March 12, 2008 — -- They slice, they dice. They whip up four-star appetizers in a matter of minutes. They make mouth-watering creations out of ingredients from the top-notch (Kobe beef, foie gras) to the bottom of the barrel (vending machine snacks, animal innards).
But could the contestants on "Top Chef," Bravo's hit reality cooking competition that begins its fourth season tonight, take the heat in a real kitchen?
Any reality TV connoisseur knows real life isn't always as it appears on screen. Men don't normally search for the love of their lives in mansions full of exotic dancers and would-be groupies, as Bret Michaels does on "Rock of Love." Aspiring models don't usually vogue to the tune of Tyra Banks, as they do on "America's Next Top Model." But according to some of the restaurant industry's biggest stars, "Top Chef," for the most part, tells it like it is.
"This show is for real chefs as opposed to pretend chefs," said Sara Moulton, executive chef of Gourmet Magazine and former Food Network host. "It's not that they look good, it's not that they smile a lot, it's not that they have cleavage, it's that they can cook well. And that's what gives it credibility."
It's true — if you look good in a v-neck sweater but can't boil a pot of water, you're useless on this show. (A season three challenge tested how fast two teams of contestants could shuck 15 oysters, finely chop five onions, break down four whole chickens and separate and beat three egg whites.)
But "Top Chef's" challenges — which last season included preparing a meal in an airport kitchen and serving it aboard a Boeing 777 — aren't comparable to the challenges real top chefs face in their restaurants.
"In a restaurant, you know in advance what's happening," said Jean-Georges Vongerichten, owner of haute four-star eatery Jean-Georges. "You don't really have to create a menu in two hours. And in that competition, you have room for error. In a restaurant, if you make too many errors, you'll have no one there. It's a different challenge in a restaurant. It's a different pressure because you have to deliver."
"To be spontaneous and just make something, it's not for everybody," said Asian-fusion chef Roy Yamaguchi, owner of the Roy's chain of restaurants. "And it's not the most likely situation someone should encounter. Not all great chefs can think fast on their feet. I'm not a chef who thinks fast on his feet."
As with all reality shows, a contestant's talent is only as good as his or her ability to create good TV. When "Top Chef's" contenders aren't' screaming over their sauté pans, they're preening for the judging panel, which includes Craft chef Tom Colicchio, model Padma Lakshmi and a rotating cast of A-List chefs (among them, Yamaguchi, Anthony Bourdain and Rocco DiSpirito). But foodies agreed that while the show may not mirror what they do in their kitchens every evening, it does capture the pressure of pleasing a demanding client.
"There's a great deal of intensity and spontaneity that is captured on the show and that's part of the challenge of working as a pro chef," said Pichet Ong, owner of New York City's P*ONG and former pastry chef of Vongerichten's Spice Market. "You need it and you need it now. There's a rush that comes with it."
If the bulk of the cooking shows on television simmer at a four (remember the slug-like pace of "Two Fat Ladies"?), "Top Chef" boils at a nine. Perhaps the only other show that comes close to its heat is "Iron Chef," the over-the-top Japanese cooking contest that the Food Network spun off into "Iron Chef America" in 2005.
"It's really different than something like 'Iron Chef,'" said Rick Bayless, who heads up Chicago's Frontera Grill and serves as a guest judge on season four of "Top Chef." "It's not about splashiness so much as it's about understanding what it takes to get through that competition and show what you have. It's genuine. It's about the chef's depth of creativity and their depth of craftsmanship."
And the food?
"I thought the food was incredible, to be honest with you," said Yamaguchi, who judged the season two finale. He added he'd be happy to hire many of "Top Chef's" contestants for his kitchens. "What they go through, it tells you that they can work under stress, under pressure, with cameras, they can be articulate about what they're doing and what they make."
"Top Chef" is the top chef's reality show of choice. But, they said, if drama and action is what they really want, they don't need to turn on the TV.
"It can actually be more dramatic in the real kitchen," Ong said. "There are bound to be fights, egos, temperaments."