“Sin City Vice”
Season 6, Episode 1
You might remember earlier this summer when I suggested that I would be spending my free time this summer writing about my first run-through of HBO’s super-serious Western Deadwood, but the lack of posts on the subject would indicate that this plan changed. You see, things got busy at various points in the summer, and during those moments I struggled to find time to sit down and deconstruct/unpack incredibly subtle and evocative hours of television in a style that David Milch truly owns. It was just too much for me to handle, and while I do intend on getting back to the project once my academic projects are finished it just wasn’t the right recipe for when I needed to take a breather from the drudgery of completing a major research thesis.
However, speaking of recipes (oh aren’t I clever), the show that ended up filling that gap (along with some catchup with The Big Bang Theory as well as indulging in the down under stylings of Project Runway Australia more recently) was Top Chef, Bravo’s cooking competition series. Considering my position as a critic, this makes a lot of sense: the show has been quite well-regarded by critics, recently garnered its second straight Emmy nomination, and even got a name-drop on 30 Rock at some point in the last couple of seasons. That’s a solid combination of factors to convince me to track down the first five seasons of the show in preparation for this week’s sixth season premiere.
Of course, there’s one problem…I don’t actually, you know, like food.
I’m aware of how crazy that sounds, but it’s true: I’m an enormously picky eater, my diet consisting of perhaps three entrees and a handful of snack/breakfast/dessert/pastry options, so this show doesn’t appeal to the Foodie or, well, any part of me on that level. While I also lack fashion knowledge, there is a visual element to Project Runway that creates a pretty objective perspective on which to judge the competitors. However, on Top Chef it’s about flavour and about subtle decisions that I really have no context for. I’m (not seriously) considering putting myself out there to the show as a judge under the moniker of the “Paletteless Wonder,” as I really have no context for whether these dishes sound good or terrible until the judges provide their opinions.
But the fact that I not only stuck through five seasons, but also was left frustrated that I couldn’t immediately move onto the sixth which premiered on Wednesday, is a testament to the show’s ability to convey the love of food in conjunction with the personalities of the chefs in order to pull people like me into these competitions. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed Top Chef Masters, where established chefs like Hubert Keller and Rick Bayless competed in the various competitions, as much if I hadn’t already seen other contestants go through it: I may not love food, but there’s something about seeing people achieve greatness in their chosen field that is truly spectacular, especially in the somewhat “out there” nature of Top Chef challenges. Seeing them go where I had seen all of the other chefs go before was a real touchstone for how much I’ve become attached to the show, and how happy I’d be to see it come back for a sixth season.
And as the show takes to Las Vegas, it becomes very clear that this is the same show it was before: sure, there’s plenty of Las Vegas puns (did you hear that the stakes are high?), but at the end of the day this seems like an enormously talented collection of chefs with perhaps the most “notably” established individuals we’ve seen yet. And while I liked the way Top Chef Masters stripped out the tension in order to focus on the cooking, some part of me is glad to see a new collection of oddballs prepared to do whatever it takes to win the title of Top Chef in a very strong premiere.
These premieres are always kind of tough for Top Chef, as they have a lot of personalities to introduce and in some instances aren’t really able to do so in the way other reality shows can. The “Show us something about yourself” challenges are pretty standard for all reality shows where talent/creativity are involved, but even they can only go so far, especially for a cooking show: asking someone to cook their signature dish, or something that represents them, is nonetheless constrained by questions of time, both in terms of the amount afforded the contestants and the length of the episode. With 17 chefs in the kitchen to start with, there are multiple personalities which go entirely under the radar, and there’s really no way around that: if they don’t separate themselves personally (like Kevin sliding down the waterslide) or professionally (like Jen and Kevin winning the two challenges), they’re not going to make it.
This isn’t, of course, necessarily a problem: yes, I’d rather that we got to know all of the contestants, but if they don’t stand out it might be because they don’t deserve to, or perhaps might do so in time. There’s always room for someone to surprise you, and what I like about the way this premiere handled this (as opposed to previous ones) is the way dividing the chefs into various teams really isolated their personalities. Unlike last year’s Mise en Place experiment where all chefs competed individually (which was done outdoors, and which was ultimately confusing), this season they played on team dynamics: we found out that Preeti doesn’t know how to shuck a clam, and we got to see which chefs were frustrated by incompetence in their teammates and which were supportive even through failure. It’s a good challenge to discuss team dynamics and the like, and a strong introduction to the competition.
The Elimination Challenge was a great idea in theory, allowing each chef to focus on a personal vice as part of a dish. However, the problem was that so many of them picked the same thing: this really is a group chock full of alcoholics, which makes them ideal for the Las Vegas setting but which made for a slightly less individual challenge for us to get to know them. Still, having them remain in teams helped reinforce their personalities, and adding donut-throwing Wolfgang Puck to the mix made it that much more eventful. There was also plenty of dishes that were outside of what we usually see, and the general high quality of the food was something to look forward to as the season continues.
As far as chefs to watch out for, it’s clear at this point that Kevin, Mike and Jen have somewhat set themselves apart – while Ron did make it into the Top Four, it was based mainly on his story and the fact that his group was somewhat less accomplished than the others. The other three winners, however, really demonstrated that their accolades (Kevin as a James Beard Nominee, Mike as a Rising Star Candidate) and their employment (Jen having learned under Eric Ripert) are going to in some ways separate them from the pack. They also delivered strong dishes that demonstrated a sense of innovation but counter-balanced with clean execution – they’re innovative and polished at the same time, and that’s the kind of chef who can really perform well in this competition.
As far as personalities, I’m curious to see the level to which the two brothers are able to differentiate themselves – I thought Mike, Kevin and Jen all stood out as personalities in their own right, but having two feuding brothers who aren’t particularly close (and where the younger one, Michael, admits to riding his brother’s coattails into cooking) is an intriguing dynamic. The show did something similar in allowing a couple into the competition in Season Four, but this seems like it’s got a bit more fire and competition, and thus fits more with the spirit of the competition. I’m also intrigued by Ashley, whose boyish looks and youthful enthusiasm contrast with the spotted arm tattoos, and Jesse, who put a lot of work into her dish but was let down by one piece of the execution.
In the end, Jennifer’s departure was inevitable: as soon as we saw her personal story of her young son, it was clear they were rushing her back story for a quick departure. As soon as she introduced Seitan, which no one has ever heard of and basically seemed to create giant grey lumps in that stuffed pepper, it was clear that she simply didn’t have the control and execution to be able to deliver. I actually think Eve was by far more insecure in her cooking, which is a tougher thing to “fix” in many ways, but she had more control of what she did wrong, and I think it’s a solid first elimination.
And now, the real challenge begins: no, not a selection of guest judges or unique challenges, but rather having to wait an entire week for a new episode when I’m used to just flipping to the next one immediately. It’s going to be a painful Fall in that regard, methinks.
- In case you were wondering, I really did love the first five seasons: I think Seasons 1 and 2 were the strongest, with 3, 4 and 5 suffering with either some oddly anti-climactic finales or more problematically a lack of likable contestants in the later going. I’d say that my overall favourite contestant would have to be Carla: as someone who doesn’t actually like food, and who doesn’t particularly like “problem” personalities, I thought that Carla’s sheer wackiness and positivity were an amazing combination that cracked me up, and to see her get as far as she did was really quite fantastic.
- As for Top Chef Masters, I was rooting for Hubert but it’s pretty well impossible not to enjoy Rick Bayless and his true mastery of Mexican cookery. I really enjoyed seeing real chefs handle the pressure of these competitions, and thought the finale was a great celebration of their ability.
- Other comments on this season? There’s a lot of tattoos, the James Beard nominee has an impressive beard, and Wolfgang Puck really is awesome for throwing a donut across the room. Thumbs up.