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'Top Chef Masters' on Bravo

THE SHOW " Top Chef Masters"

WHEN|WHERE Tonight at 10 on Bravo

REASON TO WATCH See how culinary pros handle the heat

WHAT AND WHO'S COOKING? In a bid to extend the "Top Chef" brand, Bravo has cooked up "Top Chef Masters," in which 24 renowned chefs compete in a series of nutty challenges: Last week's premiere had them preparing three-course meals in college dorm rooms.

Of course, the likes of Wylie Dufresne (wd-50, New York) and Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago) are not about to commit to a five-week sequestration in which they are gradually winnowed down to a final four. Instead, each of the first six episodes features four chefs competing in a quick-fire and an elimination challenge. The six winners will then be pared down, one or two at a time, during the last four episodes.

Perhaps when they get to that point, the competition will intensify. So far, the contest is about as fierce as a long-standing game of bridge. The first episode's chefs - Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys, San Francisco), Christopher Lee (Aureole, New York), Michael Schlow (Radius, Boston) and Tim Love (Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, Fort Worth) - were all backslapping congeniality; they seemed to genuinely like and respect one another. Laudable, but hardly dramatic. The stakes - the winning chef gets $100,000 for the charity of his or her choice - add to the Rotary Club vibe.

THE REGULARS Alluringly peppy host Kelly Choi does her best to fill Padma Lakshmi's high-heeled boots. Joining her at the judges' table are Gael Greene, former restaurant critic for New York magazine, James Oseland, editor in chief of Saveur, and the requisite sharp-tongued Brit, Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for The Observer (London).

BOTTOM LINE It's actually quite pleasant watching accomplished, confident professionals cooking terrific-looking food. Even if it's about as exciting as a rerun of "Law & Order."

GRADE B-

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