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On 'Top Chef,' you can taste the drama

Now that Project Runway is over, it's time to get cooking.

Top Chef begins its fourth season tonight with 16 "chef-testants" set to bicker and boil over in one of America's great restaurant cities: Chicago. What? You haven't seen the show and you like to cook?

Here are 10 reasons why you've got to watch starting at 10 p.m. on Bravo. (Read contestant profiles and more at www.bravo.com.)

1. Star chefs. As Top Chef has grown more successful, the caliber of guest judges has risen. Expect more this season, such as the hunky, acclaimed pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini and tapas master Jose Andres. Let's face it: Only the allure of showbiz could have made the sophisticated Eric Ripert dress up as Santa for last season's holiday special. Hmm, what do you think Top Chef would have to do to entice the renowned Thomas Keller?

2. Padma. Host Padma Lakshmi is a former model (natch) and a recent cookbook author who must have studied at the Tyra Banks School of Delayed Diction. As a judge, Padma isn't afraid to challenge the opinions of her esteemed colleagues. As a host, she isn't afraid to unleash her bare midriff in the kitchen.

3. Food crimes. Sure, chefs would never have to cook with ingredients from a vending machine or gas station convenience store (when in doubt, look for the Krispy Kremes), and you know they don't teach those skills in culinary school. That's why it makes for good TV.

4. Chicago. It's the latest stop — following San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami — on the show's nationwide culinary tour. And even though tonight's challenge is all too predictable (deep-dish pizza), we can look forward to Chicago's culinary talent showing up: Rick Tramonto, Gale Gand and Rick Bayless. Maybe we'll even see Charlie Trotter around finals time. Oh, and did we mention Oprah's chef?

5. Blogs. Sure, every reality show has them, but there's some real writing talent that you'll appreciate on the Top Chef blogs: Ted Allen (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), Gail Simmons (Food & Wine magazine) and Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential). Allen is funny and entertaining, Simmons is informative, and Bourdain is his usual bad self.

6. Tom Colicchio. The chef of New York's Craft is the stern but fair head judge who tries to set contestants on the right path with a simple comment ("You're really going to try to make a souffle?"). Oh, if only more of the chefs listened.

7. Sharp knives. These are the ones that the contestants bury in one another's backs. Will this season's contestants ever top Dave's now-classic retort to Tiffani on Season 1: "I'm not your b----, b----"?

8. Local connection. One of the contestants is the Montreal-born, New York chef Spike, 27, who lists his hometown as Clearwater Beach.

9. Satisfaction. Surely there's nothing a home cook can learn from this culinary chaos? Wrong. The show reminds chefs of the basics: Simple is best. Use fresh ingredients and don't overwhelm them with too many flavors. Taste, taste, taste (and use salt). Pastry isn't something you should attempt on the fly. Oh, and bacon is your friend.

10. Anthony Bourdain. Best. Guest. Judge. Ever. "What kind of crack house are you running here?" he asked in a Season 2 episode, and we immediately knew that we would see more of him. He shows up tonight, and we hope the producers can pry him away from his Travel Channel show (No Reservations) for the finale.

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

On 'Top Chef,' you can taste the drama 03/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 11, 2008 6:00am]

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