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New season of 'Top Chef' takes on the Big Apple

Judge Gail Simmons, in black, is surrounded by the Season 5 “cheftestants.’’ New York’s ethnic cuisines, and the ability of the competitors to produce them, will take center stage.

Bravo

Judge Gail Simmons, in black, is surrounded by the Season 5 “cheftestants.’’ New York’s ethnic cuisines, and the ability of the competitors to produce them, will take center stage.

It took five seasons, but Top Chef has landed in the Big Apple.

Now the question is: Can anyone peel one?

That's because the first challenge thrown to the 17 "cheftestants" involves peeling (paring knives, only!) and dicing the fruit.

Longtime fans of Bravo's culinary hit have learned never to take basic knife skills for granted. They still remember Casey's epic struggle with an onion in a Season 3 challenge, which also highlighted the mad bladework of eventual winner Hung Huynh.

So, tonight, before anyone is even allowed into Manhattan, one chef is eliminated. Blood will be spilled.

Joining host Padma Lakshmi, chef Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons at the judges' table is newcomer Toby Young. Young is a British food critic and author of the book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. It's clear that Young, who replaces Queer Eye's Ted Allen, is seen as somewhat of a culinary Simon Cowell, the bad boy arbiter of American Idol. Head judge Colicchio said recently that Young lives up to the title of his book: "I got many chances to roll my eyes at some of the things he said."

We'll have to see if adding more snark upsets the recipe of a reality competition show where the judges, at least, try to keep the focus on the food. And Young aside, Bravo is promising a more diverse cast of special guests this season. For example, both Martha Stewart and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl will turn up. Grohl, it turns out, finds his foodie nirvana in stinky cheese. Alt-rock fans, who knew? Sounds like there will be a fromage challenge. And because this season is in their back yard, some previous guest chefs will show up, such as the celebrated Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Wylie Dufresne and others among New York's finest. (He isn't billed this season, but that doesn't mean the ever-entertaining Anthony Bourdain won't make an appearance.)

The contestants are the usual lineup of Top Chef archetypes. There's the obnoxious New Yorker (Danny), the green culinary student (Patrick), the dandy (Jeff, who insists his hair must be perfect), the underdog (Gene, who started as a dishwasher) and the villain (Stefan?). Sprinkled among the lineup are the usual variety of tattoos, sexual orientations and super-sized ego, and the f-bombs are sure to fly.

But the most important character in Season 5 will be New York itself. Already, the city's blogosphere is abuzz with debate over the show's impact (a sign of its success) on both chefs and diners, prompting food critic Frank Bruni of the New York Times to offer a qualified defense of Top Chef, praising it for how "wonky and geeky and particular it gets about the food itself." Indeed, Bravo says this season will get very particular about New York's ethnic cuisines, and tonight's elimination challenge is the first taste of that.

As Lakshmi warns the contestants: "Welcome to the most competitive culinary environment in America."

Peter Couture can be contacted at pcouture@sptimes.com.

>>on tv

Top Chef tonight

Top Chef: New York premieres at 10 tonight on Bravo. An all-day marathon of last season's Top Chef: Chicago begins at 10 a.m. To learn more, go to www.bravotv.com.

New season of 'Top Chef' takes on the Big Apple 11/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 11, 2008 3:30am]

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