This Wednesday marks the return of the best reality show to ever be on TV, and one of the flat out best shows around period, Bravo's Top Chef. I only started watching this past season (season 6) when they were in Las Vegas, but I've since caught up with the majority of seasons 1 (San Francisco), 4 (Chicago), and 5 (New York), as well as rewatching a good bit of season 6. Top Chef is made up of some of the best up and coming chefs in the country competing against one another in a variety of challenges served up to them by head judge Tom Colicchio, host Padma Lakshmi, and a variety of guest judges and critics. One of the most interesting aspects of Top Chef is the elimination system, which depends totally on what happened during this weeks episode. That may not sound revolutionary, but it makes for nail-biting watching, since the most talented chef may have an off day at the wrong time and get kicked off. This has happened multiple times, when the favorite to win makes something the judges don't like, and they get no mercy for their screw-up.
Top Chef is the essential show for anyone interested (even if only slightly) in food. The guest judges have ranged from faces familiar to the common person like Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Wolfgang Puck, Tyler Florence, and Emeril Lagasse, to legendary chefs like Lidia Bastianich, Wylie Dufresne, Jacques Pepin, and Thomas Keller. The competition has ramped up as the show has gone on. Many of the contestants in season 1 were not even executive chefs at their own restaurants, while in this past season there were competitors like Michael Voltaggio who'd already been awarded a rare Michelin star for his restaurant, Kevin who'd already been nominated for a James Beard award (it's like a culinary Academy Award, in case you were wondering), and Jennifer who was executive chef at a restaurant owned by food giant Eric Ripert.
Of course, a big factor of the shows success comes from head judge Tom Colicchio (pronounced Co-leek-ee-o). In fact, when I saw a Tony Bourdain speaking engagement this weekend, he talked at length about why Top Chef was the only great cooking show around anymore, and a big reason was because of Tom. Tony said that Tom added gravitas, combined with his credentials as a renowned NYC chef and restaurateur, and winner of a ridiculous 5 James Beard awards. Bourdain, one of my two favorite food personalities (alongside his friend Mario Batali), has appeared on the show multiple times, and even served as fill-in head judge while Tom was away at a charity event once. Tony said that he loves appearing on the show because he's a big fan of the show, and if it's got Tony Bourdain's approval, you know it's gotta be great, right? Another big reason it's great is because of model and cookbook author, the beautiful Padma Lakshmi. Padma has hosted the show since season 2, after taking over for the personality-less Katie Lee Joel. Padma adds a wonderful presence onscreen, along with some definite culinary knowledge, and the same sort of gravitas that makes Tom so amazing. They work together terrifically, and their comments at the end of each episode, during the Judge's Table deliberation, are always the most interesting.
So I could go on and on about the show, it really is that great. I don't know why, but I never had an inkling to watch it in previous seasons, I think because of my general dislike of reality shows. But my wonderful wife insisted that I should give it a try (she'd been a fan since the beginning) and we didn't have to watch it together if I didn't like it. As it turns out, the only thing I didn't like was having to wait a week between episodes. She got me hooked, and you won't be able to keep me away from season 7 in D.C. if you tried. It's one of the 3 or 5 best shows on TV, and everyone with the slightest interest in chefs or food owes it to themselves to get exposed to the greatness of Top Chef. I may even write a bit each week after seeing the episodes, since I find my thoughts changing over time, some chefs endear themselves to me and others do not, I may end up keeping a bit of a Top Chef log.