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Top Chef is filming its latest season in Vegas—could it be the answer to our prayers?

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Top Chef New York contestants get down to business. Top Chef Las Vegas may bring in new business for local restaurants.

We’ve been waiting for a lifeline. The obituaries are being written, and, unless you’re Oscar B. Goodman or Pollyanna or someone allergic to statistics, they hardly seem premature. Las Vegas is drowning in debt and red ink, our houses are rapidly approaching worthless, our unemployment rate is speeding toward a record, our casinos are echo chambers, and our taxes are, regardless of what the Review-Journal thinks, going up. Pretty soon the obits are going to become autopsies.

Something needs to change. Something big. Something game-changing. And late last week, that wished-for antidote may have arrived.

Top Chef began filming Season 6 in Las Vegas on Monday. This could easily be the start of the recovery.

Stop. Hear me out. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.

Remember how seminal that 2002 season of MTV’s The Real World at the Palms turned out to be, not just for George Maloof’s nascent themeless off-Strip resort but also for kicking off the What Happens Here Stays Here Decade? Remember how watching those silly characters cavort and mate in that fantastical suite imprinted upon a generation the impression of Vegas as the coolest, most creative place on the planet to party?

Yes, one phenomenally successful TV show did all that. And it could happen again.

Sure, there have been plenty of other reality-TV shows that have used Las Vegas as a backdrop. America’s Got Talent films its finales here each summer, and has so far even birthed at least two Strip headliners, Nathan Burton and Terry Fator. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was just here helping pick up the pieces of a family’s shattered lives, Clean House engineered its trademark garage sale somewhere on the west side, and no fewer than three reality shows (The Casino, American Casino and Caesars 24/7 come to mind) attempted to explore the inner workings of the gambling business. The Surreal Life, Fear Factor, Cops and an endless number of poker permutations all have spent time here.

All of that’s great in terms of reinforcing and enhancing the Vegas brand as it’s generally known. You know that drill: adult playground, gambling mecca, platform for all sorts of stage performers, city of broken dreams, hipster hangout. Nothing since that Real World season has made any sort of new impression on the public, taught them anything they didn’t already know about the destination.

The Bravo cooking competition Top Chef is very different. For one thing, it’s a widely respected show, one of the few reality programs snooty TV critics on the coasts proudly admit watching. As with Project Runway and the fashionistas, Top Chef is admired, appreciated and obsessed over by the intelligentsia of the culinary universe. With Craftsteak and ’wichcraft owner Tom Colicchio, a five-time James Beard Award winner, as the head judge, it is taken seriously.

That right there is the news for Vegas. Serious people will watch. Cultured people. People with money. People who wish Steve Wynn would just open a nice place in the Hamptons or La Jolla so they could partake in his lavish offerings without having to pass a demonic neon clown or dodge gaggles of drunken frat boys slurping Eiffel Tower-shaped margaritas.

No doubt Top Chef will exploit the shlockier side of Vegas, too. I held a brainstorming session on Facebook to see what some folks might come up with, and PR queen Heather Krug of the Rogers & Cowan firm suggested a challenge where “each dish has to have carrots as ingredient, and it’s made in honor of special celeb judge Carrot Top.” Can’t blame her, though. I’ve already got visions of one where contestants must make a snack to go with Mayor Goodman’s martinis or something in which they’re limited in ingredients to whatever’s on the Circus Circus buffet. And all that’s fine, so long as nobody asks Perez Hilton to judge.

The final three were charged with serving up their best in the finale of <em>Top Chef: New York</em>, but did they deliver?

The final three were charged with serving up their best in the finale of Top Chef: New York, but did they deliver?

But this is Top Chef, and it didn’t get its top-shelf rep by dwelling in camp. More likely, the viewers will learn how seriously Las Vegas takes food these days, will see some of the sensational architecture created to serve those meals, will realize that the restaurants bearing the names of Robuchon, Savoy and Trotter are tremendous achievements in their own right and not just pale knockoffs or sellouts.

Las Vegas’ dining world certainly gets its share of attention on the Travel Channel and the Food Network, but Top Chef fans can see through the obvious bought-and-paid-for hype of the shows on those stations. Top Chef certainly isn’t pure—it’s had challenges involving Red Robin and T.G.I. Friday’s, for God’s sake—but in five seasons it’s built a brand that is trusted by an important and lucrative demographic who still feel Las Vegas is beneath them.

Is it too much to demand of one TV show to make a difference in the fortunes of a community? Oh, probably. But if that brainy gang over at R&R Partners can find a way to build on it the way “What happens here ...” built on The Real World, it could be the start of something. Up to now, the most refined offerings in Vegas—Wynn, Bellagio, Four Seasons, Palazzo—have had to carry their promotional water all by themselves. Those places were never selling “what happens here stays here”; they were trying to sell an elegant experience on par with Paris, London and New York. They’ve received virtually no support in that pursuit from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority except on the convention bookings side.

It’s possible. It’s exciting. It’s something out of the norm. And, knowing Bravo, it’ll be run and rerun ad nauseam until Sasha Obama graduates high school.

As they say on Bravo, watch what happens.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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