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are we not entertained by top chef?
a taste of reality-tv's latest hit, garnished with jamie lee curtis
by alex b (@Lexistential)

I love Wednesday nights. Even though I am temporarily separated from "Lost" (hem, hem—Matthew Fox!—hem, hem) because of television’s annual summer hiatus, I am not deprived. Instead of watching sweaty castaways struggle with fire, I now check out perspiring cheftestants cook off on "Top Chef".

Of course, "Top Chef" isn’t the only reality-based competitive cooking show fun to watch with soft-core food fiendings —- "Iron Chef America" and "Hell’s Kitchen" are solid stomach-growling choices too. However, "Top Chef" reigns as my current Wednesday night commitment because of its straightforward competition; sometimes, "Iron Chef America"'s over-the-top battle staging feels like an exasperating WWF match or Nintendo game running too frenetically. Though "Top Chef" Head Judge Tom Colicchio criticizes his cheftestants bluntly, he doesn't preside over them like a Scottish boarding school headmaster -- or make them cry. In my book, "Top Chef" strikes an entertaining balance between competition and criticism with a kinder, less manic feel.

Alas, however, someone disagrees: Jamie Lee Curtis.

After viewing one of "Top Chef"’s recent episodes, Curtis commented to The Huffington Post:

“There were some chefs on the screen, all standing with their hands clasped behind their backs, at attention, as a panel of people (who are they?) told them mostly bad things about, I assume, their food. I knew they weren't nice supportive comments as the camera was close on the chefs' faces and they looked scared and sad. They were then marched in and out as a group until one woman was asked to leave. She was crying, packing up her knives. It made me so sad and sick to watch. Why was I drawn to this? I didn't want her to lose...did I? Do I? I don't even know her. Why would I wish her harm?”

Interpreting "Top Chef" and other competitive reality shows with the same horror she fled Michael Myers with, Curtis poses several questions about their impact. She wonders if we are eager to throw stones; perhaps we are not entertained. She even cites her most recent children’s book, Is There Really A Human Race?, as an ideal counterpoint to reality television’s current and seemingly vicious competitive standards.

Of course, I have a few civilized answers for the permanently cool Inga from Sweden.

First, I believe the Divine Jamie Lee is right about competitive reality shows like "Top Chef" —- they invite an audience to judge, especially because the show is structured around winning BIG. In "Top Chef"'s case, $100,000 is at stake, along with an opportunity to become a culinary star. While I watch cheftestants strive to rise from anonymity in Quickfire and Elimination Challenges, I make little bets from the professional acumen showcased on TV. I keep tuning in to see who wins, to learn if my impressions match the actual winner —- a person who is just a little bit closer to The Prize.

However, unless "Top Chef" has an equivalent sect of loutish Cheffies willing to torch a car like English football hooligans, I don’t believe people purposely tune in to rip a contestant to shreds. When "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi tells a contestant to pack his or her knives and go, I don’t see that week's casualty as a horrific loser. Other than the time Season Two contestant Cliff Crooks hazed fellow participant Marcel Vigneron —- waking him from his sleep and holding him down while attempting to shave his head -— I don’t tune in with a rock in hand or personal judgment calls. If anything, I am thrilled when someone wins, and bummed when someone else loses.

However, "Top Chef" transcends beyond bickering contestants who fight like leftovers from "The Real World". After all is said, done, and edited, I just want to taste the food.

Now, as I am an abysmal gourmet chef with a fantastic collection of takeout menus, I believe it’s appropriate to paraphrase Russell Crowe: yes, I am indeed entertained. When the chefs prepare their dishes, I proudly armchair-sauté right along with them; in the process, I even learn what a fancy little ceviche is. I also love witnessing "Top Chef"'s unabashed food-loving panel taste and evaluate the dishes. Thanks to Craft restaurateur Tom Colicchio, Food & Wine critic Gail Simmons, "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy" foodie Ted Allen, and heavyweight guest judges like Anthony Bourdain, I now know the signature flavors of different cuisines -— and can avoid missteps that, according to Bourdain, look like it would be served “in the economy section of Air Cambodia.” (On that count, Colicchio’s facial confrontations with culinary ideas gone south are priceless).

Although A Fish Called Wanda’s gorgeously diabolical Wanda Gershwitz believes we should collectively focus on trying and accepting that we just did our best, I think her sentiment is a lovely one our hungry, competitive world disregards while in hard pursuit of a prize. Along with many other shows long before it -— as well as movies, sports events, and other adventurous endeavors -—"Top Chef" reflects the raw desire to Achieve Something and thus Be Someone. When we pursue external goals to satisfy our inner rapture of being alive, there is no try. There is only do.

Star Wars Zen aside, I also find it ironic that Jamie Lee Curtis considers competitive reality shows like "Top Chef" as detriments to everyday life when she herself is a celebrity -— and born to affluence to boot. Given her privileged, Hollywood lineage as the daughter of actors Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, I suppose she doesn't know raw pursuit, or what it's like to pinch pennies for subway rides and ramen. Though she plays hustlers with rassy, sassy aplomb, she is never going to meet the middle-class or poor circumstances her characters stem from. Unlike us, she can afford her kinder, gentler perspective.

That said, Is There Really A Human Race? isn't philosophically irrelevant in the face of ambition, drive, and competition. Curtis's children's book reflects a realistic point in everyday life: more often than not, we do not accomplish our desired goals, especially when widespread fame, fortune, and critical acclaim are the marks. We need to remember that life isn't always a giant competition as we try not to kill ourselves in pursuit of our individual goals. Much as I wish life isn't a human race (and an occasional three-legged one), her children's tome doesn't stand tall against my own dream. Even in the moments I sit down to watch "Top Chef" with takeout, I'm running like hell to hit the New York Times Best-Seller List.

Though Jamie Lee Curtis protests the presence of "Top Chef" and other reality-based competitive shows offering wealth and fame as a cruel voyeuristic thrill, I truly believe the desire to write our own names across the stars -— even just once -— will keep me and other viewers tuning in. I want to know who will win $100,000. I want to find out who will earn the title of Top Chef.

Most of all, I want my food. I want it hot, I want it in front of me, and I want it served NOW.


An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.

more about alex b


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by alex b
topic: television
published: 3.16.09

tuning in to major tune-out
digesting vh1's celebrity rehab with dr. drew
by alex b
topic: television
published: 1.14.08


russ carr
7.20.07 @ 12:36a

If the cheftestants didn't know what they were in for, they wouldn't be there. And, I dare say, they could be up for far worse from a demanding boss someday. But Top Chef isn't Hell's Kitchen, thankfully; JLC would've gone into apopleptic fits at watching Gordon Ramsay tear into his plebes.

alex b
7.20.07 @ 8:01a

Given that JLC reacted as severely as she did to Top Chef, I think she would have had a conniption while watching Gordon Ramsay rip new orifices into his plebes.

As far as the cheftestants, hey, they're there to appear on TV, hopefully turn in a good appearance, and ultimately win BIG. They signed the release form to go in front of the camera. If they start crying buckets from losing... well, hey, they did it for the chance to win $100,000.

michelle von euw
7.20.07 @ 9:00a

JLC's comment sounds as if she wandered into this century from another planet. In our Post-Survivor, Post-American Idol world, anyone would come across kind of like an idiot with that type of response to the relatively tame ousting on TC. (It sounds like Camille's exit -- did JLC stick around for the chefs' hugs and kind words that followed? Sounds like she skipped that.)

I, too, love the Top Chef, but I'm a little miffed at how the show has dealt with its female contestants, particularly in the wake of Lia's departure.

michelle von euw
7.20.07 @ 9:00a

(the dreaded double-post!)


alex b
7.20.07 @ 9:14a

Michelle, I agree with your call about its female chefs. First, Sara M. wasn't given proper recognition for her dish, which was roundly applauded by the diners. Second, Lia deserved to stick around given that she won last week's Elimination Challenge- Sara N. should have been given the boot for making guacamole and calling it ceviche. (Personally, I thought Colicchio seemed reluctant to axe her, but bowed down to the other judges). Third, I wonder why Casey wasn't given the boot after two craptastic dishes in a row- is it because she's a pretty girl? I can't help wondering if there's a telegenic bias going on. (Does a chick have to be pretty to remain on the show?)

As far as JLC goes, I likewise agree- her comments strike me as naive. It's too late to oppose the medium, because if there's something the abundance of competitive reality programs does show, it's that we are all dying to win BIG and we're willing to compete in just about anything.

tracey kelley
7.20.07 @ 9:33a

I've only watched Top Chef a couple of times, along with Food Network Star (which shows an ugly, ugly side of Alton Brown), and, last season, a lot of Project Runway.

The format is all the same. Everyone - contestants, judges, guest judges - are posturing for the camera. It's maddening. And, frankly, it becomes less and less about the craft and more about who pulls what ratings. People win, certainly, and many on considerable merit, but I never doubt for one minute that the winners are selected more because they had more of an attraction necessary for television and a set audience for marketing purposes.

On one hand, I'm always interested to see how things are made and learn the deeper aspects of things I enjoy, like food preparation. On the other hand, how many times do we catch ourselves saying, "Oh, I don't want so-n-so to win, because he's an asshole?"

In that respect, JLC's comments are spot on. And we've just bit into the poisoned marketing apple.

jael mchenry
7.20.07 @ 10:15a

Other than the ridiculous crap that Alex mentioned from last season's Top Chef, I feel like it's one of the better reality shows in terms of learning vs. humiliation. It's not just about seeing someone dismissed, or watching them break down. We're watching talent in action. What these people can do with half an hour and a piecrust is really amazing.

You know what reality show did a really great job focusing on the talent instead of the drama? Shear Genius. And no, I didn't think a show about cutting hair could possibly be interesting, but their judging was more consistent and their atmosphere more humane than almost any other show I've seen.

alex b
7.20.07 @ 10:28a

Hiya Tracey, I don't know if other food networks employ telegenic appeal as a basis for keeping a contestant on a show, but Bravo seems to factor telegenic appeal/drama in its reality shows- keeping on cantankerous, narcissistic Vincent in last season's Project Runway much, much longer than he deserved to be on TV, and even with setting up a "Marcel vs. Ilan" rivalry/finale on last season's Top Chef (while booting Sam, the chef in the top 4 who demonstrated the most comprehensive culinary talent). It sucks that telegenic appeal weighs as much as talent in competitive reality shows, but this is a flaw that is inevitably present in the medium. (Heck, it's been around for a long time- anyone remember Quiz Show?)

As a viewer, I hope the producers won't go to the extent of really messing with the talent pool for the sake of telegenic charisma. I want the best guy/girl to win on the basis of talent alone. But unfortunately, some interference seems inevitable.

JLC's comments are spot-on in the context you describe- we are entertained by a flawed medium. Maybe we have collectively bitten into a poisoned marketing apple for tuning into Top Chef and other competitive reality shows, but I don't think we condone the pesticides. If there's a stone we'd like to throw, it's not at a contestant who seems like a jerk, but at producers interfering with the competition and talent.

alex b
7.20.07 @ 10:33a

Jael, I was totally amazed by what these kids rocked with half an hour with raw shellfish- ceviche, oyster mignionettes, curry. WOW.

I think Top Chef's got a great educational streak- I also like watching Season 1's Lee Anne Wong's webisodes of "The Wong Way to Cook" at Bravo's website, where she prepares the winning recipe for that week. With how she breaks it down, she makes preparing Howie's pork chops look easy- I may give it a shot soon. (But if anything goes wrong, I've got my takeout menus).

ken mohnkern
7.20.07 @ 12:12p

I still haven't developed the stomach for most reality shows. Especially the ones where cruelty is their bread and butter. But I do like Iron Chef occasionally, despite its cheeziness.

So I can't comment with any authority on this, but I'm going to have to side with Jamie Lee on this because, you know, Jamie Lee Curtis (rowr).

alex b
7.20.07 @ 12:29p

I actually like Iron Chef- my favorite episode was where Ming Tsai whupped Bobby Flay in a Duck Challenge.

You'd just like to be Otto with her boots, huh?

lisa r
7.21.07 @ 1:44a

JLC's comment sounds as if she wandered into this century from another planet. In our Post-Survivor, Post-American Idol world, anyone would come across kind of like an idiot with that type of response to the relatively tame ousting on TC. (It sounds like Camille's exit -- did JLC stick around for the chefs' hugs and kind words that followed? Sounds like she skipped that.)

I think you're right, Michelle. Honestly, I don't think JLC paid much attention to the episode in general, and how can she legitimately comment on a progressive series when she's only seen one episode and apparently doesn't understand the premise.

I enjoy Top Chef. (I could do without some of the prima donnas and odd fashion statements --what's with this season's mini-mohawk fetish? And please, PLEASE...no more foams. Foam belongs in a sink of fresh dishwater.) Other than that, though--it's one of the few shows I make time to watch.

It's rather like the "Oh no, I just got home from work and have 30 minutes to create something edible for the ravening hordes" goes gourmet. Let's face it, the Chef's Table is like a table full of persnickety kids, except the "kids" have highly educated palates. Tom Colicchio I think does an excellent job of being top judge.

Top Chef is the show that SHOULD be on Food Network instead of the Next Food Network Star. I've found myself drawn to that this season as well, but it's rather like passing an accident scene at times. When the head of the network wonders out loud whether or not they even have a star, you know there's trouble. It's not as if they have trouble finding great food personalities to staff their shows, so why jump on the reality show bandwagon for it?


alex b
7.21.07 @ 6:59p

Lisa, something you hit on is that Top Chef is progressively good, and the changes are evident as the seasons go on:

1) The cheftestants. Season 1 set amateurs against professional cooks and caterers; Season 3 is now a tight race amongst executive chefs and sous-chefs. From what I've read, Tom Colicchio stepped in during the cheftestant auditions because of last season's disgraceful behavior, and it shows. Not just with the talent level, but this season's pool applauds one another, even while competing against each other.

2) The judging panel. Where Season 1 had the unfortunately stiff Katie Lee Joel (hilariously nicknamed "Bot" on the TWoP forums), Season 3 has Padma Lakshmi, a cultured, genuine food enthusiast with good hosting talent.

Plus, the panel is always a good mix of highly educated palates- alternating between Gail Simmons and Ted Allen, and featuring terrific guest judges like James Portale and Anthony Bourdain (who also turned in a great guest blog for Tom Colicchio at Bravo's website). I get excited to see who's judging, and who the wild card judges are.

3) The challenges. Throughout every season, the Quickfires and Eliminations are always, always exciting. Whether it's selling street food in San Francisco's Mission District , catering a premiere party, or serving high-end BBQ for Lee Schrager, damn.

I really, really think it's unfortunate JLC focused on the show's deliberately dramatized judgment segment and blew it up as an awful direction. If she tuned in from the start, she would see there's a terrific show going on- one that is all about the food, and one with exciting competition.

lisa r
7.21.07 @ 10:58p

Alex, I agree completely about the judges and the challenges. Both set high standards for the chefs to live up to--a must if you're going to tag the winner with the moniker Top Chef.

With my background in nutrition, I especially liked the low-cholesterol challange, and was astounded that virtually every chef but Howie falied it. I sat there looking at those dishes they had to choose from and thought--hey, that can't be all that difficult to accomplish, and yet they all seemed to struggle. One thing I disagreed with about the lobster dish situation--it seems to me if a chef deliberately flouts the rules while immune, that should render immunity null and void. Brian basically thumbed his nose at the judges. At least Colicchio called him on the carpet for it.

alex b
7.22.07 @ 4:54p

I also thought it was ridiculous for Brian to stuff cabbage with lobster for the high cholesterol reasons. Totally glad Colicchio called him out on it. (I also think he's a fantastic head judge and leads very well).

However, surprisingly enough, one of Ted Allen's blog entries- Keep Rockin' That Lobster- contends that lobster is low in cholesterol and comparable to a skinless chicken breast.

lisa r
7.22.07 @ 8:43p

I saw that--but I think there's still an issue there, and here's why: Brian held the belief that lobster was high in cholesterol and chose it anyway. Even though lobster actually isn't high in cholesterol, he deliberately flouted the rules of the challenge because of his mistaken belief. As one of the guest bloggers (Bourdain, I think) points out, a chef with an attitude is not someone a head chef or restauranteur wants to employ. There's artistic temperament, and there's open defiance. I think this falls under the defiance category.

Then there's the whole issue of Hung and his flying knives and crawfish, but that's a different kettle of, um...fish.


alex b
7.22.07 @ 9:16p

Yup. I totally agree Brian used immunity to his advantage. It's a good thing Colicchio called Brian out on it. The producers might want to consider making immunity revokable when the challenge rules are purposely flouted.

And oh good God, Hung. Don't get me started on that kid. No question that he's an incredible chef, but yeesh, that kid doesn't take criticism- at all. I have no idea when his ego's going to land, but it might in an earlier departure than I thought.

lisa r
7.23.07 @ 8:12a

I find him to be incredibly arrogant, and somewhat egomaniacal. Harsh words, but what else am I to think when the man stands there and tells Colicchio that not only was his rice not underseasoned, he felt it bordered on being overseasoned? He also routinely states that other judges don't know what they're talking about--and these are people who've been in the business in some cases longer than he's been alive!

alex b
7.23.07 @ 5:02p

I don't think you're being harsh at all, Lisa- I think you're pretty accurate. Even with editing (and taking into account Hung "plays up" for the cameras), there's no doubt this kid thinks his stuff is the shit, and is so self-centered to the point of liking chefs who praise his food (Bourdain) while disregarding culinary jedis that have won James Beard Awards he can only hope to win someday (Colicchio, Alfred Portale).

And sheesh, if this kid was smart, he would have figured out that catering hotboxes dry out your food. (Hence, his murdered Arroz con Pollo).


lisa r
7.24.07 @ 12:16a

He makes Marcel from season 2 look positively self-effacing, and that takes some doing. I don't see Hung ending up with a James Beard award. Bobby Flay said something on "The Next Food Network Star" about the importance of respecting the ingredients, and I thought about that when Hung dropped that crawfish.

As for the arroz con pollo--I think that's the last dish I'd have attempted for that challenge. That was like trying to impress a bunch of Southerners with cornbread or hushpuppies. Never mess with an ethnic staple.

Hmmm...maybe they should have a cornbread and hushpuppy challenge. I'd be happy to serve as guest judge......


alex b
7.24.07 @ 12:40a

Lisa, I am nowhere near winning a James Beard award myself, but I can only imagine that it goes to a chef who consistently learns and grows- someone who still retains the humility to remember he can still learn something new, even if he or she is at an already recognized level of excellence. Hung, talented as he is, doesn't equipped with this ability- and even Anthony Bourdain doesn't think so. Have a look at Bourdain's first guest blog entry, where he comments on the differences between Hung and Marcel very aptly.

lisa r
7.24.07 @ 6:39a

I read that the other night, and I think Bourdain is right. I also think that Hung losing is inevitable for that exact reason. Sooner or later he's going to be on the bottom group, and it will be down to his dish and someone else's. Then he's going to mouth off and that will be that.

I have a background in animal nutrition, so I'm used to creating feeds using chemicals (minerals, specially modified fats, etc.). Nowadays I write science curriculum, so chemistry experiments are not uncommon things to be running through my mind. As a result I often find myself looking at an inredient or some event in a pan and thinking of the science behind it. However interesting I might find cooking from a scientific perspective, though--the whole molecular gastronomy thing completely escapes me.

I look at a jar of dried agar and think "bacterial growth medium". Hardly appetizing. That liquid nitrogen tank for quick-freezing ice cream? The very same model used for transporting and preserving bull semen for artificial insemination. My advice to would-be molecular gastronomists: If you want to be a chemist, be a chemist. If you want to be a chef, be a chef. Appreciate the chemistry that's already in the cooking process without all the silliness of foams and whatnot. Science underlies everything the happens in a sauce pot or a cake pan--but the chef should be, first and foremost, an artist, not a food technologist. If I want added chemicals (beyond cream of tartar, baking soda and vinegar), I'll buy something pre-packaged in the grocery store.

alex b
7.24.07 @ 8:01p

Let's see how well Hung fares in the next episode or two. With luck, he learns from his attitude. Without it, he'll be booted, and there will be lots of "I'm not sorry" articles he mouths off in.

The molecular gastronomy perspective of cooking totally mystifies me in the same way organic chemistry did some 10-ish + years ago. The thought of something scientifically prepared with ingredients you list simultaneously intrigues and grosses me out. Chemicals in food seems inevitable, but basing a branch of culinary cooking around it seems a little too Jetsons for me. But if it looks good enough to try, I most likely will!

Remembering Marcel's faux pineapple poi from Season 2's finale, I probably would have enjoyed tasting it and appreciated his innovation, but if I were to have the real thing, it would probably blow me away more than something scientifically "improved." I would love to taste the food so I can form a definite opinion.

lisa r
7.26.07 @ 3:50p

Well, nutrients ARE chemicals--biochemicals and minerals...but they aren't chemical additives or alternatives, and that's the difference. Perhaps part of my problem is that I'd listen to Marcel rattle off the chemicals (or the chef that competed on Iron Chef American last season who was into molecular gastronomy), and it made me lose all interest in the food they were cooking. How can I be intrigued, when I've spent the past 20 years of my life practicing the dictum of "no tasting of chemicals in the laboratory"?

lisa r
7.26.07 @ 3:51p

Double post...sigh....


alex b
7.26.07 @ 5:38p

I think what makes molecular gastronomy so unappealing is the sound of something that's been produced in a mad scientist/ Frankenstein-went-bonkers way- something nuclear, not culinary. Something could show up at my dinner table, and if I never knew it was emulsified with some weird substance or processed so scientifically, there's a chance I would really like it. However, if I know something has a laboratory or test tube aspect to it, I feel a little grossed out- even if the food tastes good, I'm turned off from eating it. All cooking is biochemical process, but oh dear... if it looks like it goes beyond standard preparation, I feel weirded out. (Again, I'd love to taste the food so that I can form a definite opinion)

lisa r
7.27.07 @ 8:41a

My feelings exactly. Why use agar to make something gel if you can use gelatin? I can't see the word agar without thinking of petri dishes, and having flashbacks to microbiology lab. Feed the agar to some bacteria and give me animal protein in my gelatins and mousses---PLEASE!

The old saw "Just because you can do it doesn't mean you should" definitely applies here.

And foams--both Hung and Marcel have gone on and on about how foams and gelees have the "essence" of this and the "essence" of that. The only "foams" I want to see on any of my food are made of heavy cream or egg whites, or result from adding a carbonated drink to ice cream.

alex b
7.28.07 @ 6:12a

You know what? I looked up Wylie Dufresne's wd-50 menu. The selections look pretty scrumptious. I will definitely have to drop down to that neck of the woods to personally check out Dufresne's molecular gastronomy offerings. (Then again, I've also read that Dufresne fries mayonnaise, so it will either be scrumptious or artery-clogging).

I'm not too weirded out by the foams and gelees Hung and Marcel make, for those seem kind of neat. But in terms of the show, where I have a slightly negative opinion is that Marcel showcased foam/gelee so often that I'd like to know what else is a molecular gastronomy innovation aside from either. I'd like to see another set of techniques going on, not just flavored foam. (Plus, when I think of foam, I think Marcel, and in turn, I think "Astro Boy." So not that foam wouldn't taste good, but it's Marcel, who just reminds me of how lousy Season 2 was).


alex b
8.8.07 @ 8:01p

New York magazine came out with an interesting article: The Near-Fame Experience of Being a Bravo Reality Star, which covers the post-15 minutes of fame of former Project Runway and Top Chef contestants. It also covers the casting aspects of the shows. Check it out!

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