Promos for Top Chef (Bravo, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET) bray that it's "the No. 1 food show on cable." The cable part is clear enough, and one doesn't even mind that they call it a show, as it features all the signature elements of one: image, sound, conflict, commercial breaks. It is the food part that sticks in the craw, for no matter how ardently the kitchen-bound players on this reality competition mince, grate, knead, roast, deep-fry, and julienne, there is no shaking the suspicion that the show is not actually about cooking or eating. This is a lifestyle experience, and the food is just an ingredient.
Exhibit A reaches bookstores this month in the form of Top Chef: The Cookbook (Chronicle), a smartly designed, nicely photographed, all-around-nifty souvenir item that gives few indications of actually wanting to be in your kitchen. For one thing, there are no more than a dozen recipes here that one might prepare on a normal night—and that's counting the truffle-and-cognac-cream macaroni and cheese (Dave, season 1, episode 9). For another, the index is lousy, existing only as a handy sample of the Top Chef subculture; "Bracco, Lorraine" abuts "Braised pork shoulder with tomato marmalade." Most galling, the publishers have covered the volume in an ivory sheath of cloth, as if they expect you to wipe the counter with it.
And now, a fourth season. It's set in Chicago, and the competitors' first challenge is to make deep-dish pizzas, the ugliest of which looks like a boule disgorging day-old creamed spinach. Whom to root for among these 16 aspirants? Whose pretensions to despise? You'll want to keep an eye on Richard, who, with his liquid-nitrogen gizmo and his portable smoker, is a Wylie Dufresne wannabe. "A lot of people label it as 'molecular gastronomy,' " Richard intones, his fingers air-quoting in blasé fashion. I will forgive him his self-seriousness if he finds a way to turn bacon into foam. Richard shares his coiffure—a sandy faux-hawk—with Jennifer. Jennifer, meanwhile, shares her life with another contestant, her longtime girlfriend, Zoi. Are there too many cooks in their bedroom?
This season's most able camera hog would seem to be Andrew—a bearded young New Yorker whose attitude and affect recall the Beastie Boys circa Paul's Boutique. How does he describe his passion for cooking? "It's like molten fucking lava pouring out of me." Mmmm. In a snippet from Andrew's application video, we see him putting the finishing touches on "tattooed tuna carpaccio." He has used something (seaweed, perhaps) to render an image of a human hand (extending its middle finger, I think) on the fish. I appreciate an edgy appetizer as much as the next guy, but if I pay 15 bucks for a dish, I don't want it flipping me off. But that finger nonetheless points in the direction of the show's central question: Which of these people will do the sharpest job of styling themselves as outlaw poets in aprons, cowboys of the range?
Indeed, in recent years, thanks to the work of such hard-living and adventurous restaurant people as Top Chef judge Anthony Bourdain—seen this week breaking a tie between two extremely compelling instantiations of eggs Benedict by siding with the one that would be the superior hangover cure—chefs have acquired a hard-edged kind of cultural chic. And who better to carry this tradition forward than an actual gangsta rapper? The Web series Cooking With Coolio reveals that the Compton-born singer of "Gangsta's Paradise" has, for his second act, earnestly become "a ghetto-witch-doctor-superstar chef." Where Emeril would say, "Bam!" Coolio booms, "Shaka Zulu," tutoring his audience in the preparation of dishes that include caprese salad, sautéed spinach, and "game-day turkey." Nothing is fancy. Everything is sound. Coolio does go rather heavy on the balsamic, but that's bachelor cooking. Some of you will find the program offensive, pointing to the air of inner-city minstrelsy that attends to the proceedings and the objectified women lingering around them. The production gives you a feel for what it might be like were Flavor Flav to host This Old House. For instance, Coolio taps out his spices from small plastic baggies as if he had bought them not at Whole Foods but in his dealer's Escalade. Next, a pair of women from Coolio's stable of "sauce girls" are always at his side, and the sauce girls—possibly taken in from a home for the mute—are not to be confused with actual sauciers. What the sauce girls do, mostly, is stand around in heels, sometimes wearing aprons, sometimes wearing a bit less than aprons. They were permitted to fondle some baguettes in an episode featuring "ghettalian garlic bread." That's the one where the star and his sous-chef pretended to abduct a college boy off the street. "We're gonna find a hungry, broke-ass, malnutritioned, Top Ramen-eatin' muthafucka, and we're gonna teach him how to cook a healthy, inexpensive meal," promised Coolio, intent, as always, on putting the M.F. back into MFK Fisher.