Blog of an aspiring foodie

Top Chef – relevant?

Posted by beer_chris on 8-February-2009

One last post before I’m off to bed. With Top Chef being so mediocre this year, I’m left wondering if it is relevant – or if it ever really has been. I certainly have enjoyed the previous seasons, and I’m certainly still DVRing and watching this season’s eps with the same level of devotion I have in the past, but the poor quality this year has had me thinking about a couple of things. Primary among these is the measure of success for the show. Clearly, the goal is to push eyeballs to Bravo – but to do that they have to maintain some level of credibility with their viewers.  I think Top Chef should aim for three things:

  1. Have the winner acquire some level of fame and success
  2. Be an entertaining reality show
  3. Stay true to the food – be original in the challenges and encourage/require contestants to push their limits

Starting with the first criteria – Bravo has failed in all regards. One – $100K in prize money is nothing, and certainly isn’t even going to serve as ‘seed’ money for someone whose talents permit them to take 6-8 months off of their career for filming and can afford to sign all licensing rights away to Bravo just to try out (allegedly). Former winners really have achieved nothing – promotion comes only via the show, and a ‘where are they now’ overview usually includes a good bit of, “so-and-so is still cooking in the same place they were before”. Compared to how Food Network pimps the ‘Next Food Network Star’, and one sees a study in contrast. Those winners receive a show and a corner of the burgeoning pop-culture side of the industry. Argue the merits of this, but those winners become famous and, at least to some extent, rich. The Food Network seems adept at promoting its talent similarly to WWE, which is a model that definitely works. Shove something at me long enough, and although I may not like it I’ll certainly recognize it.

Is Top Chef an entertaining reality show? I think it is, but a true measure of this is really wrapped up in the quality of the cooking/originality. I think back to the first food ‘reality’ show I ever watched – it was only on for a single season. It was called ‘Cooking School Stories’, and basically followed a group of students in their final year at Johnson & Wales in RI. There was no manufactured drama, no ‘evil’ characters or romances. Just students learning and cooking together in class. There were always features where a recipe was demonstrated, and the teacher graded each students effort and provided critique. It was ‘real’, and although it lacked manufactured drama it captured the real drama of this situation. It also provided a window into what it’s like at culinary school. I loved it. Top Chef Season 1 had a similar feel. The production value was a little low, the editing was raw, I felt like I got to know some of these chefs. Although the manufactured drama was definitely there, I still felt a connected to the contestants, and I still remember many of them from that first show. Seasons 2, 3 and 4 felt similarly, although each season seemed to stray farther towards a more generalized plotline created in the production room vs in the kitchen or at judges table.  This season is the farthest of all from that standard. I don’t know what to believe. Although it’s not as bad as watching Hells Kitchen, its getting closer. The contestants are becoming more like characters, and the challenges are simply put-ons to generate more fodder for the producers to reinforce those simple characterizations. It just feels less real.

Finally, staying true to the food. This season has unleashed two things that I think have had devastating consequences. One, (and this is simply a rumor, but I’ve had it confirmed verbally in a couple places) requiring the chefs at regional tryouts to sign a waiver allocating some portion of all future earnings to NBC/Universal. Two, bringing in corporate sponsorships in a large portion of the challenges.

First, the requirement to sign over future earnings simply chases away the talented chefs – those that are really right on the verge of leveraging their creativity and starting a new restaurant. What remains are (1) inexperienced chefs just getting started and (2) longtime ‘cooks’ and caterers looking for a break. This is a recipe for the status quo, in my opinion.

Second, the corporate sponsored challenges strip away even more originality. Having a chef forced to use diet Dr Pepper isn’t a challenge, that’s lunacy. Forcing someone to ‘reinvent’ Quaker Oats is a little better but not by much. This raw branding smacks of a desperate attempt to leverage the pop culture angle that the Food Network has seemingly mastered, but all it really does is dumb down the food and further encourage the chefs/cooks to do more of ‘what works in my restaurant’ rather than making them step outside that box. When I think about the dichotomy between some of the quickfire challenges this season and one of my all time favorites – the season 3 quickfire with the seafood tank – it’s just shocking.

So what is Top Chef and Bravo to do? It’s headed downhill, but I think it can be saved. If the waiver process must remain, then the show needs to recruit young chefs who have a vision – something more then ‘I cook fish’ or ‘I know asian’. The only chef with vision on this show is Carla – and regardless of her skill level or ability to execute, I would much rather be watching a show full of Carlas than Leahs and Jamies. Talent is important too, along with skill, but ultimately its that vision (and a confidence in it) that really drives a chef to be original and push the envelope.

Second, the show must let the challenges dictate the drama. Ever since Tre jumped on Marcel we’ve gotten way more of the apartment drama than I can really bear. I would much rather see an “I’m not your bitch, bitch” in the pressure cooker then two tired, drunk, lonely contestants making out on a couch. 

I like Top Chef, I really do. I think it can be a relevant show again, but if it simply tries to Gordon Ramsey or Food Network itself, it’s going to fade into obscurity.

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