Welcome to Chicago! This town's wide diversity of cuisines makes it the perfect backdrop to our fourth season -- from the gutsy cooking of Paul Kahan at Avec and Bluebird, to Rick Bayless' Nuevo Mexico to the avant-garde cuisine at Alinea where Grant Achatz's experimental style would have Marcel spinning in circles. Chicago boasts the country's most prolific restaurateur -- Rich Melman, whose company consistently turns out high-concept, high-quality restaurants like The Big Bowl and Cafe Ba Ba Ree Ba!. His company, Lettuce Entertain You, is this country's largest independent restaurant group, and it's fitting that Chicago is his home base. The town is awash in great ethnic food, like luscious Polish stuffed cabbage, German bratwurst, and spicy Korean bibimbap. And then there are Chicago's famous hot dogs, deep dish pizzas, and "wet beef" sandwiches, which don't sound like they taste good, but do. From day one, I was well taken care of by Chicago's chefs and shopkeepers, but the highlight probably was LuLa Cafe where Amalea Tshilds and Jason Hammel spoiled me and my wife with their organic brunch. We're still dreaming of the duck breast and braised endive omelet and ricotta-stuffed French toast.
On a personal (non-food) note, the music scene here is incredible. On my time off, I got to listen to great blues in several different bars and tool around for hours with vintage guitars at the Chicago Music Exchange. I caught a terrific Springsteen show at the United Center (I'm a Jersey boy -- whither Bruce goest, I go) but the highlight of my Chicago music adventures was seeing Bob Dylan (with Elvis Costello opening) at the Chicago theater. Amazing. If you're reading this blog, then by now most likely you've met the 16 contestants from our first episode. As you can see we have a diverse and interesting bunch. Once again it seems as though the new season has brought an even more skillful bunch than the last, almost as though Top Chef has become an important stop on the upward slog for serious up-and-comers, who turned out in droves to audition. This season we're seeing better knife skills, stronger resumes, and more overall experience. Most of the contestants are sous-chefs or chefs of their own restaurants -- not a first year culinary student among them. I'm OK with that, because I think the title of Top Chef should go to someone prepared to meet the many demands of running a restaurant, and in this a little experience goes a long way.
I've been reading around the blogosphere and getting a kick out of some of the theories I've read about this season: One theory has it that the contestants' placement in the publicity photos is a clue as to who will ultimately get the title. This one's funny because we shoot those ads one week into a grueling six-week schedule, when no one -- from producers, to the contestants themselves -- knows who is going to win. At the time those ads were shot, we had eliminated only two or three of the chefs and the most persistent feeling was one of anticipation and looming exhaustion. It's a good theory though. Creative.
Another theory is that this is the season a woman will definitely win. I expect that is because right off the bat, the high number and quality of our female contestants was apparent. I'd be delighted to have a woman win the title, to join my female peers and serve as a role model for all the young women and girls who are considering culinary careers. But, as of this writing we have not yet shot the finale; even I don't know who will ultimately take the title. I can promise this, though: It will be the chef who impresses us the most with his or her creativity and skill, regardless of gender, ethnicity, hairstyle, or eclectic fashion sense. If this season follows the previous ones, I'm sure all of our loyal readers will have their favorites, their crushes, and their villains. I'm sure that I will completely screw up on more than one occasion, get rid of people for the wrong reasons, make my smug faces, roll my eyes, and seem inconsistent and unfair after editing. It comes with the job. All I can promise you is that I don't have a dog in this fight -- I genuinely want to see the best man or woman win. I will strive to be fair and open-minded. I don't feel the least bit smug. And as far-fetched as it may seem, I really just care about the food.