They're Ba-ack! 'Top Chef' Gets Windy

"The show has definitely found its groove. People know it and love it. If the omelet ain't broke, don't fix it."

top chef chicago

Season Four of Top Chef kicked off in fine fashion, with Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio returning to lead a motley crew of 16 executive chefs, line cooks, and culinary consultants toward $100,000 and 15 delicious minutes of fame.

At first glance, the mix of personalities and talent levels seems pretty good. Geographically, much like seasons past, San Francisco and New York are well represented. There are a few contestants from the South, and probably too few from the host city of Chicago. Also, as in past seasons, fans of fauxhawks and other dubious coiffure will not be disappointed.

[Warning: Spoilers after the jump.]

A Winning Formula

As for the show's format, precious little has changed, and why should it? Top Chef has definitely found its groove. People know it and love it. If the omelet ain't broke, don't fix it. The Quickfire Challenge is still there. This week, it didn't grant immunity but rather helped set up the Elimination Challenge, which followed a new format that was really compelling and that I'd personally love to see again.

The top eight chefs from the Quickfire Challenge each chose one of the "losing" chefs to go against, head-to-head. The challenged chef then chose the dish they'd compete on. The choices: chicken piccata, steak au poivre, shrimp scampi, duck l'orange, lasagna, soufflé, crab cakes, and eggs Benedict.

The binary nature of the challenge made for exciting food television. Rivalries were formed. Some chefs, who had gained confidence from the Quickfire, found themselves on the other side of the judges' favor. Another nice touch: instant judgments. Guest judges Rocco DiSpirito and Tony Bourdain, along with Lakshmi and Colicchio, gave quick thumbs-up and thumbs-down to each pair. It was a nice way to whittle down the competition and ratchet up the elimination suspense.

In the end, a young Atlanta chef named Nimma won the "We hardly knew ye" award. Her shrimp scampi prompted the dreaded term "inedible" at the judges' table and it seemed like she might have known right there that her time on Top Chef was going to be short and very salty.

Keep Your Eye On These Folks

It will take a few weeks to form strong opinions about front-runners and fan favorites, but if you ask me, here are some contestants to watch:

Richard: His molecular gastronomy got off on the right foot. He may have the right stuff to measure up to Chicago's surprisingly avant-garde food scene.

Andrew: Animated is an understatement. Andrew's already made a big impression, and not necessarily with his food.

Jennifer: Bias alert. I've eaten at Coco500 many times, and it's consistently great. If Jennifer can survive the stress of having to compete against her own partner, I wouldn't bet against her.

Blog entries and reactions are already up on the Top Chef website, including some video fierceness from Project Runway's Christian Siriano, so don't hesitate to dig in. Sadly, no word yet from Bourdain, whose recaps are so good they hurt. Fingers crossed that he gets the chance to weigh in from time to time.