Category Archives: Top Chef

Top Chef All Stars – “Feeding Fallon”

“Feeding Fallon”

February 9th, 2011

I actually have no idea if I’ve blogged about Top Chef All Stars yet, but it’s been pretty great, no? The show has bounced back from its weakest season to return to being incredibly enjoyable, introducing interesting challenges and avoiding mediocrity at nearly every turn. Even moments that I thought would negatively impact the series (like Jennifer being sent home so early) proved to be mere bumps in the road, as other contestants emerged to play their part in bringing the season together. The food has been pretty uniformly impressive, and when it hasn’t been those people have faced the music in the bottom. Outside of the lengthy period where Jamie remained in the competition despite her failures of execution, the show has just been about great chefs cooking in great challenges, which is what the show is all about.

Generally, I’ve been content to just enjoy the season on its own merits, but I want to focus on tonight’s episode because I have a nicely balanced pair of points I want to make about it. The first is an intellectual question about spoiler culture and Jimmy Fallon’s presence in the episode; the other, meanwhile, is just outright giddiness at one of the contestants in particular.

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Heating Up Leftovers: Top Chef Season 7 Finale

Heating Up Leftovers: Season 7 Finale

September 15th, 2010

Technically speaking, every Top Chef finale is meant to stand alone – for the remaining chefs, it all comes down to the meal of their lives. However, for the audience sitting at home the finale is the end of a journey, and usually the end of a season of narratives; whether they be rivalries or redemptive arcs, there should be some sort of story coming to an end during each season of the show.

However, Top Chef D.C. never quite found a narrative that it knew how to work with, and the finale is a perfect example of that. Despite the fact that there were a number of potential narratives to build upon, the finale was left to stand entirely on its own without any real connection to previous outings. Sure, the surefire rivalry ended when Kenny left early, but after last season’s finale felt like the show finally getting the showdown we had all been waiting for, the showdown between Angelo, Ed and Kevin felt like leftovers, except that they were leftovers that you don’t remember having but still seem old and tired regardless.

And while the cooking itself wasn’t impacted by this particular concern, my emotional attachment to the conclusion most definitely was.

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Too Much On the Plate: The Bitter Taste of Top Chef Season 7

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.

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Getting Some Feedback: A Top Chef Failure and a Work of Art Worry

Getting Some Feedback: A Top Chef Failure and a Work of Art Worry

July 8th, 2010

I have yet to blog about this year’s season of Top Chef’s seventh season, and I really wish that I wasn’t doing so under these particular circumstances, but “Room Service” was such a failure that I have a few thoughts on where precisely it went wrong (although Scott Tobias has a more complete rundown of the episode at The A.V. Club). The notion of introducing a tournament-style competition in order to send two chefs home isn’t the worst idea, as they’re trying to create competition between the chefs (especially after the hyper-competitive elements last season) and this forces Kenny and Angelo’s rivalry to the forefront and draws further tension from the various chefs. However, the way in which that competition was actually executed failed to actually highlight the weakest chefs, instead punishing good chefs for small mistakes while rewarding weaker chefs for a single quality dish in what was an otherwise disastrous performance.

And while I want to highlight a few problems, one thing I want to focus on specifically is a lack of feedback within the process, which was also central to part of last night’s episode of Work of Art, which I want to discuss briefly as well.

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Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya: A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya

November 20th, 2009

In the promos for the season finale of Season Six of Project Runway, Lifetime uses dramatic music and a deep-voiced announcer to try to build suspense for the big reveal. However, in their language, they have something wrong: they create anticipation for the reveal of who is “the next big name in fashion,” and my immediate response is “who cares?”

See, what works about Project Runway is that it transfers the aesthetics of the fashion industry into terms that are unrelated to the fashion industry. I know nothing about fashion, but I know a lot about what Nina Garcia likes to see in fashion, or what the series values in terms of creativity. It’s created an audience that, even if they have no knowledge of the fashion industry, have gained knowledge of what Project Runway considers fashion. As such, rather than caring about what these young designers do in the context of the fashion industry, we care about how they situate themselves within the show’s cast of characters from seasons past. For a viewer like me, Bryant Park is the setting of the finale of Project Runway, not a global fashion event, which is why Lifetime language is demonstrative of the season’s failures: I don’t care if they’re a big name in fashion, I want them to be a big name for Project Runway.

And I can confirm that Irina, Althea and Carol Hannah will not be names to remember, a fact which has more to do with the way the show treated them than it does with their individual personalities and talent. And while we’ll never know if this season would have been more interesting if it were in New York, and if the production company hadn’t changed, what we do know is that Season Six failed to provide both the next big name in fashion and a single memorable name for this franchise.

[A few more thoughts on Project Runway, and then some thoughts on both Top Chef and Survivor, with spoilers after the jump...]

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Curse or Blessing?: Predictability in Reality TV – A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

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Curse or Blessing? Predictability in Reality TV

November 6th, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve stopped in with a Reality Roundup, which is symptomatic of the fact that my opinions about these three shows haven’t really changed. Survivor has been dominated by a single team to the point of proving downright uninteresting, Top Chef is still being dominated by the same four chefs, and Project Runway is something I didn’t even bother watching for a few weeks, choosing to read recaps instead. This hasn’t been a great season for any of the three shows on the level of really surprising me: in fact, they’ve all to different degrees become predictable (whether in which team will win, which chefs will dominate, and whether the show will be boring, respectively).

All three shows, however, feel ready to confront that sense of predictability in this week’s episodes, as Survivor rushes into a merge and Top Chef present a “volatile” Reunion special in an effort to shake things up a bit. And while Top Chef’s reunion show is predictably dramatic, Survivor’s merge episode is perhaps one of its best ever, unpredictable to the point of having no idea who is going home in the end.

And yet this leaves Project Runway, which has been predictably boring but almost entirely unpredictable in terms of the lack of consistent judging. As such, while the uncertainty of Survivor’s finale is downright exciting, the uncertainty surrounding who will be going to Bryant Park is actually problematic, and the end result dissatisfying if not necessarily wrong.

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The Game vs. The Players – A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

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The Game vs. The Players

A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

In our weekly glimpse into the world of Survivor: Samoa, Top Chef, and Project Runway, it’s important to distinguish between the game and the players of that game. Every episode of all three shows is essentially about the way the producers construct the game (the challenges, the conditions, the time limits, even the casting itself), and the players are forced to interpret and operate within that game as they see fit. So when you find yourself frustrated with a fairly boring season of Project Runway, or impatient with a season of Top Chef, or find Survivor’s villains too much to handle, you need to ask yourself if this it the result of the game or the people who are playing it.

In all three episodes of these three shows this week, we saw situations where the game took control of the players, and where their sewing, their cooking and their scheming felt so clearly defined by the game that I was simultaneously interested and bored. It’s the ultimate test of any group of reality contestants, though, to be forced into a situation the producers have designed: do they strike out on a unique course, indicating that they’re a real rebel, or whether they fall right in with the expectations put in front of them.

It’s a process which makes me doubt Runway, trust Top Chef, and change my mind about a few Survivor players.

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Trust in Reality TV: A Four-Letter Word? – A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

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Trust in Reality TV: A Four-Letter Word?

A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

[Since I find blogging about shows like Top Chef, Project Runway and Survivor: Samoa individually somewhat inconvenient, but often nonetheless have things to say about them, I figure we'd lump the three mid-week reality shows together in what we shall now refer to as Cultural Learnings' Reality Roundup. Enjoy!]

Trust is perhaps the central tenet of reality television.

I don’t mean so much within the game itself, although clearly in a game like Survivor (whose 19th season, Survivor: Samoa, started this week) there is an element of trust between individual players. Rather, I speak of the trust relationship between the show and the viewer. Viewers hope that they can trust the judges on Top Chef and Project Runway to make the right decisions, and they hope they can trust the losing Survivor tribe to vote out the person who is making the new season nigh on unwatchable.

It is a highly tenuous sense of trust, of course: half of the dramatic value of reality television is having that trust violated, and the growing frustration as villains or talentless individuals remain while others go home instead. And, of course, that trust is forever complicated by the existence of editors, learning that the trust you want to experience is being manipulated at every turn.

So, what I find fascinating about this week’s trio of reality shows is that in each instance we are reminded of this trust relationship, and that the “worst Survivor villain of all time” is in fact perhaps the most trustworthy reality character (from a viewer/series perspective) the show has ever seen.

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Top Chef Las Vegas – “Vivre Las Vegas”

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“Vivre Las Vegas”

September 9th, 2009

I think I’ve discovered the effect of watching Top Chef week by week.

As particularly obsessive readers of the blog might know, I went through the first five seasons of Top Chef at a pace of about two a week (that’s seasons, not episodes) over a period this summer, and obviously got a little bit addicted to the show. I was curious to see just how I’d react to not being able to turn on the next episode as soon as a chef got sent to pack up their knives.

What I’ve discovered is that it’s made me really impatient, although in a way that really defines how the sixth season is thus far progressing. There is some amazing talent in this year’s cast, and I think that’s the problem: the sheer gulf between those individuals and the rest of the field is so large that I want to be able to watch the next episode not because I’m desperate for more Top Chef but because I want them to cull the herd as quickly as possible so we can see that core group go head to head in what could be one of the most competitive Top Chef finales ever.

For this reason, I was quite pleased to see “Vivre Las Vegas” eliminate two chefs who were pretty well dead weight, as it means we’re that much closer to really getting down to business in Vegas.

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Season 6 Premiere: Top Chef Las Vegas – “Sin City Vice”

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“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.

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