'Top Chef Masters' host Kelly Choi geeks out about New York's food scene for Bravo
Saturday, April 3rd 2010, 4:00 AM
Kelly Choi is so familiar with the ins and outs of the New York restaurant scene, she's practically a walking Zagat guide.
"My friends and colleagues text me at all hours: ‘I'm in this neighborhood and I want to eat this kind of food - where should I go?' " Choi told the Daily News. "I'm constantly giving recommendations."
Choi is the host of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters," a spinoff of the popular "Top Chef" series, that features 22 world-renowned chefs competing for a top prize of $100,000 for the charity of their choice. The chefs square off in weekly Quickfire and Elimination Challenges designed to test their basic abilities, versatility and innovativeness.
Restaurant critic Gael Greene, culinary expert James Oseland and food critic Jay Rayner return as judges, and this season, the series' second, they will be joined by "Top Chef" judge Gail Simmons.
"Top Chef Masters" premieres Wednesday at 11 p.m., before moving to its regular 10 p.m. time period the following Wednesday.
"I'm just thrilled about how this season turned out," said Andy Cohen, Bravo's senior vice president of original programming and development. "The personalities seem bigger this time around. We hit a great groove, and we really expect this season to be bigger than ever."
Unlike last season, the preliminary rounds of the competition will last only four weeks, giving the audience six weeks to get to know the finalists. Also, six returning chefs will all come back in one episode for a shot at redemption.
In addition to hosting "Masters," Choi, a former model, is a food journalist and the creator, producer and host of NYC TV's "Eat Out NY," in which she visits local eateries and prepares a meal with their chefs.
"I'm around food 24/7," said Choi, who was born in Seoul, South Korea. "I hang out with chefs all the time. I could geek out about food constantly."
Her favorite New York haunts include the Gramercy Tavern, for its "beautiful presentation," and Eleven Madison Park.
Despite her love of cooking, her grueling schedule allows little time for it. When filming "Top Chef Masters," Choi is up at 4:30 a.m. and doesn't finish the day until almost - and sometimes well past - midnight.
"I'm the host, so I'm the one that's there every single day," Choi said. "But I love it. I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I wasn't doing it."
Choi says she was a huge "Top Chef" fan from day one, and when she got the call from Bravo about hosting "Masters," her jaw dropped.
"Kelly is a major foodie and someone who's been on our radar for a while," said Cohen. "She's known a ton of chefs on the master's level and above."
This season's guest stars and judges include Mekhi Phifer, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening and star Hank Azaria, Andrew Zimmern of "Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern," the cast of ABC's "Modern Family," U.S. Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak and the cast of Bravo's "Real Housewives of Orange County," who will be judging a cocktail challenge.
"Those ladies know their way around a cocktail," Cohen said of the "Housewives."
Cohen says both "Top Chef" and "Masters" have gained a real following in the restaurant community, which makes both pretty painless to cast.
"This is a show that people just want to be on," said Cohen. "Really talented chefs watch ‘Top Chef' and wonder what they would do in the challenges that we put forth. ‘Masters' makes it so they're not only able to come on and compete in all their favorite challenges, but they're doing it for charity, and they get the bragging rights.
"Also, nobody on this show is looking to claw anyone's eyes out," added Cohen, "although there is a new competitive edge that enters into the show this season that we didn't see last year."
The drama is ramped up, but so, too, is the food. Choi says that maybe it was the nature of the challenges or possibly the ingredients, but whatever it was, the dishes served up this season were better than ever.
"I remember thinking, ‘I could eat this and die tomorrow and be satisfied,' " said Choi. "These chefs are so freaking good that even if they misfire, you're never going to get anything that's just not edible."
Ultimately, Choi thinks "Masters" is the perfect prime-time entertainment for pretty much anyone who likes to eat. And who doesn't?
"Food is a celebration of being with people-— everything is centered around the dinner table," said Choi. "People will watch because they want to feel good and they want to see geniuses at work. You watch this show and you'll feel inspired."