The fifth season of Top Chef is now underway on Wednesday nights at 10:00 p.m. on Bravo. Before last week, I’d never watched it before, though my wife has been a devotee for the past few years. She also likes Project Runway (which comes from the same productiom team) though in general she has little patience for so-called reality TV. I think what she likes is watching creative people performing their vocations and their passions under pressure, as opposed to trying to “survive” on an island while passing a series of man-made “natural” tasks. (She also likes food and clothes.)
But this year’s edition is set in New York City, so I felt duty-bound to give it a look. Last week’s premiere episode brought seventeen chefs from around the country and from Europe to Governor’s Island by ferry. Co-hosts Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio and immediately set them competing for only sixteen slots. Their task: peel apples, quickly and well. The first nine to finish up with well-peeled apples got spots. The remaining chefs had to chop up a bunch of apples and fill a copy. Four more spots gone. The remaining four chefs were given some ingredients and a few minutes to whip up a dish on the spot. Tom C. didn’t like one of the salads as much as the other: good-bye chef.
Before leaving Governor’s Island, each of the sixteen contestants chose a knife inscribed with the name of a neighborhood in the city: Astoria, Brighton Beach, Chinatown, Jamaica, Little India, Little Italy, Long Island City, Ozone Park — two contestants per neighborhood. The challenge: Cook a dish inspired by your assigned New York neighborhood and compete head to head with one the other contestant who drew your neighborhood.
You can see what happens tonight at 9:00 p.m. when last week’s episode is rebroadcast. And maybe you’ll ask, as I did: “Is Jamaica, Queens, really known for Jamaican food”? Maybe Top Chef is more like Survivor than I think.