It's a funny thing about food, which only does its job when it's in your mouth, that we derive so much pleasure from watching it on television. "That looks good," we say. But we don't really know. We could be wrong.
Of course, there is more to most shows about food than the food itself. There is talking about food, which helps us imagine the taste of what we aren't tasting. And there is, in its preparation, the display of expertise that helps us believe we might get a handle on our own life, in or out of the kitchen.
On "Top Chef," which ladles "Iron Chef" over "Project Runway," the food is part of a larger drama that leads to a big prize. (And this year, little prizes along the way.) There is sweat, there are tears, not all of them from chopping onions, and once in a great while there is blood. And there are judges -- chef Tom Colicchio, writer Gail Simmons, journalist Toby Young and host Padma Lakshmi, along with food-world celebrity guests -- to tell you whether the dishes the contestants create, in always astonishing short order, are any good or not.
"Top Chef: Las Vegas," which begins tonight on Bravo, is the sixth edition of the series since it first premiered in 2006. Lakshmi has called it "highbrow and serious," and, if only compared to most reality shows, it certainly is. The personal circus, while given much play, remains secondary to the cooking contest. And as usual, the crop of contestants is claimed to be the most talented yet, and they do seem well-credentialed (James Beard nominees, Michelin-star-winner), competitive and more than usually tattooed.
There are two brothers of distinctly different temperaments. There is a man who came to America on a boat from Haiti; it was cooking that apparently kept him from being thrown overboard, he mentions a couple of times. There is a woman with leukemia. There is, inevitably, a proud loudmouth. There are too many of them at first -- 17 to start and only one eliminated at the hour's end -- to get more than a glancing sense of all but the strongest personalities, or their cooking styles, but it doesn't take long to spot the contenders.
As to Las Vegas, it has willed itself into becoming a major restaurant town, much as it has called up pirate ships and the Eiffel Tower from the sandy desert floor. The classic Vegas meal -- the cheap all-you-can-eat buffet meant only to fuel a gambler's long day's journey into poverty -- has given way to food as high-end entertainment, the gustatory equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza. (The Elimination Challenge takes place at Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse Cut, with Puck as the guest judge.)
Still, the city does not really make itself felt in tonight's episode, past the use of poker chips to choose teams, a pointless appearance by a troupe of showgirls and the theme of the first Elimination Challenge, which is to prepare a dish based on a personal "sin." Reinforcing a stereotype, many choose something to do with alcohol -- a sin that is also conveniently an ingredient. A few approach the assignment in interesting ways (one cooks halibut to represent the bar of soap his mother used to wash out his mouth), and some seem not to understand it at all.
Far more relaxed is "What Would Brian Boitano Make?," premiering Sunday on Food Network and starring the Olympic champion figure skater as friendly cook. Its title riffs on a song from "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," "What Would Brian Boitano Do?," a snatch of which serves as the theme: "He'd make a plan and follow through/That's what Brian Boitano'd do." And that is what he does.
It is an amiable bit of silliness, framed a little like a sitcom or a kids' show. (On Sunday he sets up a sort of "The Bachelor" party -- besides cooking, he says, his favorite things are "riding my bike on rainbows and playing Cupid for my friends.") There are animations and sound effects and jokes about the time-compressing edits of the modern cooking show. The host speaks in funny voices and makes funny faces.
But he is graceful in the kitchen -- it is his own San Francisco kitchen -- which is as much the point of these shows as the food. As for that, his dishes are colorful and not forbidding: crab and avocado crostini, polenta with spicy sausage, and cappuccino panna cotta, which sounds pretty good right now. I can almost taste it.
'Top Chef: Las Vegas'
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
'What Would Brian Boitano Make?'
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Rating: Not rated