Like any great TV show, Top Chef is about more than its apparent subject matter. Sure, there's lots of chopping and whisking and sauteeing and coulis-dripping, but in between all the kitchencraft the viewer witnesses the entire panoply of human behavior, as contestants overcome obstacles or break down under pressure, murmur words of inspiration or scream heavily bleeped diatribes, help one another in times of crisis or (in the show's memorable parlance) throw each other under the bus. But food--the sensuality of it, the mystique of it, the celebration or the desecration of it--is the program's driving motif and obsession.
Each episode begins with the Quickfire Challenge, in which the contestants have to pull off some outrageous culinary feat in a matter of minutes. My favorite Quickfire was in the first season, when each chef was given $20 and 10 minutes to shop for the makings of a gourmet snack at a gas station convenience store in the Mission. (The winner: a toothsome Krispy Kreme bread pudding.) The focus of the show, though, is the Elimination Challenge, when the chefs work in teams to achieve a grander gustatory objective: catering a wedding reception, say, or preparing a prix fixe meal for an all-star lineup of Napa Valley chefs.
Indeed, many a celebrity chef has turned up on the program to offer their (usually biting) critiques of the dishes du jour: Rocco DiSpirito, Daniel Boulud, Anthony Bourdain, locals Hubert Keller, Cindy Pawlcyn and Elizabeth Falkner, and Wylie Dufresne, the grand poobah of what I like to call "nerd cuisine" - dishes created via the principles of molecular science. (My antipathy to this culinary subgenre might be traced to the fact that the show's most annoying contestant, a snoot named Marcel, was a big molecular-cuisine devotee. Marcel was even more annoying than the guy who wept once per episode and the self-absorbed pissant who got her comeuppance when two of the contestants she'd thrown under the bus ended up as her line cooks during the season finale in Vegas. I also have an aversion to contestants with Mohawks.) Top Chef has a regular week-to-week panel of judges as well: Stern yet occasionally avuncular father figure Tom Colicchio; British restaurant critic Toby Young, evidently aspiring to be the Simon Cowell of the fork-and-snifter set; and Padma Lakshmi, who is employed primarily as eye candy (this is Bravo, after all, not the Discovery Channel).
The program's fifth season began a few weeks ago and can be seen every Wednesday at 10 p.m. or during an ongoing succession of reruns. (This go-round's lone SF representative, Jamie Lauren of Absinthe, was eliminated last week.) It's one of those shows that makes you want to yell things at the television set: "You can't make blini ahead of time! What's the matter with you?" or "It's chicken piccata! Where are the capers, f'Chrissake?" Like any great example of appointment TV, Top Chef gets you hollering, obsessed, involved.