"Top Chef" returns

"Top Chef" returns

Posted by Sean Stangland on Wed, 08/19/2009 - 23:00

I've considered Bravo's "Top Chef" to be the best competition reality show on television since its inception in March 2006, and tonight's Las Vegas premiere does nothing to change my mind. It's the slickest, most consistently entertaining show in a genre that includes titans like "Project Runway" (returning tomorrow on Lifetime!), "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," and has an amiable quality that the other shows often lack. "Top Chef" has had its share of drama -- who could forget Betty vs. Marcel in Season 2? -- but one always feels the chef-testants respect each other's work.

And it always makes me so damn hungry!

Moving the show to Las Vegas was long overdue. The city that epitomizes excess has come to be a food mecca, and one that many of us are familiar with. I'm guessing that this season, more than any others, will feature guest chefs whose restaurants we, the public, have actually visited. For example, the opening teaser tonight featured Todd English, whose Olives restaurant at Bellagio served me quite a meal in February 2006. And tonight's elimination challenge featured Wolfgang Puck, whose various brands extend all over the country.

Seeing Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and the oh-so-lovely Gail Simmons again tonight was, to me, the television equivalent of comfort food, especially after we've had to endure the not-quite-ready-for-TV panel of critics on "Top Chef: Masters" the past few weeks. And apparently I'm not the only one: Diet Coke likes Tom Colicchio enough to put him in one of their commercials, which I saw for the first time tonight.

With its increased visibility and continued excellence, one has to wonder how long it will be before "Top Chef" makes the leap from Bravo to its big brother, NBC (the network has televised re-runs before, but never first-run episodes). I'm assuming "Top Chef" is Bravo's top-rated show now that "Runway" has sashayed down the dial, so to speak, but "Top Chef" could be just what NBC's anemic prime-time lineup needs. (For the record: The fourth-season finale drew 3.5 million viewers.)

But enough about all that; what about the new chef-testants?

Our new group certainly has no shortage of tattoos! Were all these inked gourmets chosen on purpose, to live up to some Vegas image of hip danger? (Or something?) Tattoos or not, it certainly appears to be the most talented group thus far, with a couple of James Beard award finalists and, perhaps most impressive of all, the chef from one of Eric Ripert's restaurants! (As my friend Georgia lamented, Jen's inclusion in the competition means we probably won't see the smiling, silver-haired chef as a guest judge this year. We can always hope for the return of the Mighty Bourdain, though.)

My first impression: Kevin is going to win the whole thing. I don't know why I feel this way, but I'm pretty good at picking the winner early on -- I was definitely right about home-girl Stephanie Izard in the Chicago season. His dish tonight looked like something I would never eat, but which foodies would love. His food already reminds me of Hung Huynh's brand of quirk.

Jen Z.'s exit interview, courtesy of bravotv.com

The biggest disappointment for me tonight was the reaction to Hector's ribeye dish, inspired by his vice of cigar-smoking -- it looked amazing on the plate, but apparently wasn't up to snuff. I felt terrible for Jennifer, whose dish made Wolfgang Puck make a horrifying face. "You cook that at home, those people will never come visit you again." And like that, she's gone -- goodbye, heavily-tattooed Mindy Kaling lookalike!

Preeti's dish looked incredible. I've never had a pork tenderloin with bourbon sweet potatoes, but I sure want to.

I already know who I don't like: the two brothers. Wolfgang and the gang may have liked Michael's "rack" of lamb, but that kind of crass presentation really rubbed me the wrong way. And the teaser shows us he'll be fighting with brother Bryan all season. I just don't have the patience for that. (Hopefully they'll have more decorum than Dale did in last week's "TC:M" when he tried to go gangsta on Michael Chiarello. WTF?)

I'm very excited to see where this season will go. Raising the stakes in the challenges by adding monetary prizes will make things more interesting, and I'm sure there will be plenty of Vegas surprises waiting. (My dream of a Penn & Teller guest spot is already guaranteed!) And maybe this will finally be the season where I actually try to cook one of the recipes ...

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