The Reality of Top Chef

Elisabeth Blais

The allure of reality shows, more than any other television genre, is that they are relatable. ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ are quality programs, but we can’t really relate to most of the characters; they are, after all, fictional. Whereas the stars of reality TV could be (and in theory are) one of us. We tend to root for the ones who would make the same decisions we would, who would be our friends in real life, who (in theory) are not just characters hamming it up for extra air-time.


In the beginning, reality shows like ‘Survivor,’ ‘The Real World’ and ‘Big Brother’ featured contestants who required no special skills. Producers relied purely on relatability and sought out contestants just like the average viewer (though maybe better-looking). But then came talent-based reality shows, which showcased regular people, but with at least a decade of intense professional training or an insane amount of talent. When it comes to shows like ‘American Idol,’ ‘Project Runway,’ or ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ we, the viewers, appreciate what contestants bring to the stage, and whether or not we can relate takes a backseat.


And that’s where a show like ‘Top Chef’ becomes  rather hard to swallow (pardon the pun). Unlike the dancing, singing and sewing competitions, we barely get to see, let alone taste, the food from ‘Top Chef,’ so we can’t apply our personal preferences. Sautéed scallops with banana foam sounds unappetizing, so despite head judge Tom Colicchio assuring us that this is the best thing he’s ever tasted, there’s no connection to the end result.


In theory, ‘Top Chef’ should be put it into the skill-free reality-show bucket. But at the same time, these talented, professionally trained chefs are not really relatable. These are chefs who charge more money for a meal  than I’ll make for this article.


So why do people still watch ‘Top Chef?’ Well, in the first few seasons, ’Top Chef’ had interesting (and relatable) challenges. The average TV viewer may not have been trained by experts in France , yet the tasks set forth required as much creativity and thought as they did culinary skills. During each challenge, we wondered: What would I do? We had a way to connect with the chefs onscreen.


Given my lack of a Sears Kenmore kitchen appliance suite, I can’t participate in Restaurant Wars, but Season Two’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ challenge?  I could do that. Heck, I could throw a party around that. Contestant Betty’s slow-roasted soups served in a shot glass to represent sloth? Inspiring. In fact, after that particular episode, I wanted her to win, because that’s something I would have cooked.


So, ‘Top Chef’ producers, what happened to those relatable challenges? In recent seasons, we’re seeing a slew of the same, peculiar challenges repeating themselves. Hey chef, guess what? I can’t pronounce half the items in your mystery box, let alone know where to shop for them, or how you afford to pay for them and put them together in a meaningful way. And the physical challenges… Can I cook with only one hand, blindfolded and sharing an apron with someone else? Maybe, but really, why would I?


A word to the producers of ‘Top Chef’: We’re not, by nature, a nation of gourmets. The average American doesn’t know what a meunière sauce is, but they can name most of the ingredients in a Big Mac. So is the solution to dumb down the show? No. Because if nothing else, we love a good competition. Help us relate to  the show, and we’ll stick with it.


On a personal note, for the last few years, I’ve gone through the motions with ‘Top Chef.’ I wanted Richard Blais to win, but only because we share a last name. I can’t relate to half of what he does with liquid nitrogen. (I was actually under the impression it was illegal to buy liquid nitrogen.) I only tune in because I can’t help but hope they’ll bring back a challenge I can relate to. I’m giving it one more season. I’m currently watching a DVR’d ‘Top Chef Desserts’ while writing this article. I know the theme of the challenge is fairy tales, but I couldn’t really tell you what they’re doing. Once they started building spun-sugar beanstalk towers, I stopped paying attention. My microwave isn’t tall enough to handle it.

Image on the main page by Asbjorn Floden, Flickr

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