'Top Chef' a key ingredient in Bravo's winning recipe


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Bravo's "Top Chef" is ready to serve up some power politics.

Washington, D.C., is the setting for the seventh season of the fast-paced cooking competition, which debuts tonight.

If TV shows were politicians, "Top Chef" would be a venerable leader of the Bravo party -- an accessible yet acclaimed series on a network that's excelled at creating popular shows.

The new season, which was taped in April and May, will have appearances by prestigious figures such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, assistant White House chef Sam Kass, CIA director Leon Panetta, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

And some of the challenges will have a distinctly Washington theme, as the chefs are given tasks such as taking over the concession stands at the Nationals baseball stadium.

In the debut episode, the contestants face their first elimination challenge -- creating a dish that represents their constituency, or home state.

"Top Chef" boasts an impressive cast of regulars -- elegant host Padma Lakshmi, chef Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons of Food & Wine magazine. And chef Eric Ripert of the world-class Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City is joining the series as a judge.

But the show isn't just for food experts.

"It's very well-regarded in the culinary world," says Andy Cohen, Bravo's senior vice president of original programming and development. "On the total flip side, it is 100 percent fun. So I think the combination of really, really credible with just fun is amazing."

Haute cuisine is part of the recipe for the cable network's success. So are housewives with attitude.

"I think that we have something for everyone," says Mr. Cohen of the menu of shows ranging from "Top Chef" to the often outrageous "The Real Housewives" franchise and "The Millionaire Matchmaker."

Mr. Cohen talks enthusiastically about what makes the cable network's various shows work.

"I think in the case of the 'Matchmaker,' she's someone who is at the top of her field, she's really fun to watch and she has something to say. And I think the 'Housewives' are fun to watch and they have something to say and it's very addictive and just fun."

When Mr. Cohen discusses Bravo, he does so from the perspective of an executive and an on-air personality.

He hosts the network's weekly late-night talk show, "Watch What Happens: Live," where he interviews celebrity guests such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Kelly Ripa and Tracey Ullman as well as the stars of Bravo's shows. He also writes "Andy's Blog" for the Bravo Web site.

Having conquered the world of gourmet cuisine with "Top Chef," Bravo is delving into the world of art with "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist," a reality competition that debuted June 8. Ms. Parker is an executive producer.

"It's something that we've been wanting to do for a while and I think it's so up our alley," says Mr. Cohen.

Another series, "Bethenny Getting Married?," premiered Thursday. It's a spinoff of "The Real Housewives of New York City."

With "Real Housewives" shows already set in New York City, Orange County, Calif., Atlanta and New Jersey, are the "Housewives" going to take over the world?

"I don't think they're going to take over the world," says Mr. Cohen. "I don't think it'll be the world. But you never know. You know what, I never underestimate a housewife. It's words to live by."

'Top Chef' winners

Here's a look at what the show's winners have been up to lately, according to Bravo.

Stephanie Izard (Season four) is set to open her new restaurant, Girl & the Goat, in Chicago this month. She's also an instructor at Top Chef University, which offers online courses in the culinary arts.

Hosea Rosenberg (Season five) is launching StrEat Chefs, a mobile dining experience that will serve global street food from an Airstream trailer equipped with a professional kitchen. It debuts this month in Boulder, Colo., and plans to expand to other cities.

Two chefs have opened their own restaurants. Harold Dieterle (Season one) started Perilla, a restaurant in New York City, and Ilan Hall (Season two) launched the Gorbals in Los Angeles.

Hung Huynh (Season three) is executive chef at Ajna Bar in New York City.

Michael Voltaggio (Season six) is chef of the Dining Room at the Langham Huntington, Pasadena, Calif.



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