Bravo tries a slightly different recipe on the cooking-competition genre.
Like Motown Records in the 1960s, Bravo is a network that likes to find a thing that works -- a "real housewife," say -- and do it again and again, with slight variations, until it doesn't. Top Chef, which, with the departure of Project Runway to Lifetime, is the jewel in the network's reality-competition crown, Professional Domestic Arts Division, has already given birth to Top Chef Masters, with a "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and the tentatively titled "Top Chef Junior" in the pipeline, or the oven, as the metaphor may more aptly be.
The new Chef Academy, in which Britain-based French celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli comes to Los Angeles to "test" a new cooking school, is not actually a "Top Chef" spinoff, but the title does share the key word, which is enough to create a brand association in the viewer's mind -- in this viewer's mind, anyway. Nor is the series, which begins tonight at the curiously late hour of 11 p.m., a competition, exactly: There is no prize at the end; the prize is merely to participate, and the trick for the participants -- nominally, they are students -- is just to stay the course. ("Fail" three assignments and you're expelled.) All of them could stick around until the end, theoretically, but that is not going to happen.
Novelli, who is a familiar figure on British TV (and has been a guest "Top Chef" judge here) is good-looking, likable and relaxed, and although the show will clearly require him to be fearsome, he is no fire-breathing Gordon Ramsay. Arriving in L.A. with his pregnant fiancee, his greatest desire is to meet "Columbo," of whom he does an amusing imitation. Rounding out his team are right-hand man and executive chef Steven Kitchen (for real) and a comical gay assistant, Joel, which is also sort of a Bravo tradition. ("Buckle up!" says Joel. "It's the law!")