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Broil, boil, toil and trouble

The Baltimore Sun

Once again, 15 aspiring cooks confront a series of culinary challenges that test their skill, nerves and judgment in the kitchen as Bravo rolls out its third season of Top Chef tomorrow.

Last season brought the show to the forefront of the pop-culture zeitgeist (and blogosphere) due less to the contestants' cooking chops than to the rivalry that arose between two of the youngest contestants, Marcel Vigneron, the exasperating molecular gastronomist with the winged coiffure, and Ilan Hall, the naughty hipster-traditionalist who ultimately triumphed.

This season's contestants, at first glance, look as if they were selected to provide plenty of drama. Among the racially diverse group are a cancer survivor; a chef whose father, also a chef, committed suicide; a single mother; and not one but two Mohawk hairdos.

One of the most accomplished contestants is Joey Paulino, who is the executive chef at Cafe des Artistes in Manhattan. Unlike his genteel workplace, though, the obviously capable Joey is bluff and profane. "I'm the biggest, baddest [expletive] here," he declares, though he also pledges to give the money to his mother if he wins.

Vigneron's "annoying whiz kid" mantle from last season may fall to Hung Huynh, a Vietnamese-American from Pittsfield, Mass., and a sous chef at Guy Savoy, a posh restaurant in Las Vegas. Hung announces, "I am the crazy one, the loud one." But he is clearly talented, and his cooking seems less inclined toward the fanciful than Vigneron's.

Tre Wilcox, the self-taught chef de cuisine at Abacus, one of Dallas' top restaurants, has the competitive manner (and impressive build) of a professional athlete, as well as a tattoo down his inner arm that reads "Got to have passion."

The women don't make as big a first impression, but at least two seem promising: Lia Bardeen, whose soft-spoken mien belies her impressive job as executive sous chef at Manhattan's vaunted Jean Georges, and Micah Edelstein, a South African single mother who used to race sailboats before setting up a catering business in Boca Raton, Fla.

The judges are back: Padma Lakshmi (aka Mrs. Salman Rushdie) with her enigmatic delivery and oddly cheap-looking wardrobe; Tom Colicchio, the well-respected chef who presides over an empire of restaurants that includes New York's Craft, Craftbar and 'wichcraft, and Las Vegas' Craftsteak; and Gail Simmons, marketing honcho from Food & Wine mgazine, one of the show's sponsors. This year, Ted Allen of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, is joining the judge's table.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles, the locale this time is Miami. The first episode features lots of beach scenes - and many bikini-clad extras. The contestants meet for the first time at Casa Casuarina, formerly the home of slain designer Gianni Versace, and then repair to their stunning penthouse suite at the Fontainebleau Hotel.

Erica Marcus writes for Newsday.

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