Too Much on the Plate: The Bitter Taste of Top Chef Season 7
July 22nd, 2010
Based on the first six episodes of Top Chef’s seventh season, I’m not convinced that the Magical Elves (the show’s producers) were watching the same show that I was last year.
Top Chef’s sixth season was, by all accounts, a triumph: four chefs went into the semi-finals cooking some absolutely stellar food, each in a position where they would have deserved to win the competition, and each representing a different style of cooking. The challenges were solid, the Las Vegas setting was put to solid use, and outside of some justifiable complaints about Toby Young the judging was pretty spot on. It was a season without any major controversies, and which seemed to verify my conclusion I had come to after watching the first four seasons in a marathon last summer: Top Chef, like The Amazing Race before it, is a solid foundation which will vary each year depending on the caliber of chefs within the competition.
And yet, it seems that the Magical Elves felt that there was some magic missing: either because they were concerned with the caliber of chefs they had assembled, or because they felt that viewers were no longer responding to the series in the same fashion, the show’s production team has gone out of their way to mess with a good thing this year. Now, on the surface, you may expect me to call them out for deliberately breeding conflict between the chefs, something which has happened more naturally in past seasons and which is one of my least favourite parts of the series when it isn’t pre-existing (as it was between brothers Michael and Bryan last year).
However, the bigger problem is that the show’s production is undermining several cardinal rules of reality competition programming, rules which Top Chef used to follow with expert proficiency. While it has been possible for good chefs to be sent home before weak ones in the past, this year’s challenges seem explicitly designed to remove any opportunity the judges would have to give a chef a second chance, to allow them to bounce back as opposed to sending a chef who will remain mediocre throughout the rest of the competition. Instead, the producers have seized control of the competition in the most backwards of fashions, in that they actually cede any semblance of control when it really matters most to the rule and logic of a series once based on the food rather than the folly.
It’s a season that feels as if it’s been designed by the Elves who make cookies rather than those who make reality television, and it’s managing to take what might otherwise have been a perfectly solid season and turning it into something the series has never been before: a reality series uncertain of its own identity.
Which used to be about food.
The goal of a Quickfire challenge is to test a chef’s imagination and their cooking skills, giving them a challenge which features very little planning and for which they get very little time. In some ways, they’re actually the most unnatural of challenges – they have been the bane of many Top Chef Masters contestants, for example, because it’s not something that established chefs would ever do on a regular basis, and requires quick-thinking rather than finesse or planning. However, they speak to the basic task of trying to find the “top” chef in this particular group, and the Quickfires are an important glimpse into two things: how good the chefs operate under pressure, and what kind of perspective each chef has on cooking. While they may not be able to make their “perfect” dish, under pressure they will rely on what they find comfortable, and so we see Angelo’s love for asian flavours, or Kelly’s simple approach, emerge in these contests.
Tonight’s Quickfire challenge started out as a familiar one, with each chef paired with an “Exotic Protein” which most people don’t cook with on a regular basis. This is a fairly typical Quickfire in that it shows us how well these contestants deal with something very far outside of their comfort zone, and whether they’ll be able to look past the unfamiliarity of the protein to realize that the execution of flavours is the same game as it was before. And so the challenge begins, and we watch as each contestant prepares their ideal dish, and then Padma walks into the room and instructs each chef to take over the protein to their left. Some would argue that this simply intensifies the Quickfire, as now the chefs are not only working with an exotic protein, they’re working with a different exotic protein than the one they started out with; however, rather than evolving into the ultimate test of a chef’s skills, I would argue that the challenge devolved into something which would only ever happen on a reality show.
Top Chef, like all reality competition programming, isn’t something that would happen in the real world: people don’t race around the world in teams of two, or make dresses out of potato sacks, or get deserted on an island and compete for immunity idols. Part of the irony of reality television is that it would never happen in reality, and so instead these series are carefully constructed structures within which reality is captured and distilled for a viewing audience (which goes for competition series as well as documentary-style series clearly constructed for public consumption). However, with Top Chef there was always the sense that the food was king: while the game could create circumstances which caused a chef to falter, it ultimately came down to the fact that their food failed to live up to the task at hand.
That Quickfire was one of a number of moments this season when a potentially intriguing idea was executed in a bizarre fashion, a fashion which meant that the challenge was twice removed from cooking skill, which is what I’d consider to be the foundation of the series. I don’t mind a Quickfire which asks the chefs to switch proteins, but coupling that with the exotic proteins is going to create failure rather than allowing it to happen naturally: it felt like the Top Chef producers goading the contestants, trying to one-up themselves as if the show has something to prove. I have no doubt that Stephen would have made a terrible dish regardless of what his protein was, but it only became more terrible when he suddenly had to switch gears. The winner of the challenge, in fact, was the one person who didn’t bother to use much of their original plan: because Kelly got the Emu Eggs, she had no choice but to move in a different direction, and her well-executed simple omelet was a clear winner with Michelle Bernstein. However, I asked myself afterwards: why, precisely, did they switch proteins? The original task was already a test of their skills, and adding an additional test is entirely unnecessary except to perhaps put a spin on a familiar challenge – however, considering that fellow Top Chef fan James Poniewozik tweeted excitedly about its return, it isn’t as if this is a challenge that we’re bored of. The nature of Top Chef is that every group of contestants will approach things differently, but rather than presenting what Angelo or Kenny would do with their exotic proteins, we get what Angelo and Kenny would do with someone else’s exotic protein foisted onto them fifteen minutes into the challenge.
Now, Quickfires are ultimately irrelevant, in that they rarely decide elimination, but they are also an important indicator of what the producers want each episode to achieve. And so we occasionally allow them something purely playful (like cooking with one hand behind your back, or the two-headed chef gimmick a few weeks back) that simply makes for good television. However, not only have the Quickfires seemed particularly off this season (asking them to turn sophisticated dishes into baby food, for example), the Elimination Challenges have been infected by the same desire to shake things up. I wrote at length about why the bizarre tournament style challenge went against everything the show usually stands for, but I had presumed that the producers would write that off as a failed experiment and get back to basics. And yet, last week’s episode put all of the chefs into a team for no other reason than to push them to yell at one another: they weren’t competing as a team, so the “team” designation was a cheap reason to force everyone to sit around a table and argue about who should be in control and nothing more. It’s not something which is uncommon in reality television, but it is something that I’ve never seen Top Chef so lazily employ.
However, I think that this week’s Elimination Challenge was even more bizarre, the ultimate example of the producers failing to understand one of the fundamental truths of reality competition television. While individual challenges can theoretically send someone home, that lingering title of Top Chef needs to play a role in every single deliberation. It is possible for an individual mistake to be so catastrophic that it could send a great chef home, but it is far more likely that a great chef making a bad mistake deserves to stay over a weak chef who turned in another uninspired mess. And so it was incredibly frustrating to see Tamesha go into the Bottom Two instead of Stephen, who has been cooking on fumes since day one but lives to cook another day entirely because of the way the challenge was structured. You might expect me to complain about the other contestants being able to choose who was in the Bottom Two, but frankly I thought it was quite interesting to see the chefs take on the role of critic and I value their input. Rather, the issue was that the judges were beholden to those choices, unable to add a third person of their own choosing. The series could have given the chefs the responsibility without giving them the power, maintaining the structural integrity of the challenge (with the chefs facing the scrutiny of their peers and potentially revealing some gameplay strategies) without forcing the judges to pick between two chefs who had been performing well to this point in the competition and yet faltered in this particular instance.
And so I ask the question: why, precisely, would the Magical Elves choose to organize the challenge this way? I won’t argue that the chef with the least successful dish didn’t go home, as Tamesha’s dish really did seem like a complete mess, but this idea of the judges having a limited selection of people to eliminate is the sort of reality show machination which Top Chef has largely avoided and, perhaps most importantly, could easily keep avoiding if they wanted to. There’s perhaps an argument to be had that contestants should be judged only based on each individual challenge, and we can take that up in the comments, but even if that is a direction the show wants to go I don’t feel as if the way the challenge was designed did anything to emphasize the actual act of cooking or the food which resulted. I don’t think that this focus on player rivalries and ceding power to the chefs in terms of who gets put up for elimination did anything to help heighten the tension of the cooking, which was almost entirely lost amidst the chaos that enveloped even the planning period, which very quickly devolved into a gossip session (at sea!). The whole point of the challenge was about cooking cold food, and yet we didn’t see a single talking head about what makes a good cold dish so that those of us without intense cooking knowledge could understand the specific obstacles they might face (like ensuring that the food is cooked evenly, as with Tamesha’s scallops). While Top Chef has always been a show which stretched the skills of cooking into new arenas which these chefs might not be familiar with, it always did so with a focus on technique, ingenuity, perseverance and the food on the plate.
If each season of Top Chef is a dish, then there is always a basic protein at its center: as cooking can be an intense and engaging experience, and because we can all somewhat relate to food and the skill it requires, that protein is a pretty solid foundation for a successful dish. And whatever elements that past seasons have introduced, whether it’s Wedding Wars or last season’s dalliance with culinary artistry, there has always been a sense that at the end of the day the star of the dish is the act of cooking and the chefs who work their hardest to excel at it. However, this season something seems off: every episode seems to introduce a new foam, a new puree, or some other sort of newfangled technique which is designed to wow the audience and convince them that this is some groundbreaking stuff going down. And yet, with every new element being added to the plate that original protein is lost, and our attention (as critics, or as viewers) turns to the parts of the show which aren’t working; the kicker, perhaps, is that the failure of these new attempts to engage with the audience actually encourages us to find faults within parts of the series (like the additional drama being added, for example) which have been present before but which we have come to accept with time. By adding more to the plate, the Magical Elves have forced us to dig deeper to find the show we used to love, a search which grows more tiresome with each passing week.
This is, I hope, not a eulogy for Top Chef: other reality series have faltered in the past (even the Emmy-dominant The Amazing Race, with its Family edition), and they have been able to bounce back in subsequent seasons. However, what concerns me is that this doesn’t feel like a carefully organized act of reinvention so much as it feels like needless tinkering, as if the producers are bored and want to see what sort of diabolical schemes they can concoct. There doesn’t appear to be a method to the madness, or at least one that I’m willing to accept as something that the producers of the first six seasons would feel was necessary. If these changes felt as if they were planned carefully, or if there was something in the sixth season would seemed to necessitate some form of change, I’d be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
However, six episodes into the seventh season, I have infinitely more to say about the production than I do about the contestants, which is something that I wouldn’t have said about any of the previous seasons. Obviously, writing this piece won’t change anything: the season was taped long ago, and so it’s not as if there will be any form of sudden shift. However, I needed to write out why it was that the season was sitting so strangely in my mind over these past few weeks, and can simply hope that it was sitting strangely for the producers as well, and that the Elves might yet rediscover the magic before the season comes to an end.
- While the rivalry with Angelo and Kenny initially seemed like it had potential, it was ultimately tarnished by both the production decisions as well as their personalities. Angelo is a slimy individual who just isn’t pleasant to watch interact with other human beings, while Kenny is stubborn to the point of not understanding when to adjust his approach to the competition by simplifying his food for maximum effect when his complicated dishes aren’t well-received. Perhaps my biggest complaint about the way that his fate was sealed by his peers will be that he might be convinced he wouldn’t have been on the bottom if the judges had been able to make their own choice, which will keep him from learning from his obvious mistakes and stunt his growth in the competition.
- If I’m rooting for anyone at this point, it’s Kelly: she’s got a decent head on her shoulders, she’s avoided the interpersonal drama, and winning the ridiculous tournament now seems less ridiculous considering how consistent she has been since that point (taking on dessert last week, for example).
- I was actually really fascinated by the rivalry between Andrea and Michelle Bernstein (or, as I like the call it, Battle of the Curly-Haired Blondes from Miami, or something catchier if you prefer). The show has never seen anything quite like that before, and I sort of wish that it had emerged in an episode less bogged down by gimmicks so that we could have seen them interact a bit more, if only to see just how much Bernstein got into Andrea’s head. That was the one narrative in the episode that was able to break through the “game” element of things, and I wanted more.