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'Top Chef': How does nice taste?

February 10, 2011 |  6:30 am

1 Nice guys finish last?

We’re hoping that’s not the case with “Top Chef.”

This season’s all-star show, composed of runners-up from the cooking series’ earlier seasons, has seen far less kitchen sabotage and professional slights than in previous years.

That’s probably because the contestants, having been through the process before, know that while personality may not win you any challenges, treachery doesn’t really help, either. This isn’t, and God help us if it becomes, “Survivor.”

But it’s clear that some of the remaining chefs—Richard in particular—are so generous with their time and advice that they may be putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

In Wednesday’s elimination challenge, Antonia drew the unfortunate test of having to cook tongue for talk show host Jimmy Fallon.

Antonia admitted she had never cooked the meat, let alone eaten it, which put her in a clearly dangerous position, particularly since Antonia has won only one elimination challenge all season. [Updated at 10:40am: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that Antonia hadn't won any challenges this season and has been corrected.]

Until Richard stepped in.

Dismissed by some as a gimmicky chef who uses molecular gastronomy, smoke machines and liquid nitrogen more for effect than taste, Richard is not only an extremely versatile cook but also the show’s top mensch. He showed Antonia, who had only a few hours to turn her hunk of tongue into a palatable dish, how to use a pressure cooker to render it edible, even as Mike (who also has yet to win an elimination challenge) questioned Richard’s largess, essentially saying he’d never be so selfless.

It’s one more reminder of how reality television sometimes can bring out the best and worst in people. But smart chefs need to show not only how talented they are in their jobs but also how good they are as people.

If "Top Chef” is as much an audition for better kitchen jobs ahead, it’s important that you not burn your friends—not to mention your toast—on the way up.

A year ago, Alex Reznik deliberately failed to tell Amanda Baumgarten that her chicken galantine was flecked with inedible pieces of cartilage. Today, Alex is apparently still flipping burgers at Hollywood’s burlesque joint/restaurant Ivan Kane’s Café Was, but in the last week, Amanda was promoted to become the executive chef at downtown Los Angeles’ Water Grill. It’s a great job at a world-class restaurant.

People who watched her cooking last year might not have been impressed with every dish Amanda plated, but she was consistently one of the most positive and helpful contestants on the show. Perhaps that’s part of why her career is taking off—you want someone like her around.

It always pays to have some sizzle in your skillet, but it’s equally important to have some tenderness under your toque. Like life, shows like “Top Chef” aren’t fair. But if there’s any justice in the weeks ahead, it will be Richard—and not Mike—who is around at the end.

As far as rewarding niceness, Carla won the elimination challenge as much for her chicken pot pie as for the affection with which it, like so much of Carla’s seemingly scattered cuisine, was prepared. Fallon singled out her dish for the love she put into it.  Let’s hope the chefs--who sadly will no longer include Fabio, dispatched for his dry hamburger--can share the same with each other.

--John Horn

Photo of Richard Blais in "Top Chef": Bravo TV