'Top Chef,' premiering Season 7 Wednesday on Bravo

John Horn
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Track and field's middle distance events often feature a "rabbit" — a shot-out-of-the-blocks missile who sets a blistering tempo that the rest of runners must chase from the start. "Top Chef" has its own version of the sprinting pace-setter: a Michelin star cook.

Bravo's hit reality show, which begins its seventh season on Wednesday, has evolved unmistakably from its debut in 2006.

"Top Chef's" earliest episodes were sometimes the culinary equivalent of "Wipeout," in which trained cooks often looked like clumsy greenhorns, struggling with such basic gastronomic tasks as assembling a fruit plate or concocting an amuse-bouche smaller than a hand grenade.

In recent years, though, the more talented contestants have been plating dishes as good as — and, by appearances, occasionally better than — some of the meals prepared by "Top Chef's" own celebrity chef judges.

Last year's gifted winner, Michael Voltaggio of the Dining Room at the Langham Huntington hotel in Pasadena, Calif., established an epicurean standard that his rivals (including his brother, Bryan) forever were pursuing, turning out plates such as dashi-glazed rockfish and sweet-and-sour crab salad with squash and Meyer lemon.

This time around, with "Top Chef" moving from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C., there's another "Top Chef" cook with a Michelin star under his toque: Angelo Sosa, who has cooked alongside Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Jean Georges), Alain Ducasse (Spoon, Food & Wine) and Stephen Starr (Buddakan) and currently cooks at New York's Xie Xie.

Sosa is not shy about promising a lot. "I want to be the first contestant," he says in the opening episode, "to win every single challenge."

Tom Colicchio, the show's head judge and co-host with Padma Lakshmi, says it's an intentional progression. "What would you rather watch?" he asks rhetorically of the difference between following fresh-off-the-boat culinary school grads and fast-rising stars with their own restaurants. "For the last several seasons, we've been going after professionals," Colicchio says.

Colicchio cautioned that even if Sosa (at least as this season's first episode makes clear) has tremendous ability, his expertise may actually encourage the other chefs to perform better, just as hackers can shoot a better score when paired with a scratch golfer. "I think everybody will rise up," he says, adding that although Michael Voltaggio won last year's show, third-place finisher Kevin Gillespie (whose cooking wasn't as fancy but was impeccably seasoned and was voted the fan favorite) actually did better throughout the season. "He won more challenges," Colicchio says of Gillespie.

There's a deep bench in Season 7. Colorado's Kenny Gilbert exhibits some breathtaking knife skills, New Jersey's Kevin Sbraga cooks food much more appealing than the name of his restaurant (Rat's), and Maryland's Timothy Dean serves up equal portions of attitude and tasty-looking chow.

One element that won't be featured on "Top Chef's" menu this year is the snarky British judge Toby Young, who aspired (and, apparently, failed) to become the show's Simon Cowell. Young largely will be replaced by Eric Ripert, the chef at New York's Le Bernardin.

"I don't make those decisions," Colicchio says, who's nonetheless happy to give marks with another chef (along with Food & Wine magazine's Gail Simmons). "I really like it," Colicchio says. "It just adds more weight to the judge's table."

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