Has Top Chef Jumped the Knife?

top chef

Editors’ Note: DC-based blogger Fuchs Foodie just can’t take it anymore. Today, he joins the ES team to point out just what’s been bugging a lot of us about Top Chef this season.

Recent press about Top Chef reads like the notes of a marriage counselor trying to figure out why a once-meaningful relationship has taken a nosedive. In a July poll, the L.A. Times found that 60 percent of people surveyed thought that Top Chef is “losing its heat.” Food writers have offered plenty of opinions to explain the sudden disaffection towards this once exceedingly popular show. The chefs this season aren’t talented enough, says John Horn in the L.A. Times. There aren’t any villains you love to hate, says Josh Ozersky in Time magazine. Yumsugar is tired of the same challenges recycled from previous seasons.

As a long-time watcher of the show, I see some truth to each of these theories, but I can think of a more fundamental problem: Top Chef is a show about food that no longer teaches us much of anything about food. Instead of actually entertaining its foodie audience with inventive dishes, the producers obsess over portraying every personality quirk they can mine from the contestants. In between quirks, the producers share mundane details about the contestants’ lives.

To see if I was imagining things, during last week’s episode, I kept track of the information I learned about cooking in one column, and, in a second column, information about the contestants’ personal issues/dog-walking habits.

Here’s what I learned about food:

– There’s something called bacon froth that was mentioned once, but the show never bothered to say how you make bacon froth or the best way to use it. Why not?

– Cabbage is a good way to cut the sweetness of a dish.

– Oyster sauce is a good ingredient for glazing pork buns. Mysteries that remain unsolved: what were the other ingredients in the glaze, and what cut was used for the pork (belly?).

– If you don’t add oil to tuna tartare, it will become oxidized and turn an unappealing gray. This last bit was actually kind of interesting. It was the only kind-of interesting information I learned about cooking during the entire show.

Now, here’s what I learned about our problem-plagued contestants:

– Angelo is “weird.”

– Angelo “needs to clear his head.”

– Ed likes to wear the dresses of plus-size women.

– No one likes Amanda.

– Amanda throws herself “pity parties.”

– Kevin wants Angelo “to go home.”

– Ed “looks like a potato” (close to learning something about food, but not quite).

– Kevin says the rest of the competitors do things he wouldn’t do.

– Amanda has been surprising herself.

– Kelly “only thinks about herself.”

– Ed’s “falling victim to the pressure.”

– Ed is “like the Tasmanian Devil.”

– Kelly is “ingenious and ballsy.”

– Angelo “can’t be trusted.”

– Kevin “needs to calm down.”

– Ed tries “to do too much.”

– Kevin’s “perspective needs to be more open and optimistic.”

– Angelo misses his Russian fiancé and compensates by French kissing telephones.

– Ed needs to “stop doubting himself.”

– Kelly starts her day by walking her dogs.

– Amanda is “pushing herself harder than ever before.”

Over the course of an hour-long show, Top Chef shifted the spotlight to the dishes prepared by the chefs only three times: there was a five-second shot of each dish produced during the Quickfire; a five second here-it-is-now-it’s-gone peek of the food for the elimination challenge; and, later on during the judges’ table, a barely perceptible three-second clip of the same elimination challenge dishes. Doing the math, that’s 13 seconds for each contestant’s food, and just over one minute to admire their work during a 42-minute show. Then consider that, while you’re trying to comprehend what you’re seeing as you get flashed like a paparazzi watching Lindsey Lohan get out of a car, you also have to process the voice-over (often, a chef discussing various insecurities) and the words on the screen describing the food. In other words, not only are you unable to taste all this amazing food, you never even get a good look.

Admittedly, screentime for food has always been scant on Top Chef. In the past, however, I was happy with Top Chef despite the oddly fleeting glimpses of food because the show educated me in another way: it introduced me, however briefly and superficially, to cooking techniques and ingredients with which I wasn’t familiar. But now it seems Top Chef just rehashes the same repertoire of once-novel-to-gobble concepts: chimichurri, sriracha, sous vide, wasabi foam, harissa, tartare, rinse-repeat.

So here is my recommendation for how Top Chef can win back its peripatetic viewers next season: Get out of town. In fact, get out of the entire country. Maybe spice things up with Top Chef Thailand. The cast should travel to Bangkok for a competition that’s focused on perfecting Thai flavors for a judges’ panel that includes Tom Colicchio and a couple of prominent local Thai food critics. Guest judges would range from government officials to champion Muay Thai kickboxers. The foodie audience will have a unique opportunity to learn about obscure Thai spices and ingredients like makrut lime and native chilis.

If Top Chef takes my advice and shifts its focus back to interesting food, there may be those who miss learning all about the contestants’ personal lives. To satisfy appetites for stuff that has nothing to do with food, maybe Kelly can do a spinoff reality show about her dogs.

What do you think? Has Top Chef outworn its welcome?

(Photo: Bravo)

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  • bcarter3 September 1, 2010  

    Nonsense. “Top Chef” is a game show, not a cooking lesson. Does anyone watch “Survivor” for tips on how to survive in the wilderness? “The Price Is Right” for shopping hints? “American Idol” for singing lessons?

  • rose saunders September 1, 2010  

    I disagree with bcarter3. On Top Chef, the contestants are “experts” in their field, not at all analogous to “Survivor” or “Price is Right,” which features everyday folk trying to excel in an arena where they have no expertise. “American Idol” is a different case, but is still not analogous to Top Chef, because the AI audience is viewing to (a) be entertained (which they can fully appreciate via their eyes and ears) and (b) see how their everyday appreciation of various performances coincides with that of the judges. Obviously, Top Chef viewers can’t taste the food (we’d like to see it, as this blog points out there is decreasing opportunity for!). The audience is viewing to learn about food preparation and food appreciation. I’ve learned a lot from Top Chef over the years, not so much this season.

  • rose saunders September 1, 2010  

    On more point from rose: The audience of Survivor and of American Idol doesn’t expect to become survivalists or entertainers. By contrast, the Top Chef audience cooks and eats every day.

  • Jenny September 1, 2010  

    I beg to differ with bcarter3. Top Chef markets itself as a a show in which foodies and newbies can learn more about culinary delights and techniques while watching some healthy competition. Why has Top Chef created a series of top chef cook books if their only purpose is entertainment? Does “Survivor” publish books on camping strategies? Does “The Price is Right” create similar products to help fans identify shopping deals? I agree that the element of entertainment is clearly involved, but it is NOT the only element nor should it be (as Fuchs Foodie astutely points out). And, I have no desire to watch the episode tonight.

  • BS September 2, 2010  

    totally agree, esp. regarding the point that they’re not teaching us anything new. There once was a time when I would watch TC and go, woah! what’s sriracha? WTF is this sous vide thing?? But now they do the same thing over and over again. Top Chef needs some new tricks!

  • erica September 2, 2010  

    french kissing phones?!?!?!?

  • Michael September 4, 2010  

    I’d argue that while you are correct, the issue is broader than top chef and bravo. The new breed of tv food shows did a great job of raising passions and excitement. But as a whole they’ve now lowered standards with an almost chain food mentality that focuses on celebrity (I.e. The next food network star) and mass produced food, restaurant and wines that have turned the genre into macaroni grill tv.

  • Maya Lau September 6, 2010  

    Maybe it’s just because I’m living outside of the US and craving American food all of the time, but I have been riveted by this season of Top Chef. I understand that the show has to balance legitimate food dialogue against petty personality clashes, but personally I am fine with the fact that there are no characters I “love to hate,” etc. I’m more interested in the fact that these seem to be real people who really want to own their own restaurants one day, rather than be future reality TV stars. The people who cast Top Chef (to a certain extent) seem to value that.

    As for whether I’m learning enough about food, perhaps I have learned so much in past seasons that maybe less things seem new to me now. I know what sous-vide, mise-en-place, and amuse bouche are now, whereas maybe those things would have seemed novel before.

    Regardless, an international Top Chef (India would be great, Padma would be relevant there, and of course they’d have to bring in Anthony Bourdain) would be exciting and welcome.

    On another note, to Brendan Spiegel, your mom (who I used to work with) introduced me to this site and I’m going to keep checking it out. It’s great. Living in Senegal and becoming addicted to food porn has turned me into an unexpected food enthusiast.

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