Why ‘Top Chef’ in its 16th season is still the creme de la creme of U.S. food shows

Somehow I missed the fact that a new “Top Chef” season – No. 16, to be exact — premiered two weeks ago. Thank goodness, my DVR remembered for me. While  “The Great British Baking Show”  has taken over the Bravo staple’s prime seat  at the dining table of my heart when it became available on these shores, “Top Chef” is a close second in fulfilling what I crave in a cooking competition show.

The Food Network’s pantry of watching options continues to entice me. But they rarely fully satisfy my appetite. “Iron Chef America” is too beholden to a ticking clock and, like many food-related contests,  is contained in a single space. I like the chef judges on “Chopped,” especially Alex Guarnascelli, but the format only occasionally allows for surprises and twists. I can tell the minute someone puts a crispy fish fillet atop a moist ingredient or pours on sesame or truffle oil as a final touch, they are goners.  I have mostly lost my appetite for the gimmicky “Guy’s Grocery Games.”  “The Next Food Network Star” competition is more about finesse before the camera than the stove. I do have a soft spot for “Food Truck Road Race,” though. Those who participate tend to be the salt of the earth types and host Tyler Florence never makes the show about him.

As for  FOX’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” it exists in a reality-show universe of its own making and  chef Gordon Ramsay’s  volcanic temper tantrums over heinous food sins are like bite-sized Shakespearean tragedies. But “Top Chef” manages to balance and blend elements of all these shows in a highly palate-pleasing way without making the actual food an afterthought like some shows.

Let it be known, I am no great cook myself. My saintly husband is my top chef and makes a mean lasagna, complete with homemade sauce, and has quite the repertoire of tasty soups.  He loves to get out his aggressions by chopping veggies. Me, I like to eat – and watch. Here are five reasons why “Top Chef” has kept me salivating for more ever since it premiered in 2006.

1. You get to know the chefs as human beings and not just contestants. The up-and-coming cooks, now already whittled down from 15 to 13, are allowed to let their personalities, preferences and peculiarities to seep out, whether celebrated or derided as the case may be. The dorm lifestyle offers a glimpse of their human side no matter how cutthroat they be in the competition. That such past winners and runner-ups as Carla Hall, Richard Blais, Shirley Chung and Stephanie Izard often show up on as judges on other cooking shows including “Guy’s Grocery Games,” “Chopped” and “Hell’s Kitchen” says a lot.

2.“Top Chef” takes you places. The show is a part travelogue as it takes place in various foodie locales in the USA, from Miami and Chicago to Seattle and New Orlean. It makes a point to feature  local ingredients, notable eateries and also culinary customs. This season is ensconced in Kentucky, allowing the chef-testants to make a dish for a Derby party complete with host Padma Lakshmi sporting the required chapeau on the premiere and a visit to Maker’s Mark distillery with bourbon used as a featured ingredient in the elimination round.

3. The judges.  Tom Colicchio, a very pregnant Gail Simmons, Graham Elliot and Nilou Motamed don’t crack many jokes, they don’t spew fire and fury, they express disappointment but don’t over-lavish praise save for when it is warranted. They are honest and, for the most part, fair. In other words, they act like grown-ups and often offer well-seasoned advice to the contestants.  If you want goofball, watch Guy Fieri.

4. Restaurant Wars. Few recurring episode themes strike fear in the contestants like this one, where they split into two teams, created by a drawing of knives or by the winner of the Quickfire Challenge. Not only do they have to plan a menu from appetizers to dessert, turn an empty space into restaurant complete with décor and name, they also have one player take care of diners and the wait staff as well as do a dish –well, you get the idea. There are more opportunities for disaster to break out or tempers to flair beyond just over-salting the food

SEE Padme, the judges and the contestants share tales of holiday traditions [VIDEO]

5. “Last Chance Kitchen.” I think I like the 13-minute or so streaming addendum to “Top Chef” that is posted after every episode airs even more than the show itself. The format is simple: Two or more chefs – in this season, three – return to seek redemption by going up against the chef who was eliminated that week.  They must create a dish often with a specific ingredient or a type of food, cooked  in a limited amount of time. Colicchio, my favorite judge, is the solo overlord who decides their fates. I was thrilled that last season’s Colorado chef Carrie Baird was brought back. She took risks, thought outside the plate and even won a Quickfire Challenge by making toast. She was eliminated four episodes before the finale. Of course, she is cleaning up now, having made two winning efforts in a row. I hope her luck continues so she can compete on the TV contest again.

So, yes, I am a fan. We will begin our coverage in earnest with tonight’s show, airing on Bravo at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Watch the preview video above to get a taste of what is in store tonight.

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