Top Chef

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I love food. Not exactly a newsflash. Keep me the hell out of an automotive supply store, but drop me off in the kitchen section of Bed, Bath, & Beyond and I'll browse for hours. Like many recreational cooks, I've entertained fantasies of going to cooking school and turning my avocation into a vocation, but then I'm reminded of the grueling hours and repetitive nature of the work and I snap back to reality. Or in this case, reality television. Top Chef, from the makers of Project Runway, is basically Survivor in the kitchen. Each week the contestants-- all professional chefs with real skills-- compete in a "Quickfire" (read: immunity) challenge and an elimination challenge. The last chef standing gets bragging rights and a $100,000 prize.

Despite my bias towards the format and the material, the show didn't grab me right away. It suffered from the same problem as all other elimination shows-- they start with too many contestants to adequately cover in one hour. The camera flits from one to the next, spending too little time on each to get much sense for who they are. The problem is compounded when each of them is creating something, and as a viewer I want to know as much as possible about what they're making and how they're making it-- and there's just not enough time for that.

Fortunately the problem is self-correcting. As the series progresses and contestants get eliminated, those who remain get better defined and viewers are able to relate to them better. Now that we're down to just five, the balance is about right. Only three of those five-- Tiffani, Lee Anne, and Harold-- have any chance of winning (and it could really be any of them). Dave is a neurotic mess, and Stephen is a pedantic snob. But they're all fun to watch, and observing their creative process is fascinating.

Host Katie Lee Joel (Billy's wife) is execrable-- even Pinnochio wouldn't give such a wooden delivery. But the two resident food professionals-- chef Tom Calicchio and writer Gail Simmons-- make up for her, particularly Calicchio who takes a no-nonsense approach and isn't shy about asking pointed, trenchant questions of the contestants.

Top Chef is on Bravo, which probably means it's running a few times a day. If you like cooking or the business of food, check it out.

2 Comments

Have you checked out The Next Food Network Star? I was watching Top Chef for a bit, but dropped that in favor of TNFNS because there was a lot less attitude and a lot more interesting stuff about what goes into making a television cooking show. And now I know what a swapout is.
Unfortunately TNFNS is just about done - this week was the week the viewers vote between the last two - but next time around you might want to give it a go.

I've been watching TNFNS too -- I don't usually gravitate to reality shows, but I know one of the chefs from high school, and it's been great fun to watch.
I clearly need to catch up on my TiVo'ed shows to see if the one I know is one of the finalists, so I can vote for him if he is! (yes, I could just skip ahead to find out, but what fun is that?)

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