One common criticism that I’ve heard about the Top Chef franchise over the years is that it’s difficult to fully engage in the competition as a home viewer because when the chef-testants put up their food, we can’t taste it. Sure, we can assess whether the food looks good, plate-presentation-wise. And to a degree, we can also assess the chef-testants’ level of management skill by the way they problem-solve during the challenges, and how they comport themselves alongside their colleagues/fellow competitors. But at the end of the day, the chefs are being judged by the quality of their output – which largely depends on taste.
So, as an audience, we must take the judges’ word for it when they do their critique at the end of each challenge. This is markedly different than a reality competition, like, say, American Idol or Dancing With The Stars (the latter of which I am slightly ashamed to admit is one of my favorite guilty pleasures), where it is very apparent whether or not a contestant can son or dace well – we can hear or see it with our own eyes. Even Project Runway – Top Chef’s most obvious analogue (as a reality competition with a weekly challenge, an overwhelmingly short time limits to execute the challenge that invariably causes drama, a formal evaluation, and an elimination) – is an easier program to engage with as a viewer because we can see whether a garment is aesthetically pleasing and constructed well. However, it is nigh-on impossible to evaluate a chef’s performance – beyond whether they melt down in the kitchen mid-challenge – without tasting the food.
All that being said, Top Chef is by far my favorite reality TV franchise, and I think that is largely because of my background as a food-and-beverage purchasing agent. I’ve spent a lot of time with chefs, purchased a large variety of ingredients to consistently stock a sizable F&B storeroom, interacted with food suppliers, tasted products, and costed out recipes. Given all this, I like to think that by now I have the vocabulary and the experience to be able to see, based on the ingredients used and the techniques employed, whether a chef-testant’s submission will go over well with the judges or not, without being able to actually taste the food. I have found, over the years, that I am rarely surprised by the judges’ evaluations of the food – I just kind of know, instinctively, at this point.
Of course, maybe I’m just talking out of my posterior here. Who knows.
At any rate, Top Chef Masters is back! Season 5! Woo! TCM has always been kind of a breath of fresh air when it comes to reality TV competitions; because we’re looking at chefs who have already made a name for themselves, without having to have been on Top Chef first*, it tends to be a mellower group of contestants. Instead of being fueled by a desperate need to gain public recognition, they are instead competing for charity. They all tend to have a lot of respect for each other and are generally nice to each other. Between this and the fact that most of these uber-chefs aren’t necessarily name-brand famous, I often wonder who besides me is watching TCM. It seems like such a niche show, targeted towards the tiny minority who follow restaurant news and trends and therefore know the names and reputations of many chefs/restauranteurs beyond the folks who crop up on the Food Network. I mean seriously, sometimes I think they made the show just for me and I’m the only one watching (except I know Bravo didn’t make the show just for me because they have no clue who I am, and also I can’t be the only one watching because if so, there’s no way it would still be on the air for this long).
But hey, no complaints here. I’m glad I’m not the only one watching.
The Battle of the Sous Chefs web competition that is going to happen alongside this season had me pretty excited at first because I am a F&B nerd who kind of misses hanging with chefs. I liked the idea that we’d get to witness the chef/sous relationship up close, and get a clear idea of how that interaction keeps a kitchen running. But the twist – that the sous aren’t just there to assist their chefs, but they’re going to compete in their own competition – is pretty damn fabulous, as far as I am concerned, and has me even more excited about the show. I love the way the web competition is going to provide a vivid metaphor for the chef/sous relationship: if the sous mess up, then their chefs suffer in the main competition. If the sous succeed, the chef will have a leg up. It’s kind of genius, and way more interesting than just having these guys show up to play second fiddle to their masters.
All in all, I think this is going to be a fun competition.
More thoughts once I’ve gotten a taste (hahaha you see what I did there? man, I slay me) of what’s to come this season.