I was initially a bit resistant to "Top Chef Masters," but it has become an acceptable placeholder for Bravo in recent weeks. Host Kelly Choi hasn't made me stop missing Padma & Tom, while for a food critic, Judge James Oseland seems mighty confused by a lot of culinary exploration. It took a little while to realize that, Ludo Lefebvre aside, "Top Chef Masters" wasn't about gawking at spectacular flameouts, but was actually a celebration of the confident genius of titans like Rick Bayless and Hubert Keller.

But enough with the placebos!

"Top Chef" returns on Wednesday (July 19) night, with Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, plus a new crop of cheftestants heading to Sin City. 

The last season of "Top Chef," set in New York, ended back in February. Is "Top Chef Las Vegas" worth the wait? 

Indeed.

[Review after the break...]

A Quickfire challenge for you, readers... Who won "Top Chef: New York"? 

If you skipped the last episode or two, the idea that somebody other than Fabio or Stefan could have won the title would be absurd. Yet the winner was Hosea. Or the official winner was Hosea, but if Hosea had been the season's dominant personality, the show's long-term future may have been in jeopardy.

The necessity for one or two big personalities in every "Top Chef" season can't be denied. A Hosea or a Stephanie or an Ilan is allowed to win, but if you don't have a Marcel or a Hung or a Spike or a Fabio, the season can't function, whether viewers come away loving those flamboyant chefs or hating them.

It's a note the producers seem to have taken to heart. If there was an occasional inkling that the past couple "Top Chef" seasons were cast for sex appeal, that's not the case in the "Las Vegas" season. The emphasis is on colorful, easily embraceable personalities and the 75-minute premiere does a remarkable job of getting at least a dozen contestants front and center and well-defined.

It's not that the cheftestants are painfully twee or quirky, but when self-described fat kid Eli notes that the show has never had so many "badass cooks," you can tell what he referring to. There are tattoos and piercings and daring hairdos aplenty, plus the premiere's Elimination Challenge teaches us that at least half of the chefs have a drinking problem (a slightly lower-than-average tally if we trust Anthony Bourdain). 

It's easy to find favorites and to start rooting against people. I already like Kevin, whose status as a James Beard nominee may be for his cooking or for his red, Santa-thick facial hair. I'm sympathetic to Big Ron, whose story of his four week boat journey from Haiti was heartbreaking (albeit manipulatively used). I'm intrigued by the idea of brothers Michael and Bryan going head-to-head. I'm amused that Hector may be a secondary character from a Robert Rodriguez shoot-em-up and that Mattin seems determined to fulfill every imaginable French stereotype. I'm conflicted that Michael Isabella could be both a strong chef and a raving misogynist. And I'm a bit perplexed why Ash keeps defensively bringing up his homosexuality as if he's a "Top Chef" trailblazer. 

Watching the proficiency of Bayless, Keller and company was entertaining if you happen to be a foodie, but the first 75 minutes of "Top Chef Las Vegas" are a reminder that less-established chefs sometimes take bigger risks and bigger risks sometimes equal better television. Nobody on "Top Chef Masters" was ever going to attempt to deep fry a prime rib. Because deep-frying a prime rib is a stupid thing to attempt. Or is stupidly brilliant? And nobody on "Top Chef Masters" would ever voluntarily eschew a limitless assortment of proteins to randomly stuff a chili relleno with seitan. Because wheat gluten is a strange handicap to give yourself Week One. Or is it a brilliant handicap? 

There are things prepared on Wednesday's premiere which I honestly wouldn't want to eat, at least not instinctively, but those edible gambles are the point of both "Top Chef" and a Las Vegas season.

Even moreso than previous seasons, an effort is being made to bring the locale into this season, even if it's just for pure kitsch. The premiere includes showgirls, high stakes gambling chips and Wolfgang Puck, but it's "Top Chef" standbys like the mise en place Quickfire that produce the drama.

And drama is really all you can base an early review of a "Top Chef" season upon. Does the premiere establish characters, tension and just enough tasty looking food to propel the season forward? Absolutely.

 

"Top Chef Las Vegas" premieres on Wednesday night on Bravo.