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The promise to contestants on the first two seasons of Top Chef was that a win could help provide both the seed money and notoriety they’d need to launch that dream restaurant of their own. That’s how it worked for Season One champ Harold Dieterle. A sous chef at Jimmy Bradley’s The Harrison when he signed on for the show, he’s just opened his own restaurant in New York, Perilla. And Season Two winner Ian Hall’s restaurant is scheduled to make its debut in New York soon, as well. But whoever wins Season Three will likely have grander plans.

Or at least they should, because the level of culinary talent that will be on display during this year’s Top Chef competition is, on paper, formidable.

Consider contestant Brian Malarkey. He opened the Oceanaire Seafood Room in San Diego as executive chef and was recently voted 2007 Best Chef San Diego. None of the contestants in Seasons One or Two came in with a resume like his. Or how about Camille Becerra? She already has quite a following as the chef/owner of Paloma Restaurant in Brooklyn. And you have to make reservations well in advance to eat the food of Casey Thompson, executive chef of pan-Asian standout Shinsei in Dallas. These are the kinds of accomplished professionals who just weren’t to be found in previous editions of show.

But these three chefs aren’t the favorites to win this time around. Who is? One is Dale Levitski, who was executive chef at La Tache in Chicago before being tapped to run Trio Atelier in Evanston. Previous holders of that Trio job had been Rick Tramonto, Sean McClain and Grant Achatz, each a Beard Award winner. The other is Hung Huynh, currently executive sous chef at Guy Savoy in Las Vegas. Prior to that role, he had gone from working at his family’s Vietnamese restaurant in Massachusetts to a job at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. Guys like these are well past the point of needing TV exposure to get a good job.

Others in this deep talent pool include Joe Paulino, executive chef at Cafe des Artistes in New York City. He previously worked at for Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Jean Georges and Vong. We hope he remembers what he learned there, because he’ll be going against Season Three contestant Lia Bulaong who is currently the executive sous chef at the three-Michelin-star Jean Georges.

People with credentials like these will be tough to beat, but there are other talented and experienced contenders among the 15 people selected for the show. Two of them are Sandee Birdsong, executive chef at Tantra in Miami Beach, a perpetual hot spot on the South Beach strip; and Tre Wilcox, who is chef de cuisine at Abacus Restaurant in Dallas, the crown jewel of chef Kent Rathbun’s multi-restaurant enterprise. As is true for all the previously named contestants, either of these would have been the odds-on favorite in Seasons One and Two of the show.

Think how ecstatic the producers of Top Chef must have been when chef talents like these turned up to try out for Season Three. Both previous editions of the show had pulled high ratings, but that was perhaps more for the human drama that ensued rather than the culinary triumphs the participants pulled off. This time around, the food should be sensational and perhaps able to carry the show in its own right. But don’t worry; cast selections were made with an eye toward creating even more drama than we’ve seen before. After all, it is a contest, and the object is to win.

And most importantly, get big ratings. Successful TV reality shows struggle to reinvent themselves each year, typically resorting to new levels of gimmickry to keep audience interest high, including contestants who best fit the stereotypes the audience found most entertaining in previous editions of the show. Top Chef, on the other hand, appears to be going the other way—better contestants and fewer gimmicks.
As we’ve learned from the contestant roster from Season Three, many professional culinarians who watched Seasons One and Two were thinking, “Hey, I could get on there and win it all.” We’re glad they did, because we think it’s going to make for interesting TV.

What’s in it for you? A small number of restaurants threw Top Chef viewing parties for Season Two and found it a good way to attract a midweek crowd. Some reported that the crowds got bigger over the course of the series, with the finale packing the place. We’d suggest giving this strategy a try for Season Three, especially if your restaurant is located in one of the contestants’ home towns. Plenty of people are going to be watching.

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