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The next season of Bravo's "Top Chef" is thick with Chicago talent. Six of the 29 competing chefs -- Heather Terhune (right) of Sable Kitchen & Bar, Spiaggia's Sarah Grueneberg, Chuy Valencia of Chilam Balam, moto's Richie Farina and Chris Jones and Beverly Kim of Aria -- call the Windy City home.

The Nov. 2 premiere will dovetail nicely, as it always does, with the finale of "Top Chef: Just Desserts," on which the Bristol's Amanda Rockman has thus far been rocking things out.

Stephanie Izard, she of that restaurant you may have heard of called Girl and the Goat, still claims the title of the only female "Top Chef" winner (and the only one from Chicago, if you don't count Rick Bayless, who won the first "Top Chef Masters" and is adding "thespian" to his resume.) Whether Izard will have company in these other hometown chefs remains to be seen, but they've all got the chops. Set your TiVo.

[Heather Terhune knows something, and she's not telling. | photo by Al Podgorski~Sun-Times]

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[photo by John J. Kim~Sun-Times]

Another day, another "Top Chef' season premiere.

The second installment of "Top Chef: Just Desserts" premieres at 9 tonight. Representing Chicago is Amanda Rockman, who's responsible for all things
sweet and tart at the Bristol. With the show and a a second restaurant in the works, the momentum is behind Rockman.

You'll see other familiar faces this season, including the 'Kings of Pastry' themselves, Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sebastien Canonne, founders of Chicago's French Pastry School. Pfeiffer and Canonne judged a key episode this season; Pfeiffer also says the caliber of this field of contestants is higher than the last, which had its share of highly entertaining drama.

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Amanda Rockman, pastry chef at the Bristol, 2152 N. Damen, talks up the tart in today's Food pages, and shares a recipe for a lovely buttermilk tart with fresh cherries and a mascarpone cream one might be inclined to bathe in rather than dollop artfully on top.

Make this tart, because Rockman's spot-on suggestions yield such rewards for very little effort. I'm always on the lookout for a good crust - this one's a winner (and a reminder of why the food processor rocks).

And make this tart so you can say you did it before Rockman gets all famous. On Aug. 24, she'll make her TV debut on Bravo's "Top Chef Just Desserts," the only Chicago chef-testant in the field of 14. (The first season had Chicago's Malika Ameen bowing out under pressure.)

[photo by John J. Kim~Sun-Times]

Three things to note in Reality Cooking Show TV Land:

* Bravo is holding a casting call for the next season of "Top Chef" -- the ninth season -- and for the second season of "Top Chef Just Desserts" from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 7 at the Dana Hotel, 660 N. State. Do your homework here before you show up, so you don't make a total arse of yourself.

* New York chef Marc Forgione, recently crowned the Food Network's "Next Iron Chef," stops by Macy's on State Street at noon March 8 for a free cooking demo, fulfilling an obligation as the retailer's newest Culinary Council member.

* "Top Chef Masters" got a facelift. The third season, which premieres at 10 p.m. April 6, has ditched host Kelly Choi for Aussie eye candy (and chef) Curtis Stone and judges Jay Rayner and Gael Greene for former Gourmet editrix Ruth Reichl (Saveur's James Oseland stays on as judge). Alas, there are no Chicago chefs in the mix this season.

The Top Chef juggernaut rolls on with the premiere of "Top Chef All-Stars" at 9 tonight on Bravo. And Dale Levitski promises not to disappoint.

I caught up recently with the 37-year-old Levitski, runner-up on Season Three, who, of course, could spill zero details about the show. This much he did say: "Top Chef Season Three was more about going to Cub Scout camp. All-Stars is a completely different animal in that we've all done it. There's more ego ... Honestly, it is the most difficult season yet. The [Top Chef] Masters had it easy." Pat07 color:b&w--cutout.jpg

Fighting words, young man. But then, he's a fighter.

Levitski's career was on an upswing when he was tapped to replace Grant Achatz as chef at Trio in 2004. But by the time Levitski made the cast of "Top Chef," Trio had closed and he was unemployed. He rode the inevitable post-show highs and then hit some low lows, among them, his mother's death and the disintegration of the yet-to-materialize restaurant of his dreams.

Last year, Levitski landed at Sprout, 1417 W. Fullerton. Last month, he celebrated the restaurant's first anniversary and inclusion in the first-ever Michelin Chicago guide.

After the holidays, Levitski is taking some time off, which may or may not include more filming, he says coyly.

She had them at her panna cotta. But she didn't have the heart to keep going.

Malika Ameen, 35, the lone Chicago contestant on Bravo's "Top Chef: Just Desserts" walked away from the competition on Wednesday's episode, citing her dislike of "cooking in a competitive environment." Ameen dropped the bombshell just as Gale Gand, a guest judge and fellow Chicagoan, was offering generous praise for Ameen's saffron-scented panna cotta.

"I think I'm the least of the group who wants to be 'Top Chef' and that's unfair," Ameen later told her fellow contestants.

Ameen, a divorced mom to three young boys (her ex-husband was the chef at their now-shuttered River North restaurant Aigre Doux), says she still doesn't regret her decision to quit, something she'd hinted at in the previous episode. "It was what I felt was right at the time," she said by phone today. NUP_138872_0819.jpg

The toughest part, Ameen says, was anticipating how her family would react. She called her mom, "and much to my dismay, she was grocery shopping," instead of watching the show, Ameen said. Later, after her mom had watched and digested the episode, the two talked.

So why did she bother going on "Top Chef" in the first place, if competitive cooking isn't her cup of tea? "To me, it was taking another step forward in my life. It was really outside of the box of what I'd do," she said.

Ameen's departure wasn't the only shocker. Seth Caro, viewed by many of the other competitors as a loose cannon in the kitchen, was physically removed from the set, and the show, after suffering a panic attack.

Ameen was empathetic. "I felt very badly for him. I think clearly he had some very big emotional or mental issues going on, and unfortunately, they all came to fruition on national television."

After just four episodes, the dessert spinoff is proving to be one of the most entertaining in the "Top Chef" franchise. Ameen says it's not surprising.

"Pastry chefs are wired very differently," Ameen said. "We are used to working in very controlled environment with formulas and recipes, and when you take us out of that element . . . We're just rigged differently."

Top Chef groupies can find Ameen plowing ahead with her custom dessert business, By M Desserts. Her home base: the kitchen at Pasticceria Natalina, 5406 N. Clark, owned by her friend and fellow pastry chef Natalie Zarzour.

executive-chef-dale-levitski.jpg You knew it was coming . . .

Bravo will debut yet another "Top Chef" spinoff -- "Top Chef All-Stars" -- at 9 p.m. Dec. 1.

The inaugural series (because surely there will be more to come, along with the requisite cookbooks) brings back 18 TC alums who almost won, including Chicago's Dale Levitski (at left); Richard Blais, runner-up to our own Stephanie Izard, and the second season's weasely runner-up Marcel Vigneron, plus a few who were just too memorable to let fade to black (Spike Mendelsohn and Dale Talde of the fantastically profane fourth season, among them).

Joining the judging panel: Anthony Bourdain.

First Art Smith was going to host his own show on TLC, and all about comfort food, no less.

Then we learned that the show wasn't going to happen after all -- though a spokesman for the network promised that Smith's talents wouldn't be wasted.

So here's the consolation: the man formerly known as Oprah's chef is one of the three judges for the competition-style TLC series, "BBQ Pitmasters," now in its second season. He joins Myron Mixon, a real live pitmaster from Georgia, and ex-NFLer Warren Sapp, who knows something about being under heat.

Filming begins shortly; the show premieres Aug. 12.

Ludo Lefebvre had a ball competing on Bravo's 'Top Chef Masters' two years running, and wants to do it again next year.

"They've already asked me," Lefebvre said. "I told them yes. If they change judges."

Which judge?

"The one with the hat," he said.

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Well, could that have been a crabbier episode of Top Chef Masters?

No pun intended. Some crab was cooked, but we're mainly talking pissy chefs and judges on Wednesday's episode, not to mention that Tony Mantuano -- Chicago's only hope to take home the crown -- was booted off a shade too soon, which just makes us crabbier.

The quickfire challenge: make a dish out of legs (frog, crab, octopus, etc). The judges: a moody Jay Rayner and Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak because, as host Kelly Choi was forced to point out, he knows how to use his legs. Huh? Think it's time for some fresh blood on Bravo's creative team?

In a sign of things to come, Susur Lee hogs table space in the kitchen, while Mantuano tries to stay zen. "You're my lucky charm," Lee singsongs back to a visibly annoyed Mantuano.

To the judges, Mantuano presents a lovely looking warm potato and crab salad with coriander. But Rayner gets a bite of cartilage and dismisses the salad as underdressed, prompting the first expletive from Mantuano. In a rare bright spot, sunny Susan Feniger takes the challenge with an ugly but tasty dish of roast chicken with quinoa pilaf.

The elimination challenge: a tailgate party for 100 USC football fans, using a charcoal grill. Right up our Chicagoan's alley right?

But the dark cloud still hovers while the chefs shop for groceries, with Marcus Samuelsson greedily buying all the boneless chicken thights and Mantuano uttering a second expletive after Lee again refers to him as his lucky charm. "Susur annoys me at times," Mantuano says to the camera, after Lee suggest Mantuano would be perfect as a chef on "The Sopranos."

Mantuano's mood improves as he gets rolling; the dough for his pizza is exactly how he wants it to be. The judges, however, feel differently, calling it tough and dry. In the end, Feniger's skirt steak tacos were tailgate-friendliest, while Mantuano garnered the lowest score of the night.

"I can't believe it's over," he said. Us either. Boo.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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