Bravo markets “Top Chef” with such fervor you can’t tell if they’re really really nervous or really really proud. After watching the first episode, I think they should be both. They should be proud for landing a genuine food personality as their judge (Tom Collichio, of Craft fame) and for assembling a “motley crew” (as one chef called it) of competitors. Here’s where they should be nervous: the show lacks both the authority and smooth mechanics of “Project Runway” which, despite its kitschy tones, is a real masterwork of the reality show format. “Project Runway” is fun because fashion is both exotic and familiar to us: we don’t necessarily know how to stitch a pair of pants, but we know what a decent pair of pants looks like. We are removed from the proceedings yet we are engaged. With “Top Chef,” we are completely engaged. We can look at that food and know immediately whether we’d eat it or not. And unlike “Project Runway” where a competitor’s personality has absolutely no bearing on whether their clothes are winning or not (even Santino redeemed himself at the end), “Top Chef” exposes the very personal relationship between the food we eat and who prepares it. On the very first episode the guy voted off is the guy everyone liked the least. Is this a coincidence? Of course not. So the show, then, becomes a popularity contest instead of a contest based on merit. Plus, the competitors are such a mixed bag–self-trained home cooks, personal chefs to the stars, Las Vegas sommeliers (I loved the quote: “Stephen is a sommelier which means he’s a bullshit artist”)–it’s difficult to gauge how seriously to take the show. “This isn’t about being a housewife, this is about being a chef,” said the snooty French judge-of-the-night. So why, then, not cast the show with 12 (or however many) equally equipped competitors? It’s no fun to watch a 4 year old get beat up by a 16 year old. But maybe I’m underestimating the untrained chefs the way many might have underestimated the unschooled designers on “Project Runway.” And maybe I’m taking this too seriously: after all, it’s just reality TV. The question remains: will I be hooked? I’ll add it to my Tivo but we’ll see if I keep watching it. I have more important things, like Martha Stewart reruns, to enjoy.