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In return to ‘Top Chef Masters,’ Art Smith takes on another local foodie

TOP CHEF MASTERS -- Season:4 -- Pictured: Art Smith -- Phoby: IsabellVosmikova/Bravo

TOP CHEF MASTERS -- Season:4 -- Pictured: Art Smith -- Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo

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‘Top chef masters’

9 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays
on Bravo

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Updated: August 25, 2012 6:04AM

Chicago restaurateur Art Smith is back for more “Top Chef Masters.” But this time, there’s 120 pounds less of him.

When the colorful, quick-witted chef competed in 2009 in the Bravo series’ debut, his popularity grew. So did his waistline.

“I wasn’t feeling very good at that time; my diabetes was flaring up,” said the Table fifty-two owner, a Southern comfort-food specialist who’d tipped the scales at 325 pounds.

“People love a big, funny, fat chef — particularly a big, flaming gay one,” he added. “I was afraid if I lost the fat, I’d lose the funny.”

A trip to the emergency room convinced Smith that was a chance he’d have to take. He started exercising and began eating — and cooking — healthier.

“I realized that if I didn’t do something, I would never make another TV show,” said Smith, 52, one of two local toques vying for the “Top Chef Masters” title and $100,000 prize for charity. Now in its fourth season, the show features a dozen contestants cooking their way through a series of timed challenges in hopes of avoiding elimination each week by the judges.

Smith, a celebrity chef living up to both parts of that title, also will appear on ABC’s “Time Machine Chefs” Aug. 16. That TV cook-off pits four culinarians against one another as they whip up meals from an age long ago — without the help of modern appliances, amenities, running water and electricity. The winner will be crowned “The Greatest Chef in History.”

Rounding out the Chicago contingent of “Top Chef Masters” this season is Takashi Yagihashi, owner of his namesake Michelin-starred restaurant in Bucktown and a newer eatery, Slurping Turtle, in River North. (Another contestant, Missy Robbins, spent a few years in Chicago in the early 2000s working for former “Top Chef Masters” hopeful Tony Mantuano at Spiaggia.)

Yagihashi is a newcomer to “Top Chef Masters” but not to the small screen. Earlier this year, the Park Ridge resident competed on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” and did a brief stint as guest chef during a quickfire challenge on “Top Chef.”

“I always have mixed feelings,” Yagihashi said about competitive cooking shows. “Food should not be a competition because how can you judge my food is better than the other one? It’s a very personal thing. But I decided, hey, it’s going to be fun.”

That is, unless you get thrown one of “Top Chef’s” infamous culinary curveballs, like having to reinvent your menu at the 11th hour or turn sea urchins into dessert.

“If you get some ingredients or a theme you know, it’s enjoyable,” he said. “But if you don’t, you’re in big trouble.”

Yagihashi’s years of experience with Japanese, French and American cuisine have left him feeling pretty confident in the kitchen. It was speaking, not cooking, on camera that made him the most nervous.

“My English is a second language,” said the native of Mito, Japan. He originally moved to the States at age 23 to take a culinary job. “I was a little bit shy about that.”

Shyness is as rare as a black Perigord truffle in Las Vegas, the setting for this season’s “Top Chef Masters.” The chefs bunked at The Strip’s Cosmopolitan resort, where Smith is a big fan of the hotel’s no-name, no-sign New York-style pizza joint. (“It’s the best meal in all of Vegas,” he confided. No one said he eats healthfully all the time.)

Aussie chef Curtis Stone is back this season as “Top Chef Masters” host, along with returning judges James Oseland and Ruth Reichl. They’re joined by rookies Krista Simmons, a food and travel journalist, and Francis Lam, features editor of Gilt Taste. Dropping in at the judges’ table will be boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, folk-rock music duo Indigo Girls, burlesque performer Dita Von Teese, party rockers the B-52’s and Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano.

This time, Smith is facing half as many contestants as he did in season one, when Chicago’s Rick Bayless won. Smith was sent packing after a challenge that called for making a vegan, gluten-free meal for “New Girl” star Zooey Deschanel.

Back then, “I didn’t speak vegan,” Smith said.

When offered another shot at the show, he didn’t hesitate to come back for seconds.

“Any chef that would turn down the opportunity for ‘Top Chef Masters’ is insane; it’s fun to do and it’s great for business,” said Smith, whose restaurant empire includes Southern Art in Atlanta, Art and Soul in D.C., LYFE Kitchen in Palo Alto, Calif., and Joanne Trattoria, a Manhattan eatery he opened late last year with Lady Gaga’s parents.

Before breaking into the restaurant world, Smith spent several years as Oprah’s personal chef.

“One thing I was taught by Oprah Winfrey is you never want to look not pretty in public,” he said, speaking metaphorically. This season, “you’ll see some not-so-pretty” by certain contestants, Smith hinted. In other words, it’s a rougher crowd than we saw in uber-polite season one. The oven mitts are off.

“There are some real characters,” he said, before teasing to something else we rarely see in cooking competitions. “There’s love! There’s amore! Just wait, you’ll see. It’ll be fun.”

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