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Wednesday, 28 of October of 2020

Top Chef – “Room Service”

Name this chef. No, really, can you name her?

Last week’s Top Chef generated some testy reviews—when it generated any reviews at all, that is. This hasn’t been the most blogged about season of Top Chef, lacking characters that can offer the intense competition of season six’s Voltaggio brothers, the lovable quirkiness of season five’s Carla, and the amusing bromance of Spike and Mark in season 4. There’s also a serious and troubling dearth of likeability—where’s the Fabio? The Richard? In essence, there’s a lack of personality—more about this after the jump. But first, let’s look at other mean things people are saying about the episode, “Room Service”…

Over at the AV Club, Scott Tobias writes, “and frankly, ‘Room Service’ pissed me off a little.” Tobias notes that any competition program that forces an elimination of qualified contestants (Tom’s only critique of Kenny and Kevin’s food was a need for more horseradish?!) necessarily defies logic.

Cultural Learnings blogger Myles McNutt (@memles on Twitter) issued his first post about the program’s seventh season with a pretty harsh assessment that the episode was a “failure.” Analyzing the show in tandem with another Bravo program, Work of Art, McNutt focused on the judge’s failure to offer any useful critique of the contestants during their double elimination challenge. McNutt’s critique is particularly astute considering the structure of this week’s challenge, which gradually eliminated successful chefs from further competition as less successful chefs had to make yet another meal to prove their worth. The drama, as McNutt notes, derived from the artificial constraints of the challenge rather than from the limitations or personal quirks of the chefs themselves.

Riffing off of McNutt’s comments, I’d like to consider further how challenges may draw out the personalities of the contestants—or, rather, why this season’s challenges have not yet made these contestants unique and distinguishable. For example, is anyone able to tell the difference between Kelly and Andrea? Between Stephen and Ed? Could you identify any contestants other than Kenny and Angelo in a lineup, if forced to name them? Who are these people and why should I care about them?

The show to which I would compare Top Chef this season is a program that works the complete opposite end of the talent pool. It is sleek, carefully edited, and completely obsessed with creating artificial drama. And yet I am finding it more capable of creating true interpersonal and internal drama amongst its chefs this summer than Top Chef. The program is Hell’s Kitchen.

These shows couldn’t be more different. Hell’s Kitchen airs on Fox, a national network. Top Chef airs on Bravo, a basic cable network (qualifier: Bravo is owned by NBC Universal). The former program, therefore, must attract a broader (and larger) audience each week, while the latter caters to a targeted, niche group of more affluent and urban viewers. Hell’s Kitchen’s host is loud, rude, and frequently quite offensive in his treatment of his contestants. Top Chef features, instead, the grace of Padma Lakshmi (see my ode to Padma), and the unassuming authority of head judge Tom Colicchio. Top Chef pulls its contestants from James Beard nominees and restaurant owners. Hell’s Kitchen pulls from pizzerias and restaurant sous chefs. So why is Hell’s Kitchen the program to which I am tuning in this summer to learn about food, cooking, and the stakes of a life in the kitchen?

Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen purports to find an executive chef, but in truth it cultivates great line cooks. Nevertheless, these contestants are pushed to their emotional and talent limits each week. Teamwork is an essential element in each challenge as the contestants must complete a successful dinner service at Ramsay’s restaurant each episode. Though certain artificial structures at times heighten the drama (A new menu! A roomful of diners that are all under 12), the contestants’ efforts to perfect the skills of their individual stations and to communicate effectively to coordinate with the other contestants on their stations provides viewers with a relatively unadulterated form of drama. It also helps viewers get to know the strengths and weaknesses of each and every contestant, as chefs and as people.

This past week, a fan favorite (er, at least, she was a favorite of mine), Nilka, cracked under the pressure of Ramsay’s kitchen, begging Ramsay not to cut her during dinner service. It had become clear over the past few episodes that Nilka did not have the goods to win. Though she excelled on the meat station, she floundered on fish. When asked to create her own dish or to work with creative ingredients, her lack of knowledge about food became clear. By the time she exited, I thought, “Well, she wasn’t going to make it anyway.” My fan favorite’s exit was a natural result of the demands of Ramsay’s program’s goals.

It is rare that Ramsay cuts someone undeserving. Indeed, he ends each episode explaining his reasoning for each axing, and I therefore almost always end the program nodding my head. Sure, his kitchen is a place of verbal violence, but ultimately, he challenges each contestant to do their best–and no one lacks for opportunity. Can’t say the same about Top Chef.

If I wanted to go through the past seasons, I could describe outrage after outrage in the program’s eliminations. Most egregious, however, was the crowning of Hosea Rosenberg in season 5 (I’ll never get over it, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time I mention it—sorry). He proved the rule that on Top Chef being mediocre, as long as you are never the worst, is the best strategy to win. Taking too many chances will only get you cut. For a program that purports to look for a superstar, Hosea’s win was the ultimate testament to the virtue of operating under the radar. (Ironically, if you visit the homepage for season 5, you will see images of Fabio, Carla, and Richard at the top of the screen and will have to scroll way down to find Hosea—mediocre wins but doesn’t get you featured on the webpage).

Back to this season of Top Chef. During the final round on “Room Service,” we found two prior winners up for possible elimination—standout Kenny and entertaining Arnold—with Arnold being eliminated. Reminder—this is only the fourth episode. To have two winners up (not to mention the other capable chefs standing beside them) for elimination at this point is the game is outrageous. The first six weeks of Top Chef are supposed to be relatively boring (but logical), with those who clearly are out of their league exiting early. Unjustified drama just pisses off your viewers, Bravo. It doesn’t really qualify as “drama” (see also TNT’s various definitions of “drama” and I’m sure this is not included).

You can argue that Arnold was held back by his partner, Lynne. Or that he failed to assert himself properly about the cooking of the pasta (the editing here leads me to believe there was more to the story than was revealed). Or that Arnold was unlikely to win—which he probably was. But Arnold was a chef with a reasoned personal philosophy and a refusal to be mediocre. Those things, apparently, do not earn you top chef honors.

Until Top Chef learns how to develop challenges that highlight contestant personalities, I’m afraid this season will continue to lack. And you will have to find me in Hell.

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