Also, I find that while there is plenty of competition among the contestants and occasionally outright nastiness, the "cheftestants" generally treat one another better than contestants on Survivor. The main reason, I think, is that the chefs don't vote one another out of the contest; a panel of judges does that. Therefore, they don't have to spend all that energy plotting how to stab one another in the back.**
I much prefer when the conflict involves how to keep a fire going in high wind, or how to get a lot done in a short amount of time, and my favorite challenges are about preparing healthy foods that taste good (after all, as one of them once said, it's easy to make something taste good by throwing a lot of butter into it; what do you do when that isn't an option?). You get to see who can think on their feet, who has the deepest toolbox, and how people respond to criticism.
Every season, I'm surprised by the way people react to the pressure. The facades crumble, and some people shine while others get petty. Some people cry and others laugh. Some hug the people around them while others lash out.
While watching an episode the other night, it reminded me of how to use pressure in fiction--not only to create tension and move the plot, but also to reveal character. It's not realistic for characters to respond to every crisis with cool perfection and steely genius (unless maybe you're writing James Bond--but he's already taken). Let your characters get flustered, make mistakes, blame their troubles on someone else, cry, explode, and then--sometimes--pull a rabbit out of a hat.
*Not an actual Top Chef challenge, but you get the idea.
**I do wish that these shows didn't feel so beholden to the Survivor model of eliminating one contestant every week. We don't get to know the ones who leave early that well, and it's painful to see a favorite pack it in midway through the season. This has led to all sorts of challenges where previous contestants are brought back or given extra chances. So why not have a format where they don't get voted out each week, but instead accumulate points during the season, and those points determine who goes to the finale? It would be more like a sports season, with people competing for playoff spots. But I digress. Which is why I stuck this in a footnote.