What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef

As much as I like food, I have never been a fan of cooking shows. Baking, yes, and shows that connect food and travel, but not cooking.

Years and years back I would occasionally watch Iron Chef and a few episodes of Beat Bobby Flay, but always I came back to the deep gulf between the food they prepared and what I ate. More than a matter of techniques, all of these shows built their dishes around an animal protein (fish or meat). While I enjoy the taste of meat, I have never enjoyed cooking it to the point that I phased it out of my home diet nearly a decade ago. The result is that the work to bridge the gulf had never seen worth the effort.

I knew of Top Chef as a cultural phenomenon. I have heard Padma Lakshmi give interviews and listened to people talk about the show, but I had never seen an episode before deciding on a whim to watch this season.

Coming in, I knew loosely what to expect. Each contestant competes in two events each week, a quick fire challenge in which the winner gains immunity for the week and/or a bonus like an advantage in the main event or money. At the end of each episode, one chef is eliminated from the show, shunting them into the Last Chance Kitchen mini-show (more on this in a minute). I also knew that Top Chef would find ways incorporate the setting (Portland, OR), albeit modified for the pandemic, and that the show has diversified its culinary standards over the course of its run.

What I didn’t know was whether I would still be left cold for the simple fact that most of dishes are far from anything I would want to make.

I could do without the corporate tie-ins and a few heavy-handed reality TV edits, but I have found Top Chef utterly delightful to watch nevertheless.

In part, I think the fact that my own cooking has matured in the past few years has put me in a better position to appreciate the skill of the contestants. They are far out of my league in terms of skill and technique — as proprietors and executive chefs, I would hope so — but I can recognize echoes of foods that I make at home now in a way that was not always true. But I was also turned off by the competition side of reality cooking shows. What I like about Great British Baking Show isn’t merely that I make some of the recipes, but the camaraderie among the contestants. They want to win, obviously, but they are also willing to help each other plate a dish rather than hide ingredients from each other. At least in this season of Top Chef I am recognizing that same atmosphere among the contestants. Yes, personalities can clash on team challenges and some chefs are cut to come across as anti-heroes, but only in the mildest of senses.

I can’t speak to the history of Top Chef, but I suspect that this was not always the case. From what I gather, the show started out with lots of contestants who were classically-trained sous chefs and challenges that required them to perfectly execute classical techniques. The result was competition with a harder edge. What I see in this season, by contrast, is a slate of executive chefs and urging from the judges to cook their food. They are still aiming for perfect execution, but what that looks like varies because of the range of food that comes to the table. Multiple chefs bring Mexican food (Maria, Gabe), one is interested in scientific approaches to food (Avishar), one whose professional training was in Japan (Shota), and another who primarily brought Sicilian flavors (Sasha). One seems to use yogurt in most of her dishes (Sara)—to name just a few. I suspect that this emphasis simultaneously makes the food more personal and intimate and reduces some of the direct competition because they are cooking from different backgrounds.

I like to say that most of my favorite podcasts are the ones where I feel like I’m hanging out with my friends chatting about whatever is going on, even if I’m not actually saying anything. I want the same sense if I’m going to be watching reality TV.

Top Chef does a lot of this work, but my favorite part has been Last Chance Kitchen.

As contestants are eliminated, they are shunted into the side competition where they can compete for a chance to return to the show. Each ten minute episode consists of a head-to-head competition that pits the previous LCK victor against the person most recently eliminated in a short challenge judged by Tom Colicchio. Winner stays on, the loser goes home. Two things make these episodes particularly engaging. First, the challenges riff on what caused chefs to get bounced from the competition. When one person served raw chicken, the next challenge requires them to serve a raw protein. When someone serves rubber chicken, they have to gamble on how many parts of a chicken they can serve. Second, though, the eliminated chefs don’t actually “go home,” but stick around in the Last Chance Kitchen, where they cheer on the two people competing. Basically, I get the sense that everyone there is rooting for everyone to make great food. They’re disappointed not to win, they’re also happy to continue to hang out.

Some of what I’m enjoying about Top Chef could be a fluke of this season given the pandemic logistics that it was produced under. The judging table this season has a lot of former contestants on it, which I gather gives the show a different feel that may or may not continue under normal circumstances. Even so, I am hooked.

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