The latest edition of "Top Chef" ended last Wednesday, and this Wednesday at 11, Bravo offers up the third round of "Top Chef Masters," which should be followed by another season of "Top Chef Just Desserts," which will then be followed by yet another "Top Chef" Coke Classic, and on and on, as part of Bravo's plan to eventually program some version of the cooking competition franchise not only year-round, but possibly every minute of every day. (Get ready for "Top Chef Salad Shooters," coming your way in 2014!)

And with this new iteration of "Top Chef Masters," the gap in style between original and spin-off has shrunk to the point where "Masters" may as well just be another regular season of the show.

Three things distinguished "Masters" from "Top Chef" proper in its first two seasons: 1)The show used a round-robin format in which different groups of chefs competed each week and then the winner of each early round came back at the end, 2)Most of the contestants were big culinary stars like Hubert Keller, Rick Bayless and Wylie Dufresne, and 3)The host and judges were mostly different.

"Masters" season 3 eliminates the first difference, as we now get an identical format to the original show, with all the contestants competing at once and one being eliminated each week. And because of the time commitment now required, that all but eliminates the second difference, since the real famous names of the culinary world don't have the time to devote to a regular-length season. The contestants we get aren't slouches, but in many cases the only significant difference between them and some upper-echelon "Top Chef All-Stars" contestants is age.

(The support personnel have been tweaked a bit, for instance with Curtis Stone - also a judge on "America's Next Great Restaurant," from the same producers - replacing Kelly Choi as host. Stone's affable and far more lifelike than Choi was, but I think the Magical Elves people see a lot more in the guy than I do.)

Then it becomes a question of whether you preferred the differences between the two shows or if you'd rather just have "Top Chef" itself on the air year-round, regardless of what title the current season is going by.

I have to admit that I didn't watch much of "Masters" in its previous incarnation, though I liked the idea of it. It was fun to see the celebrity chefs have to compete in the same ridiculous challenges that the regular contestants go through. In some ways, it was more fun. One of the problems "Top Chef" proper runs into - and it ran into it a lot in the just-completed All-Stars season - is that the show tends to get too cute with its elimination challenges, creating circumstances in which it's all but impossible for the contestants to cook their best food. With "Masters," no one's trying to prove their chops - they're acknowledged stars just competing for their favorite charity - and so when, say, Hubert Keller has to cook food using only the equipment found in a freshman dorm room, it's cool to see a man of his talent and reputation figure out how to MacGyver his way through it.

But I liked having an investment in the contestants all the way through the season, rather than having them helicopter in and out based on the needs of their own schedule and the show's. I imagine Bravo made the switch because I was not alone in thinking that.



The celebrity level of the new Masters may be lower, but there's still that sense of fun from seeing established chefs have to be put through the same faces as the more anonymous ones. The opening Quickfire challenge proves so difficult that two chefs don't even bother plating a dish, with one lamenting, "I've watched 'Top Chef Masters,' but I honestly didn't expect it to be this hard." And the season opens with the most popular - and often most complicated - "Top Chef" elimination challenge of all: Restaurant Wars.

There are some colorful personalities on display - Hugh Acheson and Suvir Saran spend much of the premiere seemingly determined to outquip the other - and five-plus years into the franchise, the production team knows exactly how to put together a briskly-paced, entertaining hour of television.

I don't know that I'll ultimately stay with the new incarnation of "Masters" any longer than the old one, but that's more because I could use a break between seasons of the original show to cleanse my viewing palate. The new "Masters" isn't appreciably better or worse than the old "Masters," it's just different - even as it's more similar than ever to the mothership.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com