‘Top Chef: Las Vegas’ judge to show slightly sweeter side

Toby Young wants you to know he’s sorry. Really sorry. Like somewhere between “Honey, I swear I didn’t know she was your sister” and “Honey, I accidentally killed a drifter.”

The British journalist got off to a rocky start when he joined the “Top Chef” judging panel last season. Many viewers found him abrasive, and they weren’t shy about saying so online.

“The funny thing was, people were kind of being rude about me for being such a rude judge,” Young says, sounding bemused. “But boy, they were so much ruder about me than I was about anybody on the show.”

Viewers can expect to see a (slightly) softer side of Young — after all, he’s still the author of the memoir “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” — when he returns for “Top Chef: Las Vegas” (9 p.m. Wednesday, Bravo), sharing judging duties on a rotating panel with Food & Wine magazine’s Gail Simmons and a host of culinary legends including Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller.

“I hope that I bring them around in season six,” Young says of the show’s fans. And he’d better, especially considering Paula Abdul’s a free agent and it would be tough for her to be any less coherent about food than she was about music. “I’ve certainly been a little more restrained, partly because the food has just been a lot better this season, so there’s actually a lot less to criticize.”

This year’s contestants — or “cheftestants” as Bravo ridiculously calls them — include three James Beard Award nominees and have more bad tattoos than a season of “Oz.” But the real star seems to be Las Vegas.

M Resort may have hosted it, but “Top Chef: Las Vegas” was filmed all over the valley, from Alex at Wynn Las Vegas to rm seafood at Mandalay Bay to Nellis Air Force Base. (I’m still holding out hope that the “cheftestants” were secretly taken to Mermaids to see who could deep-fry the best junk food.)

The season’s first quickfire challenge uses what head judge Tom Colicchio calls “some of the most popular ingredients in Las Vegas.” Their task? Shucking clams, peeling prawns, cleaning up lobsters and Frenching a rib-eye, which isn’t at all what it sounds like.

Wednesday’s premiere also includes the obligatory showgirls, and at some point, a craps table finds its way into the kitchen.

The table likely was the last thing Young wanted to see. It seems there’s quite a bit of downtime involved in being a “Top Chef” judge. “And I have to confess, I spent a good deal of that time losing money at the tables,” Young says of his four-week stay. “Any money I made from appearing in ‘Top Chef’ this season I lost and then some at the tables. I’m not making that up. My wife was furious.

“Tom Colicchio taught me how to play craps,” he adds, “and that was my downfall.” Which kind of makes you wonder what he ever did to Colicchio.

Young, it should be noted, is cordial and gracious on the phone. Charming even. And he’s clearly been punished enough. He blames his initial bluntness on his experience judging British food-based reality shows, which he says are “quite knockabout. No one takes them particularly seriously.”

The judges there, he says, are always trying to top each other with insults, which plays into the image I’ve had of him holding top-secret meetings, cooking up put-downs with Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan and Gordon Ramsay in some sort of hidden lair.

“We’re texting them to each other under the counter,” Young jokes, “as we’re sitting at the judges’ table. ‘I couldn’t use this one. See if you can use it.’ “

Ramsay and Morgan, it turns out, were two of Young’s references when he applied for his “Top Chef” work visa. “It’s a cabal,” he adds, laughing.

But it brings up a good point: What’s behind this most recent British invasion? Why is it that every competition series feels obligated to have a mean British judge?

“I think our role on American reality shows is to become hate figures, but in a kind of slightly tongue-in-cheek way,” Young says. “I think what audiences like is they like the idea of this villainous British judge, because it reminds them of (King) George III and of these various kind of colonial governors and harks back to the era in which Britain was, you know, the world’s biggest superpower and America was a colony.

“It’s the same reason you cast British actors as villains in Hollywood films. Britain may have lost an empire, but we have found a role and that is playing villains, whether in Hollywood movies or on reality shows. And for some reason, American audiences just cannot get enough of that kind of the slightly snarky, sharp-tongued, mean-spirited Brit.”

Then Young pauses, realizing he may have just jinxed himself.

“And, having said that, I may be wrong,” he adds. “Maybe they have had enough.”

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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