I used to really like Top Chef. I watched it fairly religiously for a couple years because, at a time when cooking competition shows seemed to pretty much rule TV, Top Chef was the only one that came within a mile of actually showing chefs doing what they do: cooking good food under unimaginable pressure and being judged for it at every turn by a fickle and ever-changing public.
I liked that the chefs on Top Chef were actual chefs, not a bunch of home cooks, part-timers and ambulatory drunks picked up at the Pasadena Greyhound station ten minutes before taping began (I'm looking at you, Hell's Kitchen). I liked that the challenges generally bore some sort of (admittedly allegorical) resemblance to those that a real chef might face in his or her day-to-day work and that the show itself focused more on the cooking than on any drama happening behind the scenes. Also, every now and then one of the chef-testants would come up with a dish that appeared honestly brilliant--seemingly conjured whole out of short stock and while under the gun of a ticking clock. This, more than anything else, reminded me of the time I spent in the whites and checks--of those incredibly rare moments when one is gifted, against all good odds, with the inspiration to make something beautiful out of nothing; when one can actually work magic with the simplest things.
Of course, this was TV Land. And if there's any bedrock truth in TV Land, it is that anything which is once good will, if given time, descend into a world of suck and wallow there for as long as the money holds out. This is what happened with Top Chef. And the reasons I stopped watching were simple.
1) The minute it became easier to identify the products being pimped than the chefs doing the work, I started to lose interest.
2) As soon as the producers started trotting out the pointless guest stars--the actors doing cross-promotion, the musicians with new albums dropping, every famous chef out there with a new cookbook to hawk--and inventing ridiculous challenges to showcase them, I started getting pissed. It was like I could see the shark and I could see the ramp and was just waiting for Fonzie to come by on his water skis.
3) When, for the sake of shoehorning in more guest stars and more product placements, they had the poor chefs working outside, on portable butane burners or with microwaves, for three weeks running, I just started feeling bad for them. The show had become less about cooking and more like softcore foodie torture porn.
4) And then there was the Rochester episode. Full disclosure: Rochester, New York is my hometown. I know a couple things about the place. And I was a little bit excited to see what the Top Chef producers could possibly have in mind for a city so oddly disconnected from the rest of the known world that it essentially has a cuisine all its own.
I remember the whole thing rather well. First, there was the Quickfire, which must've been like a wet dream for the producers: Everyone gets a copy of the brand new Top Chef cookbook (shown in glorious close-up about twenty five times in five minutes), and must improve on a dish that someone else contributed. But then, halfway through, here come the judges to inform the chefs that the plan has been changed: they now have to turn their half-completed entrees into a soup! Cut to a montage of images of Swanson's broth and stock, show the chefs looking shocked, back to the broth, then the broth again...
Then it's on to the elimination challenge, which involves all the chefs being shipped out to Rochester to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for the Foo Fighters at the Blue Cross Arena. This is jarringly bizarre. Why Rochester? Why the Foo Fighters (I guess they were fans of the show)? And seriously, is no one going to notice that they're doing this on a sunny day in the middle of July?
The chefs arrive. They are divided into teams. Then they are told that they're going to have to cook outside, using nothing but toaster ovens, hot boxes, butane burners and microwaves with, allegedly, no refrigeration available (which, oddly, makes several of the final dishes presented impossible, but no mention is made of how anyone would've been able to make a custard without a fridge). If it were really November (Thanksgiving time), these poor schmucks would probably be turning and burning in six inches of snow. But because it's the middle of summer, they're working with their sleeves rolled up--right up until it starts to rain.
They cook a bunch of really boring Thanksgiving food in microwaves while being pissed on from above. All of them look like they're about to mutiny while the cameras roll. But somehow, they get it done and get ready for service--which takes place in a dank basement of the BCA. The chefs look miserable. The Foo Fighters just look uncomfortable and weirded out. Everyone goes home with murder in their eyes--but not before some more plugs for various cell phones, plastic wraps and food conglomerates--and I pretty much stop watching the show.
But I was wooed back more than a year later by watching Jennifer Carroll on Season 6. No, the show hadn't gotten any better. If anything, it'd probably become even more ridiculous and showed even less of the actual cooking than ever before. But that didn't matter to me. Carroll was a badass. She held her own through most of a strong season, produced some lovely food under truly ludicrous constraints and, most important to me, came to Top Chef from laboring under Eric Ripert--one of the greatest chefs working today. When she had her head together, she was unstoppable on the line. And when she lost her shit, she did it just epically--yelling and cursing, suffering full-on meltdowns right on camera and never hesitating to mention just how goofy parts of the Top Chef experience had become. She didn't flirt. She didn't fuck around. She didn't make goo-goo eyes at the judges or the other chefs. She was a fighter, and as anyone who knows me, has dated me, or been married to me for almost 10 years should know, I have a serious weakness for scarred, angry scrappers who can never keep their mouths shut when there's a fight to be picked.
Carroll didn't make it to the finale of her season and, again, I stopped watching when she got the boot. But then she was called back from the dead to participate in this year's Top Chef All Stars, which brought back losers from all the past seasons (including Richard Blaise, who I like, and Marcel "Crazy Eyes" Vigneron, who scares me more than a little), thrust them back into the spotlight and let them have one more chance at glory.
I skipped watching the 1st episode because that's always the sacrificial lamb episode--the one where the judges cut the worst of the deadweight just to throw a minor scare into the rest of the competitors. But last night, I did tune in for episode 2--just because I wanted to watch Carroll work.
It was no less pandering than in seasons past. The chefs were (again) cooking over butane for at least part of the show. There was (again) a demographic-broadening guest star brought in for no sensible reason (Joe Jonas in this case). And this time, the chefs were cooking midnight snacks for a bunch of kids over-nighting at the American Museum of Natural History--dull, but not as bad as some past Quickfires.
But then things (finally) got interesting. With the Quickfire done (I don't remember who won), Colicchio comes in at around 1:30am (just as the chefs were finished serving all the little rug-rats their sugar-jacked snacks) and tells everyone that they're not done yet. Now they're going to have to cook breakfast for all the little kids (and their parents) and have it ready for the next morning. Oh, and they're also going to be working in the museum's commissary, and with one team having nothing but meat and animal products to work with, and the other having nothing but vegetables, grains, fruit, et cetera, but no meat. One more thing: this breakfast has to be ready to fly early so you've got, like, 45 minutes to sleep, but then you're back at it.
This was brilliant. Limited stock, last-minute menu changes, working doubles and doing it on no sleep? These are things that chefs actually have to deal with all the time. And in terms of TV, stress + sleep deprivation + high stakes = good drama. There was screaming. There were fits of pissy bitching over how to make a breakfast of nothing but meat (duh...). Someone decided it was perfectly appropriate to serve gazpacho and gnocchi to 11-year-olds for breakfast. One of the chefs (Jamie Lauren) notched a finger and had to be medevac'd out so she could get all of two stitches. And in the end, Carroll's team (the meat team) ended up at the judge's table, getting scolded for barely even being able to make bacon right.
At which point, Jennifer Carroll--bless her foul-mouthed and lovely little heart--just flat lost her mind.
You could see how angry she was from space. She was fuming and spitting and standing there with her arms crossed. And when one of the judges mentioned the fact that she seemed a bit...peeved, she just let fly--bashing the other team's choices and their food, adamantly defending the plate of not-quite-bacon-and-eggs she'd created for the breakfast, essentially calling Colicchio dumb and basically going off like a sloppy drunk on a street corner picking a fight with a lamppost.
And I loved it. True, she went a little bit 24-hold-at-Bellevue crazy once she got back into the stew room--laughing and crying and freaking out with embarrassment all at the same time. But when she was lighting into the judges, I was riveted. Whether her dish was good or bad, it was about damn time someone stood up for themselves in there. Watching it, I figured there was NO WAY the judges would be so petty as to boot her out for doing that, especially considering there were a lot of other dishes on the losing side that seemed to fail worse than her's had.
But then Collichio & Co. proved that, no, they were exactly that petty. For the crime of standing up to the Great and Powerful Oz, Carroll was shown the door. And I lost the only real reason I had for watching this season of Top Chef, too.
Unless, of course, there's some sort of revolt next week. Or if Blaise gets on a hot streak. Or if Marcel finally goes totally crazy and starts hunting the other chef-testants like game. Following Carroll's example, this could be the season where the contestants finally take back the show from the tyranny of the judges. It could be the one that ruins Top Chef, finally and forever.
And that, my friends, I would absolutely watch. Especially when they are forced to bring in Prozac as their new corporate sponsor.