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TELEVISION REVIEW : It's a slightly different recipe

November 16, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

Like Motown Records in the 1960s, Bravo is a network that likes to find a thing that works -- a "real housewife," say -- and do it again and again, with slight variations, until it doesn't. "Top Chef," which, with the departure of "Project Runway" to Lifetime, is the jewel in the network's reality-competition crown, Professional Domestic Arts Division, has already given birth to "Top Chef Masters," with a "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and the tentatively titled "Top Chef Junior" in the pipeline, or the oven, as the metaphor may more aptly be.

The new "Chef Academy," in which Britain-based French celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli comes to Los Angeles to "test" a new cooking school, is not actually a "Top Chef" spinoff, but the title does share the key word, which is enough to create a brand association in the viewer's mind -- in this viewer's mind, anyway. Nor is the series, which begins tonight at the curiously late hour of 11 p.m., a competition, exactly: There is no prize at the end; the prize is merely to participate, and the trick for the participants -- nominally, they are students -- is just to stay the course. ("Fail" three assignments and you're expelled.) All of them could stick around until the end, theoretically, but that is not going to happen.

Novelli, who is a familiar figure on British TV (and has been a guest "Top Chef" judge here) is good-looking, likable and relaxed, and although the show will clearly require him to be fearsome, he is no fire-breathing Gordon Ramsay. Arriving in L.A. with his pregnant fiancee, his greatest desire is to meet "Columbo," of whom he does an amusing imitation. Rounding out his team are right-hand man and executive chef Steven Kitchen (for real) and a comical gay assistant, Joel, which is also sort of a Bravo tradition. ("Buckle up!" says Joel. "It's the law!")

Although you would not know it from what's said on screen, the "academy" Novelli runs back in England and that he proposes to expand here (it is the backbone of the narrative) is not a full-fledged school but the sort of place that offers mostly one-day classes in which no one who has paid the substantial fee is ever scolded and from which no one is ever expelled. That does not mean that this won't be a learning experience.

The cooks appear to have been cast with an even more than usual emphasis on type, like the squadron in some old World War II movie. On the professional side there are Zoe and Leo, who are graduates of real culinary institutes, and Kyle, who is a sous chef, and Kup, who cooks on a submarine. But there are also Carissa, a bride-to-be who reminds Novelli of Samantha Stevens from "Bewitched"; Emmanuel, a French graphic designer who is laid-back almost to reclining; and Suzanne, a self-described "big, blond fluffy hairball out of Orange County," who seems to have been cast almost as a cross-promotion for the "Real Housewives" franchise. ("You cannot imagine the plethora of emotions that fluttered through my brain," she says. I can't help liking a person who talks like that.)

There will be plenty of drama, manufactured and otherwise. But whenever you deal with food you do get, as it were, close to the bone: You are what you eat, but you are also what you cook and serve; there is something fundamentally moving about that sort of offering, and when the master, tasting a dish, tells a student, "I believe strongly this is fabulous," it is as good as any screen kiss.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Chef Academy'

Where: Bravo

When: 11 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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