Ted Allen, <EM>Top Chef</EM> Ted Allen, Top Chef

The tastiest reality show is back, and this season the Top Chef contestants are whipping out their knives in a new city: Chicago. To get our mouths watering for the show's premiere (tonight at 10 pm/ET, Bravo), celebrity judge Ted Allen told us about the best and worst dishes he's sampled, what new challenges we can look forward to, and some of this season's memorable characters — including the Windy City itself.

TVGuide.com: Why Chicago?
Allen: You're looking for cities that have enough personality to be a character in the show. Every city has its own culinary traditions. In this season's first episode, they have a challenge with one of Chicago's best-known foods. If you think about Miami [where last season was filmed], you think of hot babes in bikinis and white buildings and beautiful sand... and Cuban sandwiches. It gives the show a look. Chicago is a big, brawny, beautiful, gorgeous city. And it also has a lot of great food.

TVGuide.com: Chicago's a very sophisticated culinary town, too.
Allen: Oh yeah, from the old-timers like Charlie Trotter and Jean Joho to the new kids like Grant Achatz and Shawn McClain, it's a great food town. Lots of Chicago luminaries pop up on the show. This is why Gail and I alternate at the judges' table; they want to reserve a seat to bring in these great culinary luminaries, whether they're Chicago people or people you know from the national stage like Rocco [DiSpirito], Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert. And of course the ever-bilious Tony Bourdain, who's been one of my favorite guest judges.

TVGuide.com: Any other ways the city plays a role in the challenges?
Allen: Besides the very first challenge, there's one that involves a venerable sports team, there are locations you're going to recognize and a lot of new stuff that most of America might not recognize.

TVGuide.com: How do the new contestants stack up?
Allen: Every year, the tension is how Bravo can find people who are entertaining, a little crazy and interesting to look at, and who can also cook great food. As judges, we really want the food. [Laughs] And they just keep getting better at it. There's a lot of chemistry and sparks.

TVGuide.com: Any standouts?
Allen: I particularly enjoy watching Andrew as a personality; he says some very memorable things. He has a lot of passion for cooking, and when things aren't going his way, it looks like his brain is going to explode. Andrew wears his feelings on his sleeve, and that makes him electrifying to watch.

TVGuide.com: It seems like you get to sample some pretty amazing dishes on the show. Which was your favorite?
Allen: People made fun of Howie [from Season 3] for always cooking pork, but I still remember that pork loin he served at the Elks Club in Miami. Howie's opening his own restaurant, by the way, Bulldog Barbecue, in a couple of months. It's going to be a big success and I'm super-excited for him. And on last season's finale, Dale did that beautiful scallop in a sauce made with grapes and purslane. I mean, purslane — when's the last time you've heard of anyone cooking with purslane? It's, like, a forgotten herb.

TVGuide.com: Have there been any dishes that were really just inedibly bad?
Allen: I hate to keep ragging on him, because my man C.J. is a hell of a chef, but he did what was supposed to be an interpretation of tuna casserole [also from Season 3], and it was vividly bright green. That was C.J. taking a chance. But these guys don't get big budgets and they don't get enough time; if you could give them enough time to plan out a menu, the way they would in real life, more of them would cook successful dishes. We're saying to them, "OK, you have 15 minutes to figure out what to do." Think about how you'd react to that, if someone said, "You have an egg, a can of beer, a pot of mustard and a pretzel. You have five seconds. Go!" I don't know if fans are truly aware of how hard it is: All these contestants give up their cell phones, their iPods, they can't watch TV, they can't read books, they can't call their mommies. All they have is the people they're trying to defeat — and maybe some nice bottles of wine every once in a while. You're stuck in this pressure cooker with these people who you may or may not like. For six weeks! And on top of that, you have these evil, sadistic producers coming up with the hardest possible challenges they can think of.

TVGuide.com: When you put it that way, it sounds nearly impossible.
Allen: If I were in this cast, I would be the first one kicked off. I'm a good cook, but I'm a good home cook. I'm a very deliberative, slow-moving, plodding cook. I wouldn't last five minutes in the Top Chef kitchen.

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