Unpleasant aftertaste: Season Five of Top Chef reminds fans why the judging is often hard to swallow

This week, fans of Bravo’s culinary competition will say goodbye to Season Five as another “top chef” goes home with all the spoils.  With a final four of Hosea, Carla, and the “two Euros,” Fabio and Stefan, it’s anybody’s guess who will leave the kitchen in the show’s top spot.  Stefan, the clear front-runner for most of the season, has stumbled the last few weeks, making rookie mistakes (like overcooking salmon),  and thereby seemingly letting his own arrogance allow him to get sloppy.  Meanwhile, quirky Carla–a favorite for any viewer who can appreciate a contestant’s unabashed joy and sense of fun at every opportunity the show presents–has had the opposite trajectory: she fumbled early on, but gained momentum after her first win and seems to have sharpened her skills along with her knives and been less likely to second-guess herself ever since.  It would appear that the real contest is between these two, with Fabio and Hosea having made it to the final four simply by the grace of having someone be slightly worse than them in a variety of previous challenges.

Top Chef is known for its disappointing surprises, though.  Anyone who yelled, “What?  Are you kidding me????” out loud at their television set when Tre was sent home in Season Three, or vowed never to watch again when Lisa somehow wormed her way to the final episode in Season Four knows well the peculiar nature of the path toward becoming “Top Chef.”  To add to the confusion, the show is the only contest in the genre of reality programming in which viewers have absolute opinions Re: who should get to stay and who should have left long ago, despite the fact that we are all unable to truly evaluate the final product.  With Project Runway or Shear Genius or HGTV’s Design Star, viewers at home can not only choose their favorite contestants based on the personalities presented to us through the shows’ editing, but we can also evaluate the final product based on our own ideas of the end product’s practicality or aesthetic value.  With Top Chef, however, we must try to compose the dishes ourselves, in our own heads, and imagine what they might taste like.  Ultimately, though, we can’t say for sure whose product is truly the best because we haven’t had the opportunity to taste it.

For most viewers, this means that the judges’ comments matter more on this show than on any other in terms of helping fans understand the level of success achieved by each of the competitors, and much of the time the judges provide information that helps “the folks at home” get a bit more of a vicarious experience.  Tom will complain about an overcooked protein, or Padma will grimace over the amount of sweetness in a given dish, and anyone watching can get a better understanding of what may have gone wrong–or gloriously right–in a given culinary creation.  The one exception to this formula would be Toby Young, who joined the judging team when Gail Simmons left to get married and take off on her honeymoon.  Toby’s comments reveal that he is more Simon Cowell than Anthony Bourdain: he is fond of ridiculous analogies that do nothing to help anyone understand why certain elements in a dish propelled it to greatness or sent it to its death.  In his debut, he had this to say about Radhika’s crab bisque, “The U.N. Weapons Inspectors were looking in the wrong place in the run-up to the Iraq War because I have found the weapons of mass destruction and they are in this bowl before us; stand well back,” and on the following episode remarked that in Fabio’s dish, “Pesto is the Big Bad Wolf which has blown this pig’s house down.”  Besides being completely useless and asinine, Young’s comments just aren’t funny, making him completely undeserving of the seat he currently occupies at judges’ table.

Still, even before Young came on the scene, something about the process of arriving at a decision about who truly is a “top chef” has been difficult to digest; in every season a true top competitor invariably goes home long before fans feel is fair, and someone who seems among the weakest of the group inexplicably finds him or herself gearing up for the final episode.  One of the hallmarks of the competition is that the judging is not cumulative: contestants are elevated to the top spot or sent packing based only on their performance for that particular week, regardless of how consistently well–or poorly–they have performed over the course of the season.

On the one hand, this approach to evaluating makes sense; a true “top chef” will, in theory, consistently perform in the top tier, and thus will continue from week to week to keep him or herself safe from elimination, thereby guaranteeing that chef a spot in the final four.  The problem with this theory–the fly in the soup, if you will–is that anyone can have a bad night: last season’s Dale, the aforementioned Tre, and this season’s Jamie all packed up their knives prematurely, leaving their fans not only to mourn, but to question how in the world some of the seemingly weaker players remained.  The answer to that question is the very judging system itself, which would be helped greatly by eliminating on a basis of a cumulative score rather than the weekly one-shot deal the show presently employs.  Such a system would have kept Jamie in the game (who was eliminated over poorly braised celery in a challenge that shouldn’t have forced her to braise celery in the first place), and instead shown Leah the door for having not even understood the elements of the dish that she was required to recreate.  Cumulative judging would mean that we might have a more exciting–and deserving–final four on our hands of Stefan, Carla, Jamie and Ariane who–though not always amazing seemend to at least perform consistently better than Hosea, who sacrificed Ariane like so much the lamb she butchered in the farm fresh challenge, and who last week couldn’t even cook a proper shrimp scampi.

For those of us who love food and revere those who cook it well, Top Chef still provides a wonderful weekly opportunity to watch some truly talented culinary artists create in their natural habitat.  A revision of the rules, however, might ensure that this tantalizing bit of “reality drama” would more fully satisfy the viewer’s appetite not only for great food, but for justice as well.


About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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