I’m not a huge fan of reality TV, but I am feeling my pulse quicken at the thought of a new season of Top Chef premiering Wednesday night on Bravo at 9 p.m. Central. Throw in the fact that this season’s competition is set in Chicago, and I almost want to start phoning everyone I know to alert them.

Top Chef follows a standard elimination contest format. Sixteen aspiring chefs are gradually thinned to a single winner through a series of cooking challenges — typically one “Quickfire Challenge” and one “Elimination Challenge” per episode. The “Quickfire” task is usually immediate, on-the-spot, and something that takes no more than an hour or two to complete. Winners generally gain immunity from elimination. The “Elimination” test which follows typically involves a concept or theme, often an unusual location, and frequently some conspicuous product placement. At the end of this challenge, the show’s panel of judges chooses a winner and also tells one chef to “pack your knives and go.”

We started watching Top Chef in the middle of its first season, and had to go back and catch the episodes we had missed. Katie Lee Joel was the host that year, and I looked her up on Wikipedia to learn that she’s the wife of Billy Joel, a.k.a. The Piano Man. For the second season, a new host was introduced: Padma Lakshmi, the Indian supermodel, actress, and cooking author. I learned from Wikipedia that she was married to writer Salman Rushdie. They have since parted.

Padma Lakshmi’s charisma is one of the keys to the show. She’s beautiful, she’s mysterious, and she can flash just enough playful cruelty to sell the challenges or dispatch the losers with a smile. As a judge, her cooking experience comes into play, and she is perceptive and discerning in breaking down the chefs’ creations and performances.

Another thing I like about this show is that contestants are voted off by judges — not each other, and not Donald Trump. Star New York chef Tom Colicchio, Food & Wine magazine editor Gail Simmons, and Queer Eye food guy (and former Chicago magazine editor) Ted Allen round out the judging panel. Tom Colicchio is particularly interesting to watch as he questions contestants during in-progress challenges.

If I could change anything about Top Chef, it would involve gearing the challenges more toward actual culinary skills instead of gimmicky themes, such as the ones last year involving ingredients from a gas station convenience store or cooking comfort foods for the Miami Elks Club. I would also appreciate a few more shots of the actual dishes, which flit past too quickly for viewers to, uh, digest.

After reading the short bios of the Season 4 chefs, plus watching their short introductory videos and 60-second life stories, I am guessing the strongest ones will be Stephanie, Dale, Manuel, and Antonia. The ones that look problematic to me include Mark, Andrew, and Lisa. There seems to be one particularly annoying chef each season, including last year’s winner, Hung. We’ll see how far Spike gets this time.

In the videos, two of this season’s chefs identified raw bell peppers as their least-favorite ingredient, and a third singled out green bell peppers. I had no idea bell peppers were so disagreeable. Asked to name their favorite utensils or appliances, a good many name their Vita-Mix blenders, their Japanese mandolin slicers, or both.

If you’re using a TV-recording device to catch the show, be aware that Bravo programs sometimes run slightly longer than an hour, which can be very frustrating if the outcome gets clipped by your machine. The MeeVee listings for this one clock it at 1:15 in length.

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