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TV Review: Top Chef – Season Nine

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When 39 chefs showed up in Texas for the premiere episode of the latest edition of Bravo’s culinary reality hit Top Chef, the show’s faithful had to know that change was afoot. In eight previous seasons the show had always started with a number of contestants in the teens. Once in awhile they’d find a way to eliminate someone immediately, but 39 chefs meant that either we were in for one hell of a long season or something new was going on. Turns out that season nine was going to begin with a series of cook offs, and only 16 of the chefs were actually going to get to compete on the show. Fans were going to be treated to a kind of pre-competition competition.

All well and good; the chefs were divided into three groups and rules were announced. The first group was introduced and given a task. They cooked, and then presented their dishes to the three judges. A majority decided if the chef deserved to go further, go home, or cook one more time in a kind of consolation round. Each group would go through a similar routine. One of the judges changed for each group. Chefs were sent home for failing to get their food on the plate; chefs were sent packing for overcooked shrimp. The very first chef was sent home for butchering his butchering. They waded through two groups on the first episode, the third and the consolation group on the second to get to the chosen 16. It seemed little more than an attempt to squeeze two more episodes out of a popular show—no harm, no foul.

Until the end of the second episode that is: perhaps taking a cue from Survivor’s “Redemption Island,” it turns out that the end for at least two of the chefs isn’t the end at all. They are going to be given a shot at cooking their way back, not quite onto the show, but into a weekly competition with the show’s loser. The winner will keep cooking, possibly all the way into the finals, as long as they keep winning—this in a segment called Last Chance Kitchen!. Fine, like “Redemption Island,” it could add a little spice to a show that might be getting bland as it ages. As an innovation it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Except for one thing: Last Chance Kitchen!, it turns out is not being broadcast on TV. No. As the show ends, viewers are teased with the news of the competition and then told to go over to Bravo.com to see what happens. Bad idea: first of all as some of the chat indicated those of us who rushed to the website had a little trouble finding the segment (a problem that seems remedied as I write). Secondly the competition—the two chefs made a pizza—was really too short to create any drama. The whole episode lasted a little more than five minutes. But most importantly, if Last Chance Kitchen! never becomes a part of the regular show, someone, like the winner of this first test could actually win Top Chef without ever appearing to TV audience until the end of the season. It is, after all, as the website announces a secret competition.

Now while the comments on the website seem to indicate that many of those who took the trouble to go on over, have no problem with the idea—indeed many seem to like it just fine, I think the secret needs to be spilled. The popularity of this show is based not really on how well the chefs cook. Let’s face it, the TV audience has no idea how well they cook. We can’t taste their dishes. The popularity of the show is in the attachments we form with individual chefs because of their personalities. We root for those we like; we root against those we dislike. In some sense how they cook, while it may be important for Tom and Padma, is irrelevant. The show’s producers seem to understand this. They managed to give quite a bit of air time to Andrew the Texas chef who it turns out is the last man sent to pack his knives and who turns up as the Last Chance Kitchen! winner for his cheese-less pizza.

The question is how are they going to keep up the interest in him or in future winners if they keep it secret. Second chances for losing contestants are a fine idea; it is working well for Survivor. They need to find a way to incorporate it into the regular show. Perhaps they have done so and we’ll see it working out next week. If not, it is something that needs to be rethought.

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About Jack Goodstein