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US ,TV Chefs Far From Reality

THE third season of “Top Chef” comes to a close tonight, answering questions that have made this contest seem like a timely echo of, or overture to, the precedent-courting presidential race: Will there be a first woman Top Chef or a first nonwhite Top Chef or maybe even a first openly gay Top Chef?

FUTURE CELEBRITIES? Contestants in an episode of “The Next Iron Chef.”

On this matter the Bravo network has expertly teased out the suspense, but along the way it’s settled another issue. While Top Chef contestants must endure a finger-numbing, flesh-nicking decathlon of slicing and dicing, the top chefs who assess them need not come within 10 feet of a whisk — unless, that is, they’re arching an eyebrow at the clumsy way it’s being handled.

One after another, the country’s most esteemed culinary practitioners — Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud and Geoffrey Zakarian, to name a few — sauntered onto the set, where they ate on command and frowned on cue.

What they didn’t do was cook. And in that sense the show perfectly illustrated how far these celebrities — on “Top Chef,” on “Iron Chef” and its progeny, on any number of programs — have traveled from the tedious, earnest hands-on work that gave them their luster in the first place.

It’s a trajectory all the more interesting for the way it mirrors the evolution of their off-camera careers, in which they’ve morphed into stars so much larger than, and sometimes so loosely tethered to, the nuts and bolts of their craft.

When celebrity chefs show up on TV these days, at least during prime time, they are less likely to be sautéing than to be swaggering through exotic locales (Anthony Bourdain) or swearing at the lesser mortals stuck with the grunt work (Gordon Ramsay). They are outsize personalities tapped for the charisma they can project, not the skill set they are prepared to demonstrate.

The step-by-step cooking tutorials that were once chefs’ stock in trade on television are increasingly relegated to morning news shows and to home-entertainment gurus like Martha Stewart and her down-market, “Yum-O!” successor, Rachael Ray.

Mario Batali used to provide such lessons on “Molto Mario,” but it’s no longer in production. Bobby Flay still dispenses advice on “Boy Meets Grill,” but spends much of his television energies on flashier, less pedagogic projects.

Take “Throwdown.” Mr. Flay cooks on this show, but not principally to educate viewers who might aspire to cook as well as he does. “Throwdown” pits him against a nonprofessional chili or burger maker whose yard or home Mr. Flay visits and whose work he is trying at once to replicate and to trump. He’s a slumming celebrity cooking in the service of bragging rights or humiliation.

Cooking as contest, cooking as derring-do: that pretty much sums up “Iron Chef America,” on which Mr. Flay and Mr. Batali have been mainstays. It’s colorful. It’s kinetic.

But it has limited relevance to the home cook. And it has dubious connection to the actual kitchen paces that any of the chefs in the competition have gone through or might. At no restaurant I’ve ever visited do the kitchen hands or customers present the chef with a surprise ingredient, give him or her a stringent time limit and say, “Go!”

“Iron Chef America” has been so successful that it has created a spinoff, “The Next Iron Chef,” which will have its debut on the Food Network on Sunday night. The show features eight near-celebrity chefs from around the country vying, in an elimination competition, to join Mr. Batali and Mr. Flay as permanent gladiators and become, in words actually spoken by one of the show’s hosts, “a culinary God.”

Toward the end of the first episode, they’re asked to do something with doubtful inspirational value: press an unlikely savory ingredient — squid, tripe and catfish are three examples — into the service of dessert. I’d caution you not to try this at home, but there’s little danger of that.

The most priceless moment comes near the episode’s beginning, when one aspirant, Traci Des Jardins, the executive chef of the restaurant Jardinière in San Francisco, confronts an array of basic tasks that include filleting a salmon and deboning a chicken.

It’s a situation more firmly grounded in kitchen reality than a typical “Iron Chef” stunt, and what’s fascinating is the way Ms. Des Jardins responds to it. Looking nervous, she says with admirable candor that she can only hope the requisite skills are still in her command, because she doesn’t handle such chores often anymore.

How many of the country’s most successful chefs do? As they pump out their books, sign their latest endorsement deals and add 3rd or 6th or 10th restaurants to their burgeoning empires, they move farther away from the meals that the diners in those restaurants eat. They’re less creators than conferrers, lending an aura of glamour to products manufactured and projects maintained by others.

During this season of “Top Chef,” Tom Colicchio, the head judge, opened a new Craft restaurant in Los Angeles and struck a deal for a new Craftsteak at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods resort and casino in Connecticut, which is scheduled to open next year.

The chances seem slim that diners at that Craftsteak will be exposed to Mr. Colicchio’s cooking the way diners at the original Craft in Manhattan once were. What they’ll experience is a remote brush with his celebrity.

And that’s not unlike what the audience for some television food shows get. Viewers are meant to thrill to the presence of a great chef, to revel in his or her quips or tirades, not to catch an honest glimpse of that greatness in meaningful action.

At its heart “Top Chef” remains a show about cooking, the triumphs and pratfalls of its contestants yielding lessons about the way ingredients go together and why a dish succeeds or not.

But the celebrity chefs who do cameos on the “Top Chef” judging panel, greeted by awe-struck stares from those contestants, recall the actors and actresses in the tic-tac-toe boxes of “The Hollywood Squares.” They’re transmitting their fungible star wattage, and they’re a long way from their supposed day jobs

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