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Brand Extension Theater Presents: 'Top Chef Duels'

Richard Blais gets it done — if by "it" you mean "the making of steam" — in <em>Top Chef Duels</em>.
Nicole Wilder
Richard Blais gets it done — if by "it" you mean "the making of steam" — in Top Chef Duels.

Have you ever heard a cheerleading squad do one of those call-and-response bits where they say, "Seniors yell it!", and then the seniors yell, "Fight! Fight!", and then they say, "Juniors yell it!", and so forth? Top Chef brand extensions are kind of like that: All-Stars yell it! Dessert chefs yell it! Veterans yell it! Healthy chefs yell it! Former contestants yell it!

Top Chefhas become the Real World/Road Rulesof food, where if you play your cards right (and/or act like an utter buffoon), your initial appearance can lead to not only other Top Chef stuff, but other food things on other food networks — like, for example, Food Network.

And now, they've introduced another incarnation, Top Chef Duels. This one will take past contestants and set them against each other in full, hourlong battles made up of several challenges. The premiere, which airs on Bravo on Wednesday night, pits molecular gastronomists Marcel Vigneron and Richard Blais against each other. Marcel was originally on Top Chefin 2006 and Richard in 2008, so they've been at this for a while. They've both done All-Stars, they've both done other stuff — they both even had their own shows briefly.

The show does its best to drag out the "Marcel is a little brat" angle that they were working eight years ago, but it's pretty stale at this point. (By the way, I once was at an event where Marcel served liquid nitrogen-frozen popcorn balls. They tasted like ... frozen popcorn, although they did cause me to exhale dragon smoke, which I guess was the point?) They try to scrape the bowl, as it were, for the last few teaspoons of hostility between the two, the better to create the kind of sniping of which many of us have grown tired.

The problem, as is the case with many similar projects, is that at one point, Richard mentions that Marcel texted him the night before, calling him "Grandpa." So, you know. They're texting each other the night before the competition, meaning they've pretty fully transformed themselves from actual prickly competitors (which many people on Old Original Top Chefpretty clearly are) to old hands at giving this particular production what it needs.

Thus, the attempt at personal drama is a flop from the start, leaving us with the actual cooking. At first, it's pretty flat: It's hard in a world of Choppedand especially Cutthroat Kitchento make up cooking challenges that seem fresh. But late in Top Chef Duels, they do find some interesting angles with blindfolds and so on that serve as good reminders that these folks are, in fact, pretty inventive and good at what they do. (There is also a moment when Gail Simmons seems either spiritually or actually tipsy, and all Top Chefincarnations are better when the judges are — again, either in fact or in effect — boozing.)

So is this really necessary? No. No, it is not. But if you want to see a guy make fruit out of livers, this is the brand extension for you.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.