I’ve been a fan of Top Chef ever since its first season in 2005 when Harold won out over Tiffani and the host was Katie Lee. The series is now in the middle of its seventh season and I am still following it religiously. Occasionally I have dallied with other cooking reality shows, but never with the kind of devotion I have lavished on Top Chef. What is that cliché about first love?
Iron Chef America has glitz, but features master chefs on parade. They would seem to have little on the line, they are more or less showing off. Hell’s Kitchen is more about Gordon Ramsey’s sadistic humiliation of contestants than it is about cooking. Chopped and its mystery basket with anything from jelly beans to sardines has a kind of surreal appeal, but since each episode is self contained, the viewers are not likely to bond with individual contestants as they do when chefs are eliminated over a period of weeks. The Next Food Network Star solves that problem, but then the judges are as much concerned with a chef’s star quality as they are with his/her cooking. Critiques of their on camera performance are as important in keeping contestants around as the taste of their food.
In a way you would think that this last issue would actually be a plus for the show. After all, those of us watching at home — as none other than Top Chef host/judge Tom Colicchio pointed out in an interview on a Salon Magazine podcast awhile back — have no way of knowing how the food the chefs’ create tastes (he was talking about the critical mail they often received complaining that the judges had made a mistake deciding which of the chefs should be sent to “pack their knives”). Unlike with the taste of the food, when it comes to on camera personality, viewers have a reasonable basis on which to make a judgment. That being said, I don’t know that having a rational basis to decide about these contestants has anything to do with their popularity. Moreover, it is clear that a reality show contestant’s personality is more likely to depend on selective editing than on anything else.
This is not to say that Top Chef doesn’t indulge in creative editing. The show is as much concerned with creating heroes and villains as its cooking and non-cooking reality show relatives. Here however they just seem to do it so well. There hasn’t been a episode where I haven’t found someone to dislike, sometimes someone to detest. In that first season there was Stephen. In the second season there was the smarmy Marcel. Season five had the know-it-all Stefan. There are the loveable losers: Miguel in the first season, Ron in season six, and of course, Fabio in season five. Then in the end, when it comes to choosing a winner, it usually turns out to be one of the good guys, Hosea in season five, or one of the good gals, Stephanie, the fourth season winner and first woman to take home the crown. No question manipulation is the name of the game, but manipulation so adept who could wish it away (with apologies to Samuel Johnson). The Next Food Network Star isn’t in the same league.
And now we’re in season seven and the chefs are in Washington, DC. John, the strange man with the hair, was gone quickly. The outspoken Tracey was sent packing in the third episode. Stephen, the jokester, went last week over cooked rice. The seemingly inept Amanda and the accident prone Alex are still around. We also have a possible cheating scandal over some vanishing pea puree. The alpha males Kenny and Angelo are battling for top dog. Maybe we can’t taste the tamales that beat out Kevin’s attempt at Indian cuisine, Kelly’s carpaccio, and won thousand dollars for soon to be married Tiffany, but it sure feels like the right person won. And after all is said and done, aren’t feelings what this is all about? Besides, I don’t have the vaguest idea what carpaccio is and I couldn’t tell a real curry from a fake on a bet.