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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]

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.

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.


The things you learn in a 75-minute lunch at Café Spiaggia:

-- Tony Mantuano has removed Rick Bayless from his Twitter follow list. The man is too prolific, says the Spiaggia chef. "I love him, but I just can't. It's too much," Mantuano says.

-- Spiaggia will be serving decidedly downscale pizza and beer tonight. In the private dining room, that is, for tonight's "Top Chef Masters" viewing party. Twenty bucks. 8:30 p.m. Go and root for Mantuano.

-- Susur Lee, Mantuano's fellow 'Masters' cheftestant, does not own a cell phone, nor does he have an e-mail address. "It's impossible to get a hold of the guy," Mantuano says.

-- Six-year aged balsamico tastes like nectar. (Check back here in a few days for more details on Spiaggia chef di cucina Sarah Grueneberg's scarily vast knowledge of balsamico).

-- Pasta cut using a gold die, a recent find now on the cafe menu, yields a rougher finish, thereby enabling the sauce to adhere better. "And you can charge more," Mantuano chuckles.

Pictured is fusilli with Nichols Farm greens, tomatoes and almonds -- toothsome yet velvety. (And look for more discussion of pasta made using traditional brass dies -- and an equally lovely dish -- in our Low Mileage Kitchen column next Wednesday).

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Indeed, Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano is still in the running on "Top Chef Masters," though it wasn't necessarily a masterful night for him or the other cheftestants.

A trying-too-hard quickfire challenge -- create a dish for the characters on "The Simpsons" -- was followed up by the "Exotic Surf and Turf" elimination challenge involving black chicken, monkfish liver, sea cucumber and one too many geoducks.

Try as we might, we're still can't get the images of geoduck and undercooked goat leg out of our head, so we'll spare you all the details. (But just for fun, here's a shot of Andrew Zimmern, host of "Bizarre Foods" on the Travel Channel, with the giant clams; Zimmern, as it happens, was the featured judge on last night's episode.)

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Anyway, Mantuano scored the lowest on the quickfire with his fried bacon-honey dough, but scored in the top half for the elimination round with a luscious goat ravioli, one of the few appealing dishes of the night.

Crazy Susur won with an impressive 19 stars, and lovely Jody Adams, alas, was sent home.

Got an email the other day from the Bravo pr team reminding me to watch "Top Chef Masters" as our own Tony Mantuano is still in it to win it.

"It's now between him and four other chefs to determine who will be crowned Top Chef Masters in finale," the email read.

Er, wait -- isn't it between him and six other chefs? Though math isn't our strong suit (which is why we chose this profession - bah dum bum), we can do simple addition. The champions round just started last week with the eight finalists. Chef Carmen Gonzalez go the boot. That leaves seven.

We sent an e-mail back.

Her reply: "Sorry-that was a typo-him and SIX other chefs. I don't even know who wins so I couldn't let you know what the future holds, even if I wanted to! I intentionally DON'T find out the outcome because that knowledge is like a loaded gun :-)"

Mmm, hmm. At the least, that knowledge has been known to piss off viewers who hate spoilers.

Also, there seems to be a pattern of cheftestants who host viewing parties doing pretty well. And yes, there will be one at Spiaggia at 8:30 tonight - prosecco, sweets and a $20 donation to benefit Mantuano's charity.

Watch Mantuano advance, or maybe not, but probably, at 9 tonight on Bravo.

While we're on the subject of "Top Chef," past and present, masters and ... non-masters:

Tune in to "At Martha's Table," Martha Stewart's radio show on Sirius, at 3 p.m. May 5. Rick Bayless is dropping by to make Mexican paella, a guacamole bar with help-yourself toppings and margaritas. We'd love to watch them making the latter -- maybe Bayless will pull a Mindy Segal and get Martha on the path to loopy with his margaritas.

And on May 6 and 7, the rolling "Top Chef: The Tour" stops in Chicago. Head over to 505 N. Michigan, outside the Intercontinental Hotel, to meet a few of the sixth-season cheftestants, taste some food, try your hand at a Top Chef-themed putting green and other stuff.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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