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Are the judges harder on TC contestants than TC Master contestants?

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I've been wondering since season 1's Michael Chiarello used packaged pasta in an elimination challenge that he did very well in. He may even have won it. I think it was the cook a vegetarian meal challenge. The judges actually specifically said there was nothing wrong with using packaged pasta.

I thought that was a fluke until I watched season 2. Carmen Gonzalez used packaged sausage from Whole Foods in a cook a birthday meal elimination challenge. She wasn't hammered for it that the audience could see, and she did well in that challenge. Then Susan Feniger and maybe Jonathan Waxman used packaged tortillas in an elimination challenge. I know you don't have time to make your own pasta/sausage/tortillas in a quickfire, but using packaged food in an elimination challenge is exactly the sort of thing Tom Colicchio has repeatedly criticized. So why's it OK on Masters?

Anyone know why the judges seem to be easier on Masters? Is it because the chefs are on a higher level and are focusing and judged on more complex components of the dishes?

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  1. I think it is partly out of respect for established chefs, and partly because Masters are competing for charity, so its more of an exhibition game.

    4 Replies
    1. re: babette feasts

      Agree with this.

      Also, if I remember correctly, Michael was given a bit of "why did you use packaged pasta" in the judging. Though he wasn't eliminated, he really bristled in the 'stew room' saying that when he's putting together a menu that he's not going to make pasta, cheese, sausage, bread etc. if there's a specialist in the neighborhood who does it better.

      I also think there's a bit of respect on TCM in terms of putting out the "best" plate of food - whereas in Top Chef there's a more competitive element. I think the judges do take into consideration who presented more difficult food as well as tasty food. So I think part of Tom's criticism is about saying "the more you make, the more we give you credit for, and that might be the edge that gives you the win or the save".

      1. re: cresyd

        Thanks. I agree. Although it can work the other way too: the more you make badly, the greater the chance you go home!

        The line between TC and TCM gets more and more blurred as the seasons evolve, doesn't it? The best TC contestants from say season 4 on could compete against many TCM contestants. This is borne out by the TC Duels currently airing. I haven't watched any, but I think there are TC contestants pitted against TCM contestants in a few duels.

        1. re: pudelhund

          I agree. I mean, the early seasons of Top Chef were really in that wave of early reality tv where the credibility of the show reflecting the quality of the chefs was up for debate. I think the winners have always been of a reliable quality - but the contestants going home in the first few rounds of the early seasons vs the more recent seasons I think is wildly different.

      2. re: babette feasts

        Thanks. This makes sense. I suppose the judges all know Chiarello can make pasta and Feniger can make tortillas. Still, I'm not sure what Chiarello did that was so impressive. It seemed like something I could've made, and I am no chef.

      3. Aside from what others have said, I think it's down to Tom setting the tone for judging vs Kelly Choi and Curtis Stone.