I watch very little unscripted reality TV outside of the Great British Baking Show. I am too young for the Real World phenomenon and have a vivid memory of walking in while my brother and mother watched an early season of Survivor but never really watched that show. I have seen the odd episode of a lot of shows, but I generally don’t find either the contestants or the “game” compelling.
I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to watch the current season of Top Chef from the beginning, never having seen a single episode to this point. As I wrote several times, I fell in love with this show. In part, the focus on simple excellence and limited direct competition appeals to my sensibility, but I also found the judges and competitors charming — sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of the reality show editing of each episode.
Top Chef: Portland was filmed last year in a bubble and the editing gave the season an isolated quality that reminded me of the GBBO tent. The competition obviously put mental and emotional strains on the chefs, and talking about how much they missed their families were poignant vignettes at a time when travel restrictions kept many people from their families.
Striking this season was the lack of a villain. The contestants seemed to genuinely like one another, particularly by the time the show reached the back half of the season when the smaller number of chefs allowed more air time for each one.
The season finale, which aired this past Thursday, maintained this same atmosphere. The finalists chatted with one another, they each got an assistant from the last three eliminated to make their dream meal, and the all-star guest judges who had joined the bubble made them a meal on the night before judging.
Oh, and they all made incredible food.
The illusion was complete and a winner was crowned. He calls his family and shouts out the largely Latinx kitchen staff at many American restaurants.
And then real life returns.
Reports recently came out that Gabe Erales, this season’s champion, had been fired last December from the Austin restaurant Comedor where he was executive chef for repeatedly violating sexual harassment policies.
(He maintains that he had a consensual relationship with the woman and then reduced her hours because of performance issues, but the restaurant’s owner disputes this account.)
At the same time, Top Chef edited guest diner Eduardo Jordan out of the final altogether after recent allegations of unwanted touching made by fifteen women.
I genuinely enjoyed this season. I was blown away by Dawn’s Nashville Hot Fried Tofu, I want to learn to make some of Gabe’s Moles, and even when they cooked things I never could I appreciated the skills and techniques on display. I also liked that the contestants came off as likable people.
But what one sees on Top Chef — like any reality show — is a fantasy created in the editing room.
This is not to say that it was all feigned. Some aspects of personality are going to shine through, but everyone was also likely on their best behavior throughout filming, knowing that the cameras are rolling. At the same time, the artificially level playing field of a show like Top Chef is going to eliminate the power disparities that can lead to some of the most toxic behavior in restaurant industry — even taking Gabe’s story at face value, his sexual relationship was with someone whose hours he could cut. The result is that Top Chef did not face the same concerns on set that reared their heads back at the restaurant.
Production had wrapped by the time the allegations came out and they couldn’t very well edit the winner out of the show.
Top Chef is great television, but these stories break that illusion. Real life inevitably intrudes on the most idyllic scene. The food might be great, but there is a long way to go in these other areas that, ultimately, matter much more.