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TV's Top Chefs star in online university

This screen grab image released by Top Chef University shows the main page of the Top Chef University website. Top Chef University is designed to give users the experience of culinary school at their own pace. This screen grab image released by Top Chef University shows the main page of the Top Chef University website. Top Chef University is designed to give users the experience of culinary school at their own pace. (AP Photo/Top Chef University)
By Michelle Locke
For The Associated Press / May 20, 2010

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You've watched them whip up delectable dishes, and a soupcon of drama, in the Top Chef kitchen. Now, stars of the hit Bravo TV series are ready to school their fans: Pack your knives and go... online.

Top Chef University.com, formally launching this week, is designed to give users the experience of culinary school at their own pace, with 12 courses covering about 60 hours of content.

"It's so unique because it's truly a comprehensive program and it's really the first of its kind," says Nikki Cascone, Season 4 contestant and one of the instructors.

The site was created by Jeff Goldenberg, founder of Post Oaks Productions, a leading provider of live and virtual consumer training. He approached Bravo with the concept after getting hooked on the show. Given the green light, he hired trained chef Anthony Hoy Fong and Top Chef judge and culinary expert Gail Simmons to write the curriculum.

Both Simmons and Fong are culinary school graduates and they wanted to develop a program that felt was professional but also would resonate with home cooks.

While graduates won't come out professional chefs, "if you take this program to the end you will have, I believe, a really strong knowledge of the kitchen," says Simmons.

Instructors were picked with an eye to their time on the show. So, Cascone, known for her pasta, is teaching about pasta and grains. Richard Blais, the chef from Season 4 who favored cutting edge techniques like cooking sous vide, is teaching the advanced course that includes molecular gastronomy.

The program, which costs $25 a month or $200 for yearlong access, begins with the basics -- knife skills, pantry stocking -- and moves on to stocks, soups, vegetables, proteins and dessert before finishing up with global cuisine and advanced techniques.

"It really is the only place on the Internet that takes you by the hand and leads you from beginning to end," Goldenberg said.

Instructors include Season 2's Marcel Vigneron, known for his ambitious cooking techniques -- and hairstyle -- and the behatted Spike Mendelsohn from Season 4. The courses are unhurried, with instructors going through the process in a methodical fashion.

"These guys are real chefs. They cook in restaurants every night. You're really getting one-on-one access to a professional chef," said Fong, who is culinary director of the online school.

Site users are given written tests to see if they've absorbed the material and will be able to upload pictures of their finished work and ask questions on class forums. Though no one can verify whether the dishes produced are hits or misses, coursework must be completed before the next level is unlocked.

So, no dramatic denouements where ousted chefs get the show's signature dismissal line of "Please pack your knives and go!" But those who complete the program will be Top Chef Certified.

At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., communications director Stephan Hengst thought the idea was intriguing.

The CIA has teamed with Bravo in years past to run demo cooking classes in New York, which proved popular, says Hengst, "so it doesn't surprise me that Bravo is trying to continue to grow the Top Chef brand."

"For the enthusiast who's looking to get some more face time with their favorite Top Chef celebrities, I think it's a great chance for them to be entertained and to be educated," he said, noting that a number of Top Chef contestants, including some winners, are CIA grads. However, the online course "Doesn't necessarily stand up to the rigors of a professional culinary education," he says.

Of course, Top Chef University is thousands of dollars less than culinary school, and Cascone thinks it's a case of comparing apples and oranges. "There are great things to be offered about both programs," she says. "With the Top Chef University you can pause and you can constantly go back. It's really like an encyclopedia."

"I'm convinced that the home cooks and all the foodies out there are going to love this being brought to their living rooms."

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Bravo is owned by General Electric's NBC Universal.