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Top Chef

In new season of "Top Chef," cream of crop rises to the top 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010, 4:00 AM 

The new season of Bravo's popular "Top Chef" starts with 17 contestants, then immediately starts looking like a showdown between just two.

Odds are good that won't be how things shake out as the weeks go on, but for creating instant TV drama, it serves the show nicely.

The biggest challenge for almost every competition reality show is to establish the personality of the contestants, which requires a numerical balancing act.

You need enough contestants to keep competitive tension simmering for the whole run, but you don't need so many they all become a blur.

By the third or fourth show, you need some idea of who has a real shot at winning, alongside the ones who shouldn't win, but spice things up with a snarky attitude or devious behavior.

By happy accident, this seventh season of "Top Chef," which is set in Washington, D.C., breaks out two candidates in the first show's challenges: Angelo Sosa from New York, and Kenny Gilbert from Telluride, Colorado.

Neither lacks confidence and both seem capable of backing the bravado up.

Sosa, who has worked at New York restaurants like the Spice Market and currently owns the Asian restaurant Xie Xie in midtown, seems to have an instinctive sense for blending flavors.

Gilbert, who at 36 has come up as a kind of boy wonder in the chef biz, breezes through the first challenge - the "quickfire," in which the contestants must peel potatoes, dice onions and quarter a chicken - like Kobe Bryant cutting to the basket.

It's not that the other contestants have no skills or potential. It's just that Angelo and Kenny blast out of the blocks so fast that they become the immediate focal points of the show, not to mention each other.

This naturally could change as early as next week. One bad oven setting or misjudged sauté can knock a good chef back into the pack.

First, however, the show needs to eliminate the contestants who don't seem to be in the same league - including the woman who explains a bad dish by saying that even though she's made it hundreds of times, she can't do it without the written recipe in front of her.

On the other side of the table, "Top Chef" adds a new judge in Eric Ripert, who may be best-known in New York as the chef at Le Bernardin, but who retains enough of his French accent to sound quite authoritative.

Padma Lakshmi returns as host, a task she handles unobtrusively, while Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons return as the other judges.

Unlike shows that rely on flamboyant judges for much of their color, "Top Chef" has mostly risen and fallen on the personality and skills of the contestants.

So it's off to a good start this time around.