'Top Chef' Adds Dash Of Spice To Season 2

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Forget the pointless bluster of "Hell's Kitchen" or the blatant self-promotion of "The Next Food Network Star." For a real taste of the guts and creativity it takes to survive in a restaurant kitchen, nothing on television beats Bravo's "Top Chef."

Like cooks tinkering with a dish, producers have tweaked the "Project Runway"-style culinary competition for its second season, which premieres tonight at 11, and the initial results are tastier.

The biggest change is sitting in the host's seat. While Season One had the robotic Katie Lee Joel struggling to get through her lines without frequent voice-overs, new host Padma Lakshmi brings a vibrant screen presence and a sassy attitude. She has better credentials than Joel, too; besides modeling and acting, she is a successful cookbook author and former Food Network host.

She jumps into the fray with gusto, putting a contestant in his place within the first few minutes of tonight's "quick-fire challenge," a 20-minute whirlwind that bestows immunity from elimination on its winner. When Marcel Vigneron, a self-professed "molecular gastronomist" (read: foams and gels), starts to blather about the dish he almost made, Lakshmi interrupts to say, "Okay, tell us about the dish you're doing." Snap.

Chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio of Craft fame and Gail Simmons from Food & Wine magazine return as judges for the 13 episodes, but this time Bravo has drawn a more experienced crop of contestants seeking the $100,000 prize. Surely that's a result of the successful first season, which the network says was the highest-rated cable food show among 18- to 49-year-olds. (May's Season One finale dew 1.6 million viewers.) While Season One had a few restaurant cooks among the personal chefs, teachers and even a "holistic nutritionist," Season Two has three restaurant owners and three executive chefs.

Unfortunately, the producers have also ramped up the product placement. "Runway" viewers who chafe at weekly references to the "Loreal Paris makeup room" and "Tresemme hair salon" will soon be joined by "Top Chef" viewers tired of hearing Lakshmi say things such as, "Your challenge is to create a delicious and original dish with the Kenmore Pro appliances."

Nonetheless, personalities and cooking styles emerge as quickly as it takes those Kenmore burners to fire up, and reality-television fans will recognize some stock characters. There's the sexpot (Marisa Churchill, who packed a bustier), the buffoon (hard-drinking Michael Midgley), the heartthrob (tattooed Sam Talbot) and the elder (instructor Otto Borsich). Vigneron, whose hairdo evokes the X-Men's Wolverine, ruffles feathers right off the bat, while the talkative young line cook Ilan Hall and the bubbly Betty Fraser show they have palates to contend with. For his part, head judge Colicchio clarifies his position from the beginning, declaring that in his kitchen interviews, "I am not a mentor." (Read: I am not Tim Gunn.)

The challenges promise to be just as tough as last season's, with one future episode requiring the wannabes to create an entree without modern technology, and another forcing them to make something palatable from chicken feet, pig blood and lamb hearts. The show has gotten better at showing the cooking process, with nicely edited close-ups of the cooks pushing a carrot across a mandoline, licking sauce off a wooden spoon, slicing scallions on the bias, dredging frog legs in cornflakes, and drizzling sauces onto plates. The guest judges seem more prominent this time, too. Tonight starts off with an obvious choice, Season One winner Harold Dieterle, but later shows will feature Ming Tsai, Suzanne Goin, Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain.

Maybe that's the solution to one of last season's most vexing disappointments: the lack of quotable quips from the judges. Not to belabor the "Runway" comparison, but "Top Chef" could certainly use a wit like Michael Kors, who this season said one outfit "looks like Comme des Garçons goes to Amish country." Bourdain, author of the hilarious "Kitchen Confidential," certainly doesn't mince words. Perhaps this time the other judges won't, either.

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