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As 'Top Chef: Texas' starts, Austin and two of its chefs prepare to step into the spotlight

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Austin isn't just one of the cities featured in the upcoming season of "Top Chef: Texas," the reality cooking competition that premieres on Bravo at 9 Wednesday, two Austin chefs — Paul Qui of Uchiko and 24 Diner's Andrew Curren — are among the 29 contestants, almost twice as many as usual.

With more contestants, judges and cities, Bravo is taking the old saying of "everything is bigger in Texas" quite literally, but with unintended consequences.

The chef competition reality show traditionally starts with 16 contestants who stay, for the most part, in one city. But this year, producers picked 29 contestants that are whittled down to 16 within the first two episodes, and the show was spread across San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, which is where the unintended consequences start.

As soon as Bravo announced that they were lumping together three large metropolitan areas in one season, critics pointed out that not only were they leaving out Houston, which is the biggest and arguably, most culinarily advanced city in Texas, they were also homogenizing and short-changing four distinct cities worthy of having an entire season to themselves.

Then, this summer, news broke that the state tourism office paid $400,000 to Magical Elves, the "Top Chef" production company, for a first-of-its-kind "integrated marketing agreement" to help bring the show to Texas in the first place. Magical Elves also approached the convention and visitors' bureau offices in Dallas, Austin, Houston and San Antonio for money to bring to show to each city, but San Antonio was the only city to bite, paying $200,000 to be included in about half the episodes.

Earlier this month, Magical Elves sued the state attorney general's office to keep details of the $400,000 deal under wraps, a case that is still pending.

In an interview last week, host and judge Padma Lakshmi said that it wasn't a matter of one city not being enough to support an entire season.

"Texas is a big state. We know that Dallas is very different than Austin, which is very different than San Antonio," she said. "Producers made that choice not to say that one city isn't enough, but 'Let's do something much more ambitious than we've done before.' " Coming off an Emmy win lst year for best reality competition TV show, they wanted to find a way to top what they've done in years past. "It's a challenge we face every day in doing the show to make it better," she says. Moving from city to city kept contestants guessing and it will keep viewers guessing, too.

The contestants didn't know that there were 29 of them until the first day of shooting. "I like it because you have to cook yourself into the competition," head judge Tom Colicchio says. "The resume may look great, but they turn out to be terrible. There were some people who we were led to believe would be really strong cooks, but they weren't very good at all."

Another new spin this year is a series of "webisodes" online, in which ousted contestants can compete to earn a chance to get back on the show. Emeril Lagasse and Georgia chef and "Top Chef Masters" alum Hugh Acheson were also added to the official judge lineup, and guest judges include Charlize Theron, Fort Worth chef Tim Love and Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens), who finally got a chance to return to the Alamo, Lakshmi said, presumably to find the basement.

But as the show premieres Wednesday, all eyes in Austin will be on Qui and Curren, the only chef contestants from Texas.

Qui, who has gained quite a bit of media attention for his role at Uchi and now Uchiko, said that starring on a reality TV show "isn't really my personality," but that it seemed like a "great opportunity."

That the show was based in Texas was one of the reasons Qui (pronounced "key") said it felt right to do it. "It gives me a huge sense of pride to try to represent Texas," he said. "At the same time, it gives a lot of pressure."

Qui, 31, says he was able to represent his particular style of Japanese food, but that he was able to learn from the other chefs on the show. "It was like I was getting to stage at a bunch of different kitchens at the same time," he said.

Being on the show pushed him out of his comfort zone, but when the show airs he knows he'll lose the relative anonymity that he's enjoyed. "It's a big opportunity to shine the spotlight on Texas and Austin."

Curren, who turns 33 this week, has a slightly less high-profile executive chef position at 24 Diner, but that would be changing anyway in coming months with the opening of Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden on East Sixth Street in just a few weeks and a French restaurant on Burnet Road early next year.

Curren has a background cooking everything from Italian to Indian, but now he can add "Top Chef" contestant to his resume. "What I wanted to bring to the show was a diversity of technique but also of different cuisines," he said.

Curren moved from New York City to Austin in 2008, just as the current culinary boom was getting under way. He's been building relationships with other chefs, including Qui, since he moved here. "I'm not the type of chef to say, 'Oh my food is good and everyone else's food is bad'. We're creating friendships and saying, 'Hey, let's work together to make Austin a better food scene.' "

The "Top Chef: Texas" episodes shot in Austin will be relatively few, but we're likely to see a number of familiar places, including the Driskill Hotel, Whole Foods Market's flagship store downtown and the Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, where production crews, judges and contestants were spotted in July.

The promotional photographs and clips laden with cowboy boots, barbecue and scenes from a rodeo seem to play to the entrenched stereotypes about Texas, but Lakshmi said that playing to stereotypes is something they do no matter where they go.

"I live in NYC, and I can't remember the last time I went to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island," she said, "But when we filmed here, we went to those places because it's a landmark. They are the highlights of the city."

Lakshmi said portion sizes were definitely as big as they were reputed to be, and it was every bit as hot as they'd heard. The show was filming in July, when it was hotter than 100 degrees almost every day of the month, which forced producers to move as much production inside as possible, Colicchio said.

Ultimately, the show isn't about the place it is hosted; it's about the competition between the contestants. Colicchio, who owns a restaurant in Dallas, said that viewers will see plenty of barbecue and Tex-Mex, but that the chefs from Texas — both the ones who made it on the TV show and the ones working outside the bright lights of reality TV — are the ones who really dispel the notion that that's all we have here. (Barley Swine, Bryce Gilmore's small restaurant on South Lamar Boulevard, left a particularly good impression on the judges, including Lakshmi. "That restaurant could stand up to any great restaurant in N.Y. or L.A.," she said.)

Austin, in particular, is an example of a food revolution happening all over the country in medium-to-large cities that you wouldn't necessarily think of a culinary destination, Colicchio said. "Hopefully after seeing the show, people will go to Texas to find people who are doing things outside of what they expect."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Follow the show with us

For the premiere at 9 Wednesday and each of the episodes filmed in Austin, we'll be hosting a live chat at austin360.com/relishaustin to talk about how the Austin contestants are doing and how our favorite restaurants and grocery stores look on the small screen.

Local show watching parties

Throughout the upcoming season of "Top Chef: Texas" both Uchi, 801 S. Lamar Blvd., and Uchiko, 4200 N. Lamar Blvd., will be hosting "Top Chef Socials," watch parties featuring a special menu and drinks. The watch parties start Wednesday at 9 at each restaurant.