Unexpected Pleasures: “Top Chef All-Stars,” Season 8

Welcome to a new, not-entirely-irregular feature that I’m calling “Unexpected Pleasures.” It’s about trying things that I might otherwise dismiss to discover the joys hidden inside. Send suggestions to staff@enchantmentunderthesea.org.

I used to watch a lot of The Real World. There used to be a time when I could rattle off the names and defining character traits of everyone that occupied a certain ludicrously well-appointed New Orleans house. And even if it is universal, the fascination with that kind of reality television is at least a little shameful.

That’s why it’s such a joy to find some reality television that trades in a more sophisticated currency. My unexpected pleasure for this post: Top Chef.

I’m specifically talking about Top Chef‘s most recent season. And even though it’s called by a different name, Top Chef All-Stars is actually season 8 of the long-running Bravo franchise. Other iterations of the basic premise have included Top Chef Masters and Top Chef Just Desserts, but while the nature of the cast and the food might change, the premise is the same in all of them: a crew of usually quite talented chefs are challenged with strange ingredients and strictures, and their resulting dishes are judged to decide who moves on to the next round and who packs their knives and leaves. It’s a simple enough premise.

It’s also a premise that sets Top Chef apart from what you might call the first generation of reality televison. In the beginning, reality television was literally just an excuse to watch carefully-selected dysfunctional people interact (trust me, I know… I’ve already confessed to the source of my expertise). The joy of this era (or maybe more accurately this genre) of reality television came from seeing people behave in predictably unpredictable ways, hooking up with each other, taking too long in the shower, stealing each other’s fancy peanut butter, being horrible to each other, and generally being a car-wreck from which it is so thrillingly hard to look away.

This type of reality television seems to persist (Jersey Shore and anything that contains the words “Real Housewives” being the best examples), but after a few recent weeks of thinking about reality television, I’d posit that there are a few new genres in this mix.

The first is the reality documentary, which includes things like Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch, and a big portion of what TLC and the Discovery Channel air. The second is aspirational reality television, which often features a benevolent rich person bestowing gifts upon people (Undercover Boss, most of the Food Network’s programming, or the unnecessarily complexly named Extreme Makeover: Home Edition are all good examples). The final genre is the reality show as talent contest. The hallmarks of this genre include Project Runway and, our business today, Top Chef.

To a certain extent, everything that could be called reality television is a mix of these genres. For instance, The Apprentice is a mix of train-wreck reality, aspirational television AND talent show. American Idol is a little bit aspirational and is also the purest of the talent show reality programs.

So that brings us to Top Chef. For me, this show gets the balance between the genres pretty much right. It isn’t purely a battle of talent; the bickering and personality conflicts are everpresent, and they actually verge on interesting during something like “Restaurant Wars,” where a team has to work together and figure out how each of their talents and personalities are best served as a make-shift restaurant staff, complete with host, sous-chefs, and even logo designers. Some people, it turns out, think that they are better leaders than they actually are.

Top Chef has also got famous chefs, big prizes, and fancy food, the hallmarks of aspirational reality. And you might call the sections about weird foods or how restaurants work pseudo-documentary reality. It’s got splashes of all of these reality tv genres, but it uses a light touch in deploying these things, always trying to focus on the quality of the food being made. In short, the elements of this show are all carefully balanced so that it still feels like it’s at least mostly about talent, not drama.

Because by and large, the joy of watching this season of Top Chef, for me, was to see creativity and passion, not drama. Mike stole a recipe idea from Blais? YAWN. Wait, Blais is making MUSTARD ICE CREAM? Mustard ice cream always wins out over “I miss my wife” or “he’s so full of himself in the stew room.” I’m generally really fascinated with the weird food combinations that these people come up with and how they make something that resembles food out of essentially garbage.

I don’t know if that’s enough to get me to keep watching, though. I did have a lot of fun seeing traditional dishes deconstructed and presented in surprising and clever ways, but I also had to sit through a lot of complaining and inflated sense of conflict. There really is a lot to love about Top Chef, and it’s overall very well balanced. But in the end, it’s still trying to sell Buitoni pasta and make me care about how Jamie didn’t cook anything for one particular challenge (JAMIE! How could you?!)

I had a lot more fun with this show than I expected to. And I cared a lot more than I thought I would about the intricacies of how these dishes were built and conceived. I just wish there was a version of this show that was maybe only a half-hour long, that cut out the repeated slight barbs treated as damning blows (thin insults like “it had a little too much salt” accompanied by horror-movie background music). If this show could get over its own sense of drama, it could be perfect.

But as it stands, despite my misgivings about reality television and about impenetrably complex cuisine, I still often got really excited about this show. That’s a success by any metric.

(Special thanks to Rachel Shtern for introducing me to this show!)

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