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Food fight

Television | The competitors on Top Chef show the difference between being a cook and being a chef

Issue: "2006 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 16, 2006

In the Great Rhapsody of American Life, food is a big deal. And in America, we've taken the necessities for which our forebears and forefathers fought-a roof over our heads, shirts on our backs, food in our guts-and elevated them to spectacle. Think Extreme Makeover Home Edition, or Project Runway, and now: Top Chef (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET, Bravo).

The making of food is indeed its own kind of drama, with a beginning ("Hey, let's grill some tuna"), middle ("The tuna's on fire!") and end ("Wow, honey, the tuna's great"). Unfortunately, cooking shows like Essence of Emeril or 30-Minute Meals are all exposition. Top Chef, though, is all conflict. And that's a good thing.

The show's design is standard: 15 hopefuls, three judges, a host, hurried challenges, and every week someone has to pack up his knives. The last chef in the kitchen wins $100,000 to start his own restaurant. And our upstart chefs-from cooking-school grads to bistro owner-operators-have to earn it: creating a 500-calorie meal for kids at a weight-loss camp, turning a childhood favorite (say, grilled cheese) into something a little more sophisticated, changing up Thanksgiving dinner and making us like it.

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In the "QuickFire" challenges, chefs earn immunity by creating a dish both edible and presentable in sometimes as little as five minutes. The chefs have had to choose their ingredients from a handful of snack machines (think musty ham sandwiches), they've had to use canned food only (the unpardonable sin), and even make something sophisticated from throwaway animal parts like chicken feet and lamb hearts. But don't throw up. It takes art to make good food, and to make it quick, and to make it pretty. There's a difference between being a cook and a chef, and this will show you why.

Now, the chefs aren't all that charming: Some are buffoons, some are arrogant, but on Top Chef-unlike in a real restaurant kitchen-the chefs' personalities are not really on the menu. This show is about the food. Judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons could humor us with a little more exposition on what made this dish good or that dish great: Not all of us know about crème fraiche or mascarpone or béarnaise. But other than that, and the fact that TV is only for watching and not for eating, Top Chef tastes great.

Harrison Scott Key
Harrison Scott Key

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