TOM COLICCHIO, PADMA LAKSHMI
It’s hard to say what’s more delicious in Bravo’s hit culinary competition: the food or the drama. Those who’d argue for the former can point to the dazzling haute cuisine dishes — often as hard to pronounce as they would be to cook — whipped up each week. But it took more than just hardcore foodies to make this the top-rated food show on cable. Reality TV fans eat up the hot tempers and relentless ambition of the talented ”cheftestants.” Under the watchful eyes of Lakshmi and chef Colicchio (who dish about the new season on page 39), these kitchen combatants duke it out for a $100,000 prize and the bragging rights of being a ”Top Chef.” Six seasons in, we’re still hungry for more. —Adam Markovitz
Inside Top Chef: Las Vegas
As Bravo gets set to fire up the sixth round of its cooking competition on Aug. 19, EW caught up with cohosts Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio to chat about the upcoming season. —Adam Markovitz
PADMA LAKSHMI: Because it’s in Las Vegas, we’re throwing a few curveballs, just as lady luck does. It’s a little more glitzy.
TOM COLICCHIO: Expect to see showgirls.
PL: They tried to get me in [a headdress], but I refused.
TC: [Laughs] Wasn’t from a lack of trying.
PL: We have some great guest judges. For example, we have Natalie Portman, who’s a friend of mine. She’s a huge, huge fan of the show. She brought all her friends.
TC: This is by far our most talented group of chefs. These are serious chefs who are more focused on putting together great food than doing outrageous things to get noticed. But there’s enough drama there. Whenever you get 17 people living in a house, things happen.
PL: There are personalities that emerge, but it’s a real foodie-insider show.
TC: We are constantly being criticized for keeping people who, because of their personalities, maybe they don’t seem to be as good cooks. It’s not true. We don’t see all the reality stuff. We have no idea what’s going on. It’s about the food.
PL: As hard as Top Chef looks on TV, it is way harder in real life to get through. It’s very physically taxing and mentally grueling. I’m lucky because I have a makeup artist who makes me look halfway decent. I don’t know how these guys do it!
A cutting, insightful look at the rhythms, skills, and personalities at work behind the scenes in — oh, who are we kidding? We watch this show only to count how many times Ramsay can holler ”COME ON, YOU DONKEY” in less than an hour. Ostensibly about finding undiscovered cheffing talent, this British import quickly disintegrated into a combination of defamation porn and speed-risotto challenges. But for anyone hooked on humiliation (and the never-ending pleasure of contestants boldly announcing their supremacy to the cameras before heading to the kitchen to burn yet another beef Wellington), Hell has been six straight seasons of loud, messy heaven. —Whitney Pastorek
VARIOUS TIMES/FOOD NETWORK
Garten’s half-hour tutorials — filmed at her home in East Hampton — have been a mainstay since 2002. Never classically trained, she focuses on the essence of simple flavors instead of mucking up recipes with too many steps. Garten’s a true food seductress, relying on buttery confections rather than come-hither kitchen eyes to make us melt. And if her soothing voice and relatable presence can’t convince viewers they can cook, at least it can send them into a happy trance. —Annie Barrett
Iron Chef America
Cooking as an extreme sport? Sounds like a stretch — until you’ve seen this over-the-top competition, based on the Japanese hit. In each episode, a hopeful contestant enters the glitzy Kitchen Stadium to face off in a 60-minute real-time culinary battle against one of the show’s Iron Chefs, a roster that includes superstars Mario Batali, Masaharu Morimoto, and Bobby Flay (see below). With Alton Brown’s commentary and theatrics from ”The Chairman” (played by martial-arts champ Marc Dacascos), the show has for four years brought high-adrenaline excitement to the sometimes- staid arena of food TV. —Adam Markovitz
America’s Test Kitchen
Watch the dragon of culinary uncertainty get slain by an army of geeks in the enchanted kingdom that is America’s Test Kitchen. Led by bow-tie-clad host Kimball, the ATK crew (and, in particular, soothing-voiced MVPs Julia Collin Davison and Bridget Lancaster) boil down the art of cooking into a research-intensive science. Their trial-and-error approach finds it’s better to brown short ribs in the oven instead of fighting the splatter monster on the stovetop. And better still, ATK features a ”Tasting Lab” and an ”Equipment Corner” — essentially Thunderdomes for packaged foods and cooking equipment. How else would we know a plastic squeeze bottle of Welch’s strawberry jam blows past its organic competitors with froufrou labels on the taste scale? —Michael Slezak
Behind the Scenes: A Day with Iron Chef Bobby Flay
1. ”This is the hardest thing I do on television,” says Bobby Flay, who gave EW a backstage tour of Kitchen Stadium before his last competition of the season. Here, he talks strategy with two sous-chefs pulled from his New York eateries. ”Everybody in my restaurant wants to do it,” says Flay. ”We have to rotate.”
2. Chefs may boil water and stocks in advance; all cooking must be done during the hour-long battle. ”I treat it like an athletic event,” says Flay. ”I run the entire time.”
3. Before the show, Flay checks out the pantry to mentally note the ingredients at his disposal. ”I don’t want to repeat myself. I’ve done 60 to 70 of these. I want to keep it new.”
4. The set’s dazzling lights turn on minutes before filming. ”There are cameras. There’s drama. That’s TV,” says Flay. ”But the core of this show is always cooking.” —Adam Markovitz