A family and social history of bread in the United States

A couple weeks ago, one of my students invited me to give a presentation on sourdough bread to a club she’s involved in, which I did last night I decided to script part of my talk so that I didn’t just blabber in a million different directions.

Below the jump is the transcript of most of that scripted portion, which I called “A family and social history of bread in the United States.” I lightly edited the script to remove the presentation cues and moved forward a paragraph on yeast culture from later in the talk. Enjoy.

Continue reading A family and social history of bread in the United States

Do you want to hear me talk about bread?

If you answered “yes,” then I have great news for you. A few months back I recorded an interview about bread in Ancient Greece with Aven McMaster and Mark Sundaram for their podcast The Endless Knot. That episode went live this morning. I haven’t heard the final product yet, but it got an excellent review from Emma Pauly, the person who edited and transcribed the episode.

You can get the episode anywhere you get podcasts or by using this link. Bon appétit!

What is Making Me Happy: Best Baker in America

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: Best Baker in America, Season 4

Okay, let me get something out of the way. I hate the name “Best Baker in America.” I think it is clunky and overly pretentious given that any given season will only have a few contestants, so the nominal crowning of “best baker in America” is meaningless.

What I don’t hate is this show, a reality baking competition on the Food Network that I first encountered on a recent plane flight.

If it wasn’t obvious from previous posts here, 1) I bake a lot; 2) I enjoy watching food television, particularly when it involves baking. Best Baker in America, Season 4 meets both criteria.

Anyone familiar with the Great British Baking Show should be broadly familiar with the template. Ten bakers from around the country come together to bake their way through a gauntlet of challenges set by the quirky hosts until only one remains to be crowned champion. However, there are also some significance differences, including that all of the bakers are professionals and the competition is based almost exclusively on pastry.

Each episode in this season involves two challenges. Every baker completes the first challenge, a signature dish on based on various flavors and ingredients. The judges choose a winner and some number of bakers who are safe. The two or more bakers who made the least successful dishes then compete in a bake-off, a second challenge to see who gets eliminated, at least until the finale.

Personally I found the quirkiness of the judges (Carla Hall, Jason Smith, and Gesine Prado) over the top, perhaps because they play a double role of host and judge where those jobs are separate in Great British Baking Show. Despite this, the judges exhibit my favorite thing about a lot of baking shows: they are unabashedly enthusiastic about the work that the contestants are doing. That is, they openly root for them to succeed, even while they offer critiques of the product.

In a similar vein, I like the simplicity of the format. Where the Great British Baking Show puts the contestants through three challenges over two days and then judges them holistically, this show has just two that are judged individually. If a contestant screws up that bake, they have a chance at redemption.

Other shows and, indeed, earlier seasons of this same show, use a format taken from reality competitions where the first challenge in a given episode earns immunity from elimination that happens after the second, but I found that I vastly preferred this format when I tried watching one of the others seasons. For one thing, a head-to-head competition raises the stakes and allows you to concentrate on what is happening on a smaller number of stations. For another, the other competitors remained in the kitchen, meaning both that they turned into a designated cheer-squad, much like what happened in the most recent season of Top Chef‘s Last Chance Kitchen, but also that they got to taste what the bakers made and called upon to assess the dish.

I suspect that some of the particulars of this season and its coziness were shaped by the demands of filming during a pandemic (Season 3 came out in 2019, but the show only returned for Season 4 in 2021), but I found the final product to be an excellent—if also over-the-top and frequently silly—addition to the genre.

In Defense of the (Historical) Study of Food

I was thinking again this week about a conversation I had with my advisor back in graduate school. I was already on the job market and we were talking about how I was marketing myself in cover letters. My first book project would obviously be the revised version of my dissertation project and I had (and have) plans for a second book that is a natural continuation of that research. But I was already starting to lay the groundwork for a new research project into bread in ancient Greece.

The trajectory of my research has never been solely dictated by the relationship with my Doktorvater, but this was a conversation about how to market myself to jobs and branding is something he is particularly good at. Ultimately, his concerns about mentioning this future project came down to two points:

  1. That this project marked too great a departure from my current research such that there might be questions about my creating a coherent research portfolio. Scholarly publications often build on each other, as it were, with books begetting articles and new leads, so too much dilettantism can just be a distraction.
  2. That telling people I wanted to study food would mean that my research is not taken seriously.

His first point is both more and less valid than it was when we had this conversation maybe a half decade ago. I suspect that there is some benefit on the job market to being a generalist unless you happen to research the specialty that is hot in a given year, provided, of course, that your research in whatever you do is compelling to committees. But, at the same time, I have recently found myself wondering if the various strands of my research are too dissimilar from each other. That is, I currently have ambitions to write four books (three non-fiction, one fiction) after the one I am currently writing. Each one scratches a different itch that I have as a person, but they only tangentially intersect with each other.

However, the second point is the one I want to develop further here. Some of my advisor’s concern is a matter of his personal research, which skews to the political and diplomatic with a heavy dose of biography. He is not so myopic as to think that these are the only things that matter as far as I am aware, but he raised the possibility that the study of food might be regarded as too frivolous to be taken seriously.

I suspect that he is right, at least in some circles.

Without question, some of this is discipline- and sub-discipline-specific. For instance, here are excellent books on food written by modern historians. For instance, I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco and my friend and graduate school colleague Christopher Deutsch is working on the delightfully-titled Beeftopia, which looks at how the United States became a beef-eating country. Although Maria Balinska is a journalist by trade, my favorite one-star Amazon review calling her The Bagel “Jewish social history” warrants honorary status.

My casual survey of work from the ancient Mediterranean suggests that food studies receive more attention among archaeologists. Patrick McGovern, for instance, is a molecular archaeologist who collaborated with Dogfish Head brewery on their Ancient Ales series and delivered a keynote address at the AIA meeting in Philadelphia in 2012. Likewise, Farrell Monaco and J.T. Benton are both archaeologists who work on bread and technology in the Roman world. And yet, just two years ago the zooarchaeologist Flint Dibble nevertheless published a “manifesto” at Eidolon where he conducted a survey of recent research and defended the study food because of what it can reveal about climate and a given society.

In a similar manner to Flint in his manifesto, I want to suggest that food isn’t just a valid topic of historical study, but an important one.

The truth is that I receive very different responses from people when I talk about my work on Ionia (that is, all of my publications so far) and when I talk about even the little bit of food research I have done to this point. This is not meant as a strike against my other work. I think it is important and hope that the book will help change some ideas on how to look at Classical Greece, but I also once delivered a paper on Ephesus, perhaps the best-known of the cities in the region, and had an ancient historian tell me on the way out that he wouldn’t have been able to identify Ephesus on a map. That is, there are more barriers to entry for my work on Ionia. Sometimes it results in long, sprawling conversations. Sometimes I can see eyes glaze over.

The latter almost never happens when talking about food.

There is an appetite for learning about food. This likely explains the burgeoning market for food-related books, almost all of which are historical in nature but relatively few of them are actually written by historians. (To say nothing of Gastropod, which looks “at food through the lens of history and science.”) Other than a handful of exceptions like those listed above, two broad groups of people write these books: journalists and scientists. Both make sense. Journalism is where a lot of food writing takes place and books are a logical extension of this form in much the same way that science journalists turn their reportage into books. Thus you get Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. Scientists, on the other hand, have multiple points of entry. Food involves at minimum chemistry, biology, and agronomy, so books like Cheese and Culture (Paul Kindstedt, a chemist and food technologist) and Sourdough Culture (Eric Pallant, an environmental scientist) are natural extensions of these disciplines. After all, the Global Sourdough Project at North Carolina State University belongs to the Ecology Department.

These are all fascinating projects, but their history is, to put it nicely, wildly inconsistent. I will write a full post of Eric Pallant’s Sourdough Culture later this week, but it can stand in as an example here since I just finished reading it.

Pallant is telling a particular story about trying to trace the origins of his Cripple Creek starter, in much the same way that Kindstedt’s book follows a particular arc for cheese and Balinska’s book largely treats New York bagels as normative until starting a discussion of how the Lender’s company took the bagel mainstream. What Pallant does here is blend the story of learning about his starter with a longer discussion of attitudes toward sourdough breads. In this second objective, his discussion of the transition to industrial bread was particularly fascinating. Not coincidentally, this was also a topic that had served as the basis of a Fulbright project. By contrast, other parts of his historical discussion weaker and included a few turns of phrase that made me physically wince.

Sourdough Culture is not the sort of book designed to have a comprehensive bibliography and a review of the references revealed omissions that could have strengthened the book. At the same time, though, I found myself reflecting on how at least some of the limitations reflect the contours of the existing scholarship, meaning that Egypt and Rome are better represented than was Greece. This is understandable, at least to an extent; Pallant is not an ancient historian. However, it did lead him to give Greek in particular only cursory treatment when there is a more compelling to story to tell there.

I like these books, broadly speaking, and am not at all saying that scientists and journalists need to stop writing about historical food. However, when historians pass the responsibility for writing about historical food to non-historians then they forfeit the right to complain when their historical periods get misrepresented.

Providing material for scientists to improve their books is just a side benefit. Food offers insight into a whole range of historical topics, from gender roles, to cultural values, to turns of phrase, to economic and political systems. Food also provides opportunities for historical work to be interdisciplinary in the best ways possible. Not every scholar needs to start studying food, of course. But where food’s ubiquity may make it seem banal, the very fact that food (or its absence) is intimately connected to every single person’s daily existence means that it is threaded into every historical time and place, if we’re only willing to look for it.

Remembering Bourdain

Content Warning: this post includes references to suicide.

Anthony Bourdain took his own life a little over three years ago, prompting me to write a teary reflection of this man who I had never met. In this post I reflected on what Bourdain meant to me, a single face in the crowd of fans. I pointed to his apparent success in the middle age of life and beyond and to the spirit of warmth and humanity that seemed to emanate from this acerbic man even when purveyors of hate seemed to be winning.

Anthony Bourdain had the capacity for all of these things, to be sure, but I was eulogizing Tony the TV character.

Retrospectives about Anthony Bourdain’s life have started to emerge this year. Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner dropped first in July, followed by Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography in September, and Tom Vitale’s memoir In the Weeds in early October.

While I have not read Woolever’s volume, the other two pieces, both of which I consumed last weekend, paint a more complicated picture.

Tom Vitale started in the editing room on A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain’s first TV show, before working his way on to the road crew and ultimately directing more than a hundred episodes of Parts Unknown, including some of the most challenging ones in Libya and the Congo. His memoir takes readers on the road and behind the camera of the shows while also grappling with his feelings about Bourdain’s death, something that happened while one of the other two crews was overseeing the shoot.

Tony was a big believer in failing gloriously in an attempt to do something interesting, rather than succeeding at being mediocre.

Tom’s story is not the glorious eternal vacation that made it to television. For one thing, every hour of television required dozens of hours of painstaking filming, most of it with Tony Bourdain nowhere in sight, to say nothing of arguing with accountants, fixers, and editors. And looming over the entire enterprise, driving it to ever greater heights was an agoraphobic, camera-shy, obsessive star. More than once Tom resolves that he simply cannot take the strain of working for him.

I don’t think I realized just how spoiled I was to work on a show where quality not only came first, but it was also pretty much the only concern.

Behind the scenes, Tom describes, Tony was a different person than the witty and eloquent person who made it on screen. He was still charismatic, but he was also mercurial and manipulative. He was showed a different side of his personality to each person, as though he instinctively knew what it would take to get the best work out of everyone. The face he showed Tom was, it seems, crueler than the one he showed others. Their relationship was combative. Tom prodded Tony to speak. Once, in Borneo, Tony attacked him. He wonders at several points whether Bourdain actually liked him.

(He ultimately concludes that, yes, he did.)

Inevitably, the story comes around to Bourdain’s suicide. The last episode they filmed together, in Bali, concluded with a funeral and Tom reflects on how both of their emotional states had frayed precipitously over the past few seasons, leading him to ask whether there was more that he could have done.

“These are some of the things I look back on that are signs that I should have seen… I think that so many things in his life were like a drug. You were like a drug to him. If somebody overdoses on a drug, do you blame the drug or do you blame the junkie?”

In a memorable scene, he also addresses the rumors about Asia Argento…by going to Italy, getting drunk with her, and asking her directly whether she caused Tony’s death. Ultimately, though, he lands on a simpler solution. Tony was an addict for whom down-time amounted to giving in to his thoughts, to his demons.

I’d learned that the truth was he couldn’t rest. Tony always needed a distraction, a project, a problem to solve. And, for better or worse, the show provided that in spades.

In the Weeds gave me a new appreciation of Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s boss — and coworker and friend — was more human than the man who appeared on television and I found the fits of anger, the fits of insecurity, and the evident exhaustion from not being able to stop all-too relatable. Likewise in how Tony, a famously verbose person, was better able to apologize with actions than with words. This is not a flattering picture, but it is a fitting one.

At the same time, what makes this memoir so good is how this different portrait of Tony Bourdain is balanced against stories from the road that allow me to look at these shows I love so much with new eyes. I have been watching the Jamaica episode that features prominently in the memoir to test this while writing this post and it is remarkable how different it is, from small tics in conversation to how often Tony is noticeably alone in front of the camera.

By contrast, Roadrunner offers a synthetic, impressionistic interpretation of Anthony Bourdain that splices together extant video with reminiscences of the people who knew and worked with him, including Tom Vitale.

(The film also includes a brief deep-fake that I probably wouldn’t have caught had I not known about the controversy in advance, but doing something so potentially scandalous for so little return seems unwise.)

The film proceeds in rough chronological order from his bursting onto the scene with Kitchen Confidential to international stardom, and then death. This structure allows for one of the best things about the show, which was to watch Tony’s evolution from a patently inept star in the earliest film from A Cook’s Tour to the confident host of the polished show Parts Unknown. However, there is another way one might describe the structure of Roadrunner: before television, the evolving television star, and after Asia.

If one of the most moving parts of the film was the outpouring of grief from the people who loved him, I found the topic of Asia Argento, who did not appear in the film, to be a sticking point.

Roadrunner reaches many of the same conclusions as In the Weeds, highlighting how Tony was an addict who threw himself into whatever his passion was and noting that Asia (as well as her fight against Harvey Weinstein) was the latest addiction. However, the film also gives voice to a number of crew members who worked on the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown and exhibit a hostility toward her that Ton Vitale simply didn’t have. The result is that the film seems to blame her without explicitly doing so.

It is hard to say what I would have thought about Roadrunner had I not first read Tom Vitale’s In the Weeds. The film has its powerful moments, but it was also limited by so relentlessly placing Tony front and center while both acknowledging and brushing aside that this was not where he wanted to be. As a result, I found the memoir both less flattering and more satisfying as a tribute to both Anthony Bourdain and the vision of the world he helped create.

Kitchen Confidential

A friend of mine has a story about a particular show he saw at a bar in Austin. At one point during the performance, the singer explained to the audience that the world was divided into day people and night people. The crowd cheered the night people, obviously (and probably intentionally) believing that singer was praising them, the people who went out and enjoyed the night while the “day people” slept.

In fact, the night people were the performers, bartenders, and kitchen staff who made the going out possible.

Rereading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential in anticipation that I will soon get to see the new documentary Roadrunner reminded me of this anecdote.

The closest I came to being one of the night people was the period immediately after college when I spent a year managing a quick-service restaurant that closed at 9 PM. I parlayed that employment into a part-time position as an “assistant manager” at another franchise of the same restaurant for the first two years of graduate school, a time when I usually went from the closing shift to either Starbucks to do my homework, the Applebees bar down the street from where I lived to drink beer and watch sports, or, sometimes, the Applebees bar to drink beer and do my homework.

That is to say, I was never really one of the night people.

At best, I was night-people-adjacent. I got to know some of the repetition that comes with the weekly orders, the tedium of making the exactly same food in the exact same way day after day, and got pretty good at breaking down a kitchen at the end of the day, but my trajectory in life even in that first year was going in another direction.

My only glimpses of the other side of that life came on trips back to Boston when a friend in the industry invited me into the off-duty experience.

Kitchen Confidential is, basically, the distillation of Tony Bourdain’s public persona. This is the cocky, swaggering, observant, and surprisingly sentimental chef who went on to develop No Reservations and Parts Unknown. I have no memory of my first introduction to this person, let alone whether I knew him through the TV show or through the book first, but I had been a fan for about a decade at the time of his passing in 2018. Tony changed over the years, but he is recognizably there in this memoir first published in 2000.

At the time of the first publication Tony Bourdain was the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a French steakhouse in New York City who had published several culinary mystery novels that had more or less flopped. He kept writing, though, and this memoir developed out of an article titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” that he placed in the New Yorker.

The book, like the memoir that came out of it, promised to take readers into the greasy and messy kitchens of the restaurants where the American diner was eating.

But, in many ways, Kitchen Confidential is a conventional memoir, just ostensibly organized like a multi-course meal. Bourdain takes the reader back to his childhood when a trip to France ignited a life-long obsession with food and to his teenaged years when his rebellious streak led him to summers on Cape Cod where he launched himself into the chaos of the kitchen. He details how he dropped out of college and attended the Culinary Institute of America at a time when the standards weren’t exactly high and then to the run of jobs at which he progressed further into serious heroin addiction.

Despite writing a memoir from the perch at Les Halles, Bourdain positions himself as an outsider taking shots at the establishment and confidently declaring that the great Eric Ripert would never deign meet him (they became close friends and Bourdain besieging Ripert’s delicate palette with Sichuan chilis is one of the best episodes of Parts Unknown). The contradiction comes because Les Halles was not at the pinnacle of the food scene and Bourdain’s story was one of frequent, repeated failure. Celebrated chefs might put in their dues, but they weren’t supposed to be leaving a train of sunk restaurants in their wake or spend time making brunch years into their career.

And yet, this trail of wreckage and failure allows Bourdain to give a face to the lurid stories from the back of the house, to lend weight to the hard-won lessons, and to point out some ugly truths about the restaurant industry. You might not like what you see, but they aren’t going to get you sick. Probably. It just also isn’t going to be quite as fresh as it could be.

The food scene has changed significantly since Kitchen Confidential came out in 2000. Antony Bourdain had a hand in those changes, too, given that his shows introduced audiences—and possibly even Tony—to a wide range of cuisines. The No Reservations episode on Istanbul from 2010, for instance, has him say that he doesn’t know anything about Turkish food several times and he at one point refers to the local flatbread as “like a tortilla.” There has also been a proliferation of celebrity chefs and shows like Top Chef have steered away from a universal (mostly French) vision of culinary excellence.

A lot of what Bourdain talks about is still relevant, of course—the hours, lessons about running a kitchen, tricks of the trade, that (illegal) immigrants make up the backbone of the restaurant industry—but Kitchen Confidential is also a snapshot of that industry in the 1980s and 1990s through one very particular experience. Bourdain’s kitchens were a riot of chaos and disorder and testosterone that created an atmosphere that was not uncommon, but neither was it exactly the rule.

By the last years of his life, Bourdain was reflective on how his memoir given license to men who sexually harassed women in the kitchen. Reading Kitchen Confidential now, it is easy to see why he was concerned. He sexualizes food by his own admission and the book seems to condone all sorts of bad behavior. He mentions a couple of times women who can stand up to the men in the kitchen, for instance, and certainly he doesn’t seem to hold anyone to account. At least, this is true if Kitchen Confidential is read as a simple celebration of being a chef and not first and foremost a memoir of a junkie who obsessed over food and experiences with the same abandon as he did drugs. The latter caused him to hit rock bottom, but the former remained with him for the rest of his life.

ΔΔΔ

Between recent hours spent on the road and furiously trying to get my classes ready for the fall semester, I have managed to plow through a bunch of books I have not written about, including Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, Kelly Baker’s great memoir Grace Period, and Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. I intend to write about some of these books at least, and have some thoughts about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, but I’m already starting to feel sped up so it may or may not happen.

I am now reading two books, James Lang’s Distracted, which examines attention in the classroom, and Zen Cho’s Sorceror to the Crown, which I will likely write about in conjunction with H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians because they have radically divergent approaches to inserting magic into a historical story and I like Cho’s approach significantly better.

What is in a loaf?

My recent infatuation with Top Chef started me down a path of consuming a lot of food media again. I am a capable cook in a lot of areas, but a recent experiment with infusing chili oil reminded me that taste is a strange alchemy. It might have certain shibboleths (don’t serve fish with cheese, at Tom Colicchio pointed out to a contestant), but the key to developing complex delicious flavors involves a sensitive palette and creativity that is just beyond me.

Bread, by contrast, makes sense to me. It is simultaneously the simplest of foods — and one that has infinite variation.

Most people might not have the full vocabulary for bread (and bread products), but they can probably explain what it is. While baking technologies and the available resources for home bakers have changed, but the basic process has remained stable for thousands of years. Bread — ἄρτος, in Attic Greek — consists of just four mandatory ingredients: flour, water (or other liquid), salt (which helps maintain structure), and heat. Leavening agents (yeast, baking powder, etc.) and time are even optional.

This simplicity is one of the reasons that I am struck by other contexts where Greek authors use ἄρτος. Herodotus, for instance, describes the cooking techniques of three tribes in Babylon that he says only at fish, explaining how they turn the fish into powder and knead them into cakes (1.200). According to this description, one of the preparation methods involved baking these fish cakes “in the manner of loaves” (ὁ δὲ ἄρτου τρόπον ὀπτήσας). Bread-baking serves as an obvious cultural touchstone, but the loaves are not themselves bread. Bread still requires grain.

So consider this, nested within a lengthy bit of bread-banter in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae:

There is a loaf called the etnites, also the lekithites, as Eucrates says.

ἐτνίτας ἄρτος ὁ προσαγορευόμενος. λεκιθίτας, ὥς φησιν Εὐκράτης.

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 3.76

Two named breads with the same (or similar) preparation, made with pulses, the edible seeds of plants in the legume family harvested as dry grains such as chickpeas or lentils. That is to say “bean-bread.” Related words in a Greek lexicon make this point clear:

  • ἔτνος – thick soup made with pease or beans
  • λεκιθίτης – made of pulses
  • λεκίθιον – bean-meal

People sometimes say that cooking is an art, baking a science. The implication is that baking is a matter of persnickety formulas that must be followed absolutely correctly in order to get results. For cakes and pastries this is certainly the case, but bread-baking is much simpler, in large part because ambient conditions such as heat and humidity can play an enormous role.

I have only one secret for bread baking: understand how things you add will affect a dough. This particularly means knowing which ones affect the leavening (enriching agents, for instance) and which ones don’t. The former group changes the proof time, while the latter group is more cosmetic. But the list could be expanded to understand how higher water contents change a dough, how different ingredients and treatments affect gluten development, etc. There are formulas that can help understand each of these points, but I largely treat them more as guidelines than as rules.

You can find modern recipes for breads made with legumes, though I have never tried them. These modern pulse breads are additives because the pulses themselves don’t have the gluten of wheat, and technical manuals note that the pulses can compromise the gluten structure.

This leads to an obvious question about this etnites/lekithites loaf: does it, like the modern pulse breads, indicate a loaf that adds a pulse mixture to a wheat dough or is this an ancient version of a lentil loaf? In other words, what makes something a loaf of bread?

This bread might be named after the legumes, but I am inclined toward the former answer. Cheese bread might be named after the cheese, but the (wheat) bread is still a necessary component, whether the cheese is melted over the top or incorporated into the dough. Moreover, the line appears in a section of Athenaeus’ work dedicated entirely to other wheat-based breads.

For now at least I don’t see any reason to amend the core ingredients of a loaf of bread: water, flour, salt, and heat, even when bakers get creative with the other ingredients.

Life Intrudes

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.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef (again)

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…again.

I know, I already talked about Top Chef as something making me happy, but I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to become obsessed with this show. I usually watch the show while exercising and my current workout routine means that it takes me two sittings to digest a single episode, but this week’s episode just grabbed me such that I watched it from start to finish.

This week’s challenge was “Restaurant Wars.” However many contestants are left are divided into teams and challenged to create a cohesive dining experience for their guests in a short period of time. Because of the pandemic restrictions, the challenge this season was to create a chef’s table dining experience where the diners get interact with the chefs making their food and watch the process. In addition to putting pressure on the contestants to work together and work under the eyes of the judges, this format also required the contestants to work the front of the house.

Although everyone on the show is an incredible chef, the randomly chosen teams were unevenly stacked just in terms of technical ability. The one team had Gabe, Dawn, and Sara — three of the people who had consistently been landing at or near the top — and a fourth person, Chris, whose performance had been more uneven, but who had also won challenges. The other team featured probably the odds on favorite to win the contest, Shota, but also one person who was nearly eliminated last week in Maria, one who was consistently near the middle in Byron, and Jamie, who had already been eliminated and won her return at Last Chance Kitchen.

Naturally, the second team crushed the event.

I was prepared for a dramatic, miraculous turn, but I also worried about the first team from the start. Their menu theme was “fish” and while individual dishes were hits, the overall restaurant was a mess. Some of this is because running a smooth restaurant like this is hard and not something you do in two days, but some of it came down to their choices. They collectively agreed that they would do everything collectively. Each person would make their own dish even when it was not quite clear what the preceding or following dish would be because the individual processes didn’t leave time to taste the dishes. They also agreed to collectively serve their guests and clear dishes, which, not unexpectedly, resulted in them often leaving their guests alone.

It was immediately apparent that the second team had people with experience doing counter service. Shota took lead in designing the menu, suggesting that they loosely follow Kaiseki, the traditional Japanese multi-course dinner, but that each dish be a fusion of Asian and Latin cuisine. With that guiding principle in mind, they crafted a menu for a restaurant called Kokoson, itself a neologism from the two traditions, where almost every dish used elements from several chefs and culminated in a hot pot that everyone helped fashion.

Each team member knew their role. Shota managed the back-of-house, calmly and quietly directing traffic and managing the pace. Maria choreographed the front of house, with help from Byron who took charge of clearing the table. Jamie helped out across the board.

The food, from design to execution, had to be excellent, but what so captivated me about them was how they worked as a team. At one point it seemed that Maria was going to get overwhelmed handling the dining room while Shota, Jamie and Byron were ignoring her requests when, suddenly, they appeared and threw in their labor. Shota took overall lead, but he wasn’t a dictator so much as a facilitator. He made final decisions in ways that smoothed the service, but those decisions sometimes amounted to affirming what someone else had in mind like where they were going to plate dishes or setting the deliberate-but-precise pace at which the dishes came out. Meanwhile, each person was empowered to take ownership of their jobs within the team and fact that so many of the dishes were collaborative meant that everyone was tasting each other’s dishes and staying in-sync with the overall vision of the menu.

Things obviously would have been different in another environment where the technical proficiency of your team is lower and the real-world stakes are higher, but, having had a little bit of experience managing a restaurant, I found this performance genuinely inspiring. Shota’s leadership here was exactly on point, but leadership is also made that much easier when a team works together as beautifully as this one did.

I might have only seen eight episodes of Top Chef, but, if I had to pick just one to recommend to someone, it would be this one: Season 18, Episode 8: Restaurant Wars.

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.