When it comes to creating a memorable dining experience, Curtis Stone believes it’s hard to beat simplicity.
“At the end of the day, I don’t care if there’s some highfalutin ingredient or combination or technique,” says the celebrity chef and host/judge of Top Chef Duels, Bravo’s new culinary competition show.
“It doesn’t have to come out of an iSi gun or involve frozen liquid nitrogen to be interesting to me. If a meal is just super-tasty, that’s what it’s all about.”
Funny thing, though. We get such a different message much of the time in Top Chef Duels, which premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Yes, the debut episode opens with two professional chefs battling to create the tastier dessert, one that incorporates both hot and cold elements. Then their task is to build the better burger, a goal that any amateur cook can relate to.
But after that, the stakes get higher, the challenges take a turn for the esoteric and the chefs go hog wild.
Each is instructed to prepare a three-course meal that appeals to all of the senses. The first course is supposed to be “a dish that’s visually misleading.” So one chef makes a chicken liver mousse that looks like cherries!
What happened to simplicity?
“That’s the beauty of this show,” Stone says. “There are simple challenges, really down-home stuff like how to make the perfect burger, but there are more extravagant challenges that involve higher-end cooking and the chefs having more time to think things through.
“So there’s a little something for everyone, no matter what the viewer’s philosophy about food might be.”
Top Chef Duels isn’t just about the food, however. It’s also about the knife-wielding personalities who chop, dice, mince, julienne and stab others in the back if given half a chance.
The show brings back 18 trash-talking cooks from past seasons of Top Chef and Top Chef Masters to compete in a series of head-to-head battles, with a grand prize of $100,000 and culinary bragging rights awaiting the ultimate champ.
“That’s what makes the show so cool,” says Stone, who has hosted the past three seasons of Top Chef Masters. “Each episode gives us two returning contestants, and there is usually a history between those two contestants.
“We see people who maybe have a little bit of a vendetta or some kind of grudge. Or maybe they cook the same style of food. Whatever the reason, the competition between them often gets personal.
“Ours is a very competitive industry. Once you combine great food and imaginative challenges with gastronomic flair and all the egos that come with these chefs, you wind up with a show that’s very interesting and exciting.”
Stone’s fellow judges are Gail Simmons (special projects director at Food & Wine magazine), chefs Wolfgang Puck and Hugh Acheson, and a series of celebrity guest judges that include Shailene Woodley, Rob Zombie, Pink and cast members of Grey’s Anatomy and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Stone, an Australian trained in the U.K. by legendary chef Marco Pierre White, is best known in the States as a TV personality and cookbook author.
Earlier this year, he opened his first restaurant, calling the 25-seat Beverly Hills establishment Maude, after his grandmother, who awakened his early interest in cooking.
Initial reviews for the restaurant and its menu, which changes monthly to showcase a single seasonal ingredient creatively woven throughout nine tasting plates, have been strongly positive.
Because a show like Top Chef Duels can be produced in lightning-fast fashion, Stone has been able to maintain a level of pop-culture visibility while being very hands-on in Maude’s kitchen almost every day, not content to run the restaurant from afar.
“It’s been a lot of work, but more than anything else, I’ve been very, very active with my restaurant business,” he says. “Of course, when you love what you do, it’s easy.”