NEW YORK — We've had three seasons of Bravo's Top Chef. Each one has gotten arguably better as the network wised up and chose a smattering of chefs with real skills to populate the program.
What will the fourth season bring?
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Well, if the 16 contestants' resumes mean anything, this year (beginning 10 p.m. Wednesday) could be a dandy. Many of them have worked at some top-notch spots and appear to have real seasoning.
”I think this season is tougher ... because the talent pool is deeper,“ said Tom Colicchio, a well-known chef and judge on the show. ”There are more contenders this year. These are good cooks without a doubt.“
Colicchio said Bravo couldn't attract such talented people in the past because the show was taken lightly in culinary circles, and few with major cooking aspirations wanted to risk their reputation in a venue as derided as a back-stabbing reality show.
But that has changed.
”It has become respectable,“ Colicchio said. ”A lot of the chefs who came in season four probably wouldn't have come out in season two. More and more talented chefs are coming out because the show is being taken seriously.“
One of the reasons they're taking a chance on Top Chef rests with the guest judges. Last year, Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud and Andre Soltner landed on the program, raising the stature of Top Chef.
”I think that has really legitimized the show,“ said Colicchio, who owns the popular Craft steak houses.
Colicchio said contestants know they also have a shot at parlaying their fame into a restaurant like first-season winner Harold Dieterle. Colicchio doubts Dieterle could have opened Perilla in New York without the exposure he received by taking part in Top Chef.
Colicchio, who helped vet the resumes, said he looked for pedigree. He found plenty.
Many of contestants have the credentials to go all the way, and in some cases, the egos to make for good television.
Richard Blais, Andrew D'Ambrosi, Dale Talde, Spike Mendelsohn and Manuel Trevino all seem to have the moxie and experience to take the title. Like their victorious predecessors, they've worked in some decent kitchens and withstood the pressure.
Trevino rose to sous chef at Mario Batali's Babbo, an Italian restaurant and one of New York's best. He's currently executive chef of a Mexican place named Dos Caminos. At Babbo, he worked with author Bill Buford for about a year.
Buford says Trevino, or Memo as he's known, ”has got a crazy amount of talent, can't believe there are other chefs on the program who have more skills or (have) as much elegant lightness under pressure, and, probably most important, he has a genuine creative fire, a wildness that will result in his coming up with a dish so unexpected and brilliant that he will be a finalist, or else will result in some kind of equally unexpected flameout and make Memo just too damn hot too handle.“
Buford, who penned the book Heat while slaving away at Babbo, added that Trevino gives the show ”unexpected cred.“
Like Trevino and Mendelsohn, D'Ambrosi is doing a stint at Le Cirque 2000, a legendary spot in Manhattan that recently revived its reputation after getting three stars in The New York Times (the paper took one away in 2006).
Talde is a sous chef at perennially packed Buddakan, a big operation that can turn out exceptional food when the kitchen is on its A game. He helped open restaurant Jean Georges Vong in Chicago, where the show takes place this season.
Mendelsohn works as the chef de cuisine at MAI-House. The Times named it one of the best restaurants in 2007. Mendelsohn could have some tricks up his sleeve after spending time at Les Crayeres in France, which has two Michelin stars, and Thomas Keller's Bouchon, a famous bistro in Napa Valley.
Blais' curriculum vitae is also impressive. According to Bravo, he ”studied under luminaries such as Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Ferran Adria.“ If he learned anything from those stints, the Atlantan could be formidable — though his knowledge of molecular gastronomy doesn't guarantee victory.
OK, so what about the women?
In three seasons, a woman has never won. A female chef has come close, landing in the finals on the first and third seasons.
This season, half the contestants are women. And there may be a dark horse among them like Lisa Fernandes. She cooked at the popular Public in lower Manhattan, and now is doing catering gigs while waiting for the ”right opportunity.“
”The female talent is huge,“ Fernandes said in an interview. ”All I'm gonna say is that we started out with more women than any other season and walking in there and seeing that many women definitely got my hopes up.“
But remember: The judges only care about one thing.
”I'm judging solely on who's making the best food,“ Colicchio said. ”That's it.“