Top Chef

Following on the heels of Project Runway, Bravo furthers its domination of the reality boom with Top Chef. I was initially apprehensive. As a longtime laborer in fine dining establishments in and around Washington, D.C., I have intimate knowledge of the workings of the trade, and television treatments (whether “reality” or scripted) regularly get it horribly wrong. Think: NBC’s The Restaurant with Rocco DiSpirito, Fox’s Brit import Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay, or Kitchen Confidential (based on Anthony Bourdain’s memoir).

Such shows usually take the more spectacular aspects and common mythologies of fancy food and amp ’em up for “drama.” The chefs are tyrannical, the customers intractable and demanding, the front of the house staff greedy and competitive, when they’re not hopping into bed with each other. While these things do happen, on the whole, fine-dining jobs are mostly comprised of long hours on your feet, surrounded by driven and creative people. The contestants on Top Chef seem to mostly understand this, a demonstrated by the professionalism of most, even if the producers and creators only see the stereotypes.

Similar to Project Runway, TC gathers together individuals with varying levels of experience and expertise in the food business to compete for a passel of ultra-modern kitchen equipment and seed money to kick-start (or in some cases, further) their culinary careers. The main cast is a trio of pretty faces with distinguished careers in food. Host Katie Lee Joel has written for food magazines, appeared on CBS’ Early Show, and opened Jeff & Eddy’s Restaurant in the Hamptons. The two regular judges (a third guest judge appears weekly) are Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, both accomplished chefs.

Each week they present the contestants with a “quick-fire challenge” that determines temporary rankings and immunity. In the premiere episode, the challenge was to last 30 minutes on the hot line at San Francisco’s Fleur de Lys under the exacting eye of head chef Hubert Keller. Only three lasted. The second segment is the cooking challenge, in which the aspirants’ assigned creations are judged, with the loser booted off the show. The first directive was for each to create a signature dish in three hours.

To enliven the not-so-thrilling kitchen work, producers try set up bad guys and personality conflicts among contestants. This even as Top Chef‘s primary opportunity for bitch-slapping entertainment value was eliminated in the first round. Ken Lee, Dubliner by birth, Los Angeleno by choice, was primed to be this show’s Santino Rice. The Bravo website describes him thus: “Ken is a loose cannon, with absolutely no filter.” He quickly established his bad boy cred by antagonizing the other chefs-to-be, and then sassing Hubert Keller after being kicked out of his kitchen. It was as if Ken took all those aforementioned clichés of volatile chefs and learned them by heart.

Colicchio had to step in and smack him down, telling Ken he was being “arrogant and rude.” The other contestants made no bones about how much they disliked him. It is somewhat surprising then that the producers let him go so quickly, as most of the other characters seem so nice and genuinely getting along.

Some annoyances remain. Stephen Aspirinio, trained at the Culinary Institute of America (“CIA,” in the trade), was one of the youngest sommeliers in the U.S. (it’s quite a chore to be granted that title within the biz), and has worked at both Nob Hill in San Francisco and Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. He’s got the chops, but he’s a total egomaniac.

For his signature dish, he made an overly precious “Threesome of Colorado Lamb.” But his main pretension was his use of a portion of the scant dollars allowed for ingredients-shopping to buy accompanying wine. He insists at length and loudly on the importance of the wine to any meal, how it brings out the flavors of a dish when appropriately paired, and the chemical reactions of tannins in the wine with fat in the food. He’s right, but he’s so prissy about it that you can’t help but hate him.

Other contestants provide their own antics: Cynthia Sestito is a middle-aged caterer from East Hampton, who name-drops Beyoncé and J. Lo as previous clients, and swears so excessively that half her dialogue is bleeped out. Dave Martin is so high-strung that you feel that any moment he could erupt in a blaze of drama-queening. These two alone might garner a fan following (Cynthia: I already love her) or keep viewers coming back to see when one reaches critical meltdown (as Dave surely will).

But the show has much more potentially to offer than histrionics. What sets Top Chef and Project Runway above the majority of reality fare (as I’ve argued before, about the latter, is that the wannabes actually use skill and imagination to create something, rather than just trash other contestants or show they can eat horse rectum. And unlike Project Runway, the contestants here challenge common presumptions of the creative temperament of chefs; on PR, the fashionistas begin and end the in the same flamboyance we’ve come to expect of those involved in the trade.

Even better, Top Chef makes real connections to the contemporary culture from which it emerges. We are firmly in the middle of the days of the celebrity chef (and Colicchio is a well known example). Top Chef appeals to the celebrity dreams promulgated by the culture industry of the Food Network, food/lifestyle magazines, Iron Chef in its various national guises, etc., all part of multinational media conglomerates like Time-Warner and Viacom.

What the show doesn’t mention, which would ruin the romance, is that owning and operating a restaurant requires difficult schedules, immense stress, precious little time for a personal life, and regularly operating at a loss. Most new restaurants fold within their first year.