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A little too much exploitation for our tastes

One amateur on `Top Chef' stands out in the season premiere. Fortunately, he's not there to stay.

June 15, 2007|Denise Martin | Special to The Times

For a second there, I thought "Top Chef" had devolved into the kind of exploitive reality TV I'd expect to see on say, Fox ("American Idol" withstanding).

At the outset of Wednesday's premiere on Bravo, the producers of the best food competition on TV seemed to have raised the bar big time in its third season, casting a group of high-caliber contestants to duke, or rather, cook it out. Executive chefs, restaurateurs, a cheese maker, a self-proclaimed food artiste and personal chefs descended on Miami for a chance at the prize of $100,000 -- no "comfort food" devotees like Betty from Season 2 or greenhorns like recent culinary school grad Candice from Season 1.

Except, that is, for Clay, an alarming entry from Mississippi with a pronounced Southern twang and zero fine-dining cooking skills. Fifteen minutes into the episode, the contestants were issued a surprise quick-fire challenge: to prepare an amuse bouche that would describe their style. An amuse bouche, for those who are unfamiliar, is a single bite meant to whet the appetite before the appetizer is served. Clay cored a green apple -- poorly; it broke and turned brown -- and stuffed it with fruit.

He was either destined to go home in the same episode, or the show's producers had jumped the shark in a bad way. Halfway through the show, when it was clear he was probably going home, Clay divulged to viewers at home that he was inspired to become a chef by his dad, a restaurateur who let the industry get to him and later took his own life. Cut to commercial. A tasteless decision to air and mighty awkward to watch.

The reason "Top Chef" stands out among its culinary competitors is because of the show's commitment to casting chefs with skill. Sure, last season's runner-up Marcel may be a cocky dweeb and irresistible as a villain, but the boy could cook. He cooked really well. Nice guy Clay seemed to have made it on to the show on the basis of a personality and little else.

During the elimination round, Clay turned in arguably the show's worst entree to date: an overcooked wild boar chop and a fried scorpionfish that the judges pronounced inedible. And in front of guest judge Anthony Bourdain, who was in peak form with his color commentary.

Clay was axed without much suspense -- probably best for him and the show. Next week, the real competition can begin.

Show Tracker follows television shows through their highs and lows. For more, go to latimes .com/showtracker.

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