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.
On Work of Art, not getting a critique is worse than being in the Bottom Three: it’s one thing to feel as if your work is being ignored (as Lynne, just before she was eliminated, was lamenting on Top Chef), but it’s another to have absolutely no idea what you could be improving. On Top Chef, Lynne could look at her performance and think that she needs to do a more complicated dish by pushing her flavour profiles, or perhaps she will spot a mistake that she made which she could clean up next time. There exists an objective standard for food preparation, and so she can work towards a clear goal even if the judges don’t specifically tell her what problems they had with her dish.
The problem is that, if you’re not part of the Critique, you’ve more or less never seen the judges respond to a piece of art before: you could talk to people who were in the crit, and you could speculate based on who went home what kind of work they’re considering, but the lack of any specific advice makes an artist’s life incredibly challenging if they’re choosing to view the series as a competition where they’re there to impress the judges. Ryan was desperate to receive a critique, and so he received one for his lifeless, boring painting that the guest judge suggested should be thrown out entirely; his hope now is that, surviving elimination (after Jamie Lynn gave up trying to impress the judges and gave them a craft project), he will better know where the judges want him to take his work.
There are two levels of problems with Top Chef’s tournament elimination challenge. The first is that it doesn’t actually eliminate the worst chefs: Ed and Alex made the biggest mistake of the day by far when they failed to get one of their cakes onto the plate and failured to get time to properly sauce the fish. And yet, because they were “safe” on their second dish, they never had to answer for that mistake. Meanwhile, Lynne and Arnold were cooking solid if unspectacular dishes through the first two rounds of the competition, missing out on wins but not making any crippling mistakes, and they end up being sent home for slightly undercooked pasta as opposed to anything substantial. No elimination competition should end up with three teams who can cook: it’s one thing to whiddle down competitors when you’re working towards something, like during the Mise en Place tournament in the premiere, but to do it this way allows weak teams to get lucky and gives better teams no real chance to catch up. There were worse chefs who deserved to go home sooner, and that’s an unfortunate circumstance in terms of the big picture.
The bigger problem though is what it did to those poor chefs, who had no idea what they were ending up in the bottom and were absolutely unable to adjust on the fly. The complete lack of any sort of judges’ feedback between rounds meant that they were forced to just keep cooking, an infuriating circumstance which breeds unnecessary, rather than natural, conflict. Yes, eventually teams started getting on one another’s nerves and breaking down, but it was only because they were fighting against the structure of the competition as opposed to their own limitations or the specific challenge in front of them. It wasn’t that cooking that meal was particular was difficult, it was that doing so while going over and over what you could have done wrong in the previous wrong was difficult, and that’s the sort of drama which Top Chef normally avoids when compared to something like Hell’s Kitchen.
The end result wasn’t disastrous, but Kenny and Kevin had no business being in that Bottom Three, and one could argue that the judges should have at the very least taken each team’s collective output into account when making the final decisions (which, considering Eric Ripert’s opinion of the fish that Kelly and Andrea served, might have made a difference). It made the earlier rounds seem like they meant absolutely nothing, which is why I don’t understand why they didn’t pick out the worst team in each of the three rounds and then force them to make dessert for their final elimination showdown – that way, more teams would keep competing in all three rounds and thus more logically compete for the final prize (which Kelly and Andrea had to throw two rounds to be in a position to win), and the teams who performed the worst in the challenge as a whole would be the ones who were going home.
Consider that some unsolicited feedback, Top Chef.
- On the showmance scale, Miles and Nicole’s adorable flirtations on Work of Art rank much, much higher than Angelo’s creepy treatment of Tamesha (which seems even sketchier when you learn he is a father to a toddler, although I do hope he’s not in a relationship with the child’s mother and still acting in this fashion).
- The Baby Food challenge seemed so very, very strange – some of those things just sounded like a terrible idea to be pureed into a baby food, but apparently that’s a thing people do?
- Simon de Pury’s completely matter of fact sex jokes? Love.