Sue’s was a good example of down-home Southern cooking, but seemed a little held-back.

Odette Fada: Cold roast lamb with cauliflower and anchovy salad
Jennifer Jasinski: Orange-ginger marinated skirt steak with pickled cabbage and fried ginger
Douglas Keane: Kombu-cured scallop with hon-shimeji mushroom tsukemono
Neal Fraser: Pork meatball with cavolo nero, faro, and pickled fresno chiles
Richard Sandoval: Beef tiradito with cauliflower, apples, and salmon with aji Amarillo beurre blanc

Odette’s lamb was "surprisingly delicious," according to Simmons, but they didn’t care for Douglas’ dish, even though they were impressed by what he was able to accomplish. Richard’s dishes were a bit of a mishmash, and the beef was undercooked (the chimichurri was the best part). Neal’s meatball wowed just about everyone, and the size of Jennifer’s skirt steak was a bit of a turnoff, even though they liked the fried ginger.

Bryan, Neal, and Odette were all called into see the critics, and they were told that their dishes were the critics’ favorites. Odette won the challenge (and $10,000 for Doctors Without Borders), confirming that cold lamb chops can still be delicious.

David, Herb, and Richard were on the bottom, and were given the opportunity to defend themselves. Richard’s meat was almost raw and the two proteins worked against him. David was OK with the ingredients, but the shrimp was overpowering (even though they were impressed that he deveined 40 shrimp with a butter knife). And as for Herb, well, he didn’t get the main protein on the plate.

In the end, Herb got the boot. The fact that he didn’t get his oysters on the plate did him in, because this early in the competition you can skate by even if what you serve isn’t a showstopper. If you leave the main protein off of the plate, well, that’s a dealbreaker.

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With episode one all said and done, it’s pretty obvious that this season is really anyone’s game. These early episodes don’t provide much in the way of character development yet, but it’s fun to see this hodgepodge of chefs at the top of their game begin to navigate what’s sure to be a minefield.