Top Chef's Padma Lakshmi by Glenn Watson/Bravo Photo
For someone whose kitchen prowess pretty much stops at the microwave and the George Foreman grill (New York-apartment size), I am unusually caught up this year in the hot summer-reality trend of cooking competition shows. Those who can't do, watch in rapt fascination.

Two in particular are among my tastiest guilty pleasures: Bravo's scintillating Top Chef, which looks better than ever in its third season set in Miami, and Food Network's more modestly entertaining The Next Food Network Star, also in its third season, though this is the first time I've watched. My least favorite of this batch, though also popular in the way that some people can't seem to avert their gaze from any sort of train wreck, is Fox's shrill and unceasingly unpleasant Hell's Kitchen, also in its third go-round. (And this is the second consecutive year I've decided to bail after just a few weeks. I need to give my bleeding ears some time to recuperate.)

Top Chef and Food Network Star, at their frequent best, are celebrations of creativity through high-pressure challenges, where personality is expressed through food - literally in the case of Food Network Star, where the contestants often have to sell their creations on camera, just as they will if they win and are rewarded with their own show. Food Network Star has the extra advantage of being able to call on the network's roster of food stars as guest mentors and judges. Stars like Bobby Flay, the glamorous Giada De Laurentiis (who has caused quite a stir on our magazine's letter page in the issue that comes out this week), Duff of Ace of Cakes, last season's winner Guy Fieri, and so on.

Not that Top Chef is a slouch when it comes to guest judges. This week's surprise tastemaker (in a new episode airing Wednesday at 10 pm/ET) has a major South Florida reputation (and I've put this chef on my list next time I get back to the Keys), and his criticisms in the fruity Quickfire Challenge as well as the more elaborate Elimination Challenge are specific, intriguing and (to those who fail) devastating. This season's Top Chef talent pool is especially full of accomplished players with "executive chef" titles, and many have reputations to uphold, whether they win or lose. It makes for a combustible competition, and there is at least one significant explosion this week, as a player growls, "Competition brings out the animal in me." So what else is new?

The judges on Top Chef, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, are sharp, with Padma Lakshmi adding some exotic zest as the host. In this regard, Top Chef has the edge over The Next Food Network Star, whose regular judges are the network's programming and marketing execs. Not that they lack personality, but it makes the competition look more like a marketing focus group than a creative free-for-all. Thankfully, the contestants more than make up for it in the charisma department. Food Network front-runners at the moment appear to be the confident Michael Salmon (what a great name for a cooking-show host), the adorable Adrien Sharp (who hosts his own local cooking show back home), the affably bumbling Rory Schepisi and the boisterous Joshua Adam Garcia (call him "JAG"). On Top Chef, the contest seems to be focusing primarily on alpha males Hung and Tre, though I wouldn't be surprised to see a stealth female come along and steal their thunder. (This show is overdue a female winner.)

Meanwhile, the less said the better about Hell's Kitchen, which seems little more than a pretext to encourage the charmless bully Gordon Ramsay to shriek, curse and throw food at his hapless lackeys (a particularly unlikable bunch this year) in their sham of a fake restaurant where hardly anyone actually gets served. It's an endless parade of badly prepared risotto and Wellingtons (you'd think they could handle the basics of these dishes by now). There's precious little chance, at least at this point in the competition, for individual creativity and personality to emerge or be rewarded. They might as well all be short-order cooks like the endlessly patronized Julia.

This week, when Jen took spaghetti out of the trash and tried to serve it, I figured she was just acting in the spirit of this dreadful show, which is nothing but trash talk, bad manners and constant humiliation. Pardon me while I spit this one out, rinse, and move on to something - anything - that's tastier.