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has top chef jumped the shark?
not yet, but it needs a project runway makeover.
by alex b (@Lexistential)

At last, it's over. I usually apply this lackluster sentiment to intimate encounters gone wrong and uninteresting, eye-glazing conversations, but sadly, it's relevant in the case of my favorite cooking competition.

This season of "Top Chef: DC" is over, and it's a relief.

Mind you, I'm not giving up on the show. Given that it's injected my life with an extra level of foodie happiness I didn't think was possible with my pork-reverent life, I don't want to stop watching chefs overstress the Quickfire Challenges. And, Tom Colicchio's indignant, grumpy expressions are just too precious to miss; every single grimace he makes is far naturally funnier than anything Gordon Ramsay barks on a regular basis.

But, like former outcasts suddenly gone popular in high school movies, this season of "Top Chef" showed that it's capable of being ridiculous and over-convinced it's awesome.

First, several of the challenges seemed arbitrarily judged. A win for an Ethiopian-themed Quickfire seemed like it could have credibly to Angelo Sosa aside from Tiffany Derry. I don't begrudge the judges for choosing Kevin Sbraga as the winner, but the grounds for dismissing Derry seemed flimsy at best. As a viewer, I want to think that there are no producer hijinks that influence the judges' decisions, but after this season, I feel more skeptical.

Additionally, some of the challenges seemed poorly conceived, and unfriendly towards showcasing a cheftestant's skill and talents. It's unclear if it's due to production resuming without chef (and former culinary producer) Lee Anne Wong, but the challenges— along with general editing— seemed more interested in making the chefs jump through reality television fire hoops. Apart from seeming like a "Chopped" ripoff, this season's multiple Mystery Box challenge seemed more taxing than necessary. Less gimmicky challenges, and more mise en place relay race, please.

My last chicken bone to pick with "Top Chef" is its casting. This season's pedigreed cast seemed exciting, but showed that a few lumps could get in the proverbial soup regardless. Though Angelo Sosa was fantastic to watch (as well as to meet), I would have liked to see him compete against another chef of his caliber instead of videographer-turned-chef (and possible pea puree thief) Alex Reznick. While I additionally enjoyed watching Tiffany Derry and Kelly Liken, I thought Timothy Dean was underwhelming past his own Teddy Pendergrass-esque spin. The "Top Chef" kitchen needs to be cast with truly talented candidates instead of older, overeager "executive" chefs who don't deliver on television past sharpening their knives and citing James Beard recognition.

Thus, "Top Chef" is on the verge of losing its culinary cool and slipping to the reality level of "Master Chef." And, I'm concerned. The last thing I want is for "Top Chef" to take on the hysteric-prone editing of any Fox reality production. However, I think it can avert completely jumping the shark by adapting a few tactics used by its former reality sister competition: "Project Runway."

When it comes to this season of "Project Runway", I can't see any flaws that eagle-eyed Nina Garcia can spot within seconds of a runway strut. If anything, I'm thrilled with its format changes. Its ninety-minute broadcast gives me an extra thirty minutes to watch; now, both the judging and contestant interactions seem far more authentic and less quippy from commercial interruption. The challenges haven't ridiculously devolved into the designers sewing a dress together with Siamese constraints, but remained solid. And, the show primarily casts up-and-coming talent to anoint instead of professionals looking for an extra laurel.

As a result, "Project Runway" is an even better, prettier version of itself without resorting to Heidi Montag tactics for makeover magic. I wonder how "Top Chef" would look like with after a few tweaks of its own, and can't help thinking that a ninety-minute show would be far, far better than the hyper-edited, product-placement happy segment it now is. Every fan apart from myself would appreciate extra time with Tom and Padma at Judges Table. And I don't see how anyone would mind additional time to know the cheftestants better, as well as their food.

Of course, since I haven't become a network executive or empress of my very own island yet, I'm not sure Bravo is willing to take the advice I'm dishing out. Fresh from winning an Emmy for its Las Vegas season, Bravo (and Magical Elves) may be kind of deaf. And, they might not want to overtly crib notes from the Lifetime Channel. But (I'm looking at you, Andy Cohen), I hope someone may be reasonable enough to suggest a few changes to the format.

Though I don't think "Top Chef" is about to change its recipe, I hope they take my words as food for thought. The show needs to get back to what it's forgotten: the basics. I became a hugely obsessed foodie after watching its first season, which consisted of little more than talented chefs hungry to own their own restaurant, and ready to make the best dish to prove it. Hopefully, subsequent seasons of "Top Chef" return to those rustic roots, and doesn't resort to trying to bottle the magic of "Top Chef: Las Vegas" into something formulaic.

So, at last, "Top Chef: DC" is over, and I won't be tortured anymore.

But, of course, I can't wait for "Top Chef: All Stars."


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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robert melos
9.25.10 @ 4:04p

I don't know if they jumped the shark, but I bet they could sure cook the shark.

alex b
9.25.10 @ 4:31p

They haven't jumped the shark- not yet. But the show veered away from its coolness as a chef-friendly cooking competition and went into ridiculous reality show-edited direction, and didn't need to go there.

And as far as actually *cooking* shark goes, that's something only someone super-talented can do. I remain unbelieving till I see it.

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