Mentors of  the remaining Top Chef contestants.

Mentors of the remaining contestants, including Tony Mantuano and Sarah Stegner (left, third from left), appeared on the latest episode of Top Chef Texas. Photo courtesy of Bravo TV. (February 9, 2012)

Of all the reality competition dreck infesting TV screens, Top Chef is one of its better shows (I still think The Amazing Race is the gold standard). Unlike singing competitions where talent might be God given, or insect-eating shock challenges where fear is not a factor, Top Chef is a show requiring time-honed skill, and not just a modicum amount.

Chefs who have competed on this show tell me it’s the most physically and mentally-draining experiences they’ve gone through. Television being television, some episodes seem forced (last week’s Pee Wee Herman cameo was bizarre), and the selective editing removes any subtlety and makes contestants into black and white caricatures. But as brain-idling television goes, it’s harmless fun.

What makes this season – its 9th – that much more relevant to our readers? Six of its 16 contestants are Chicago chefs. One of those, Spiaggia’s Sarah Grueneberg, has made it to the final four, and there’s a chance that Beverly Kim of Aria will join her in Wednesday’s episode.

The last time a Chicago chef played a major role on the show, it was in season four when Stephanie Izard won. Now you can barely step into her restaurant, Girl & The Goat, on a Friday night. So yes, it’s a TV show, but there are big local ramifications. That’s why I keep watching.

-- Kevin Pang

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