Thoughtful Revolution

In Defense of “Top Chef”

Full disclosure: “Top Chef” is one of my favorite TV shows of all time (and — as is evidenced by the show’s 6 seasons and multiple spinoffs — a whole lot of America agrees with me). So I always get a little snippy when people mistake this rich chocolate torte of a show for a fluffy, insubstantial beignet.

I’m honestly not kidding. It’s easy to label the show as “trashy” or “a waste of time,” easy to write it off as having no redeeming value whatsoever. Yet besides being entertaining — and it is very, very entertaining — “Top Chef” is one of the most enlightened, and enlightening, shows on the airwaves today.

Of course, the first thing that any loyal “Top Chef” viewer will mention in response is this season’s candid treatment of misogyny — and they would be right.  Anyone who thinks that feminism is no longer relevant might be in for a rude awakening when they hear Mattin assume that Jen, a highly accomplished chef and one of the season’s frontrunners, can’t possibly do anything but make dessert (“Where are you a pastry chef?”).  Or perhaps, if they didn’t catch that moment, their ears could perk up when the borderline-megalomaniacal Mike Isabella says that “a girl shouldn’t be able to do anything as well as I can.”  Highlighting these moments only underscores one of the show’s major crusades: to point out, and smash, the glass ceiling in the restaurant biz.  Every season, at least three of the competitors (men and women both) discuss at length the hostility that many women find in the upper echelons of professional cooking; Tom Colicchio, who shows strong positions and has done admirable work on numerous contemporary issues (see also: participation in eco-friendly food movement, volunteerism at Ground Zero, collaboration with Freedom to Marry), makes a point of vocally taking a stand against it at least once per season.  And the very setup of the show is a step forward in breaking that aforementioned glass ceiling: every season is about half male and half female, a much more even ratio than can be found anywhere else in the chef-restaurateur level of the restaurant industry.  Needless to say, the women who make it onto “Top Chef” get an extraordinary chance to prove themselves and show their talents, far more than they would necessarily be granted in the old-boys-club-esque top tier of cookery.  Unlike Bravo’s guilty-pleasure “Project Runway,” in which fashion-industry sexism is alternately muted and accepted as a fact of life that comes with the territory (e.g. execrable treatment of models), “Top Chef” could potentially be a warrior for good in the fight to raise awareness of contemporary sex discrimination.

Tom Colicchio, as well as erstwhile judge Tim Allen, have been known for their activism against homophobia; this commitment is evident in the show that they spearheaded.  Again unlike “Project Runway,” “Top Chef” neither fetishizes its LGBTQ participants nor silences them.  It certainly doesn’t force them into the kind of stereotypes or molds that “Project Runway” participants are encouraged to take on.  Numerous participants on every season, of every shape, size, and background, have been openly gay — and, in one of the most inspirational features of the show, it has never been a big deal.  Those competitors, gay or straight, who want to use their position on the show as an opportunity to advocate for LGBTQ rights (Ashley, I’m looking at you, and I admire you for it) are welcome to — but not every gay participant is forced to speechify on their “gayness” every time they face the cameras.  “Top Chef” understands that every competitor is there to cook (and to win), and sexual orientation doesn’t automatically change that.

But I think the greatest, and most powerful, strength of “Top Chef” lies in its revolutionization of the way we view food.  Sure, it’s a show about the people who cook in our restaurants, but ultimately, it’s about the cooking, not the restaurants.  And it makes cooking look so exhilarating, so artful, so much darn fun, that any viewer would be tempted to try it out themselves.  Watching “Top Chef” inspired me to start cooking, and, judging from the testimonials on the website, that’s not an uncommon reaction.  This power is only enhanced by the power of the individual challenges, which (while setting “impossible” tasks for the chefs, who always seem to rise to the occasion) effectively tell the viewer that no matter your money constraints, no matter your allergies or dietary variations, you can cook for yourself, cook freshly and healthfully, and cook well.  In an era where food — particularly fast food — has been industrialized for profit to the point where it is actually damaging every link in the vast chain of our ecosystem, and in an era where that industrialized food is sustaining us three meals a day, a knowledge of homemade cookery is not only precious, it’s revolutionary.  “Top Chef”‘s emphasis on fresh and local ingredients encourages us to eat healthfully and sustainably; its “budget challenges” and delegated sums of money teach us to do that cheaply; the sheer fun of it, the breakneck pace and the cheesy music and the oddball kitchen ethos, makes us want to do it ourselves.  Not everything is perfect about “Top Chef”: its embrace of meat without any acknowledgment of where it came from is disturbing, and so, conversely, is its reflexive nose-wrinkling at vegetarian or vegan dishes.  But if everyone adhered to the major lessons of “Top Chef,” our entire system of food would require a radical overhaul — and maybe, instead of killing us, it would start keeping us alive.


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  1. * Stefan says:

    When and on which channel does this show air?

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 10 months ago
    • * thoughtfulrevolution says:

      Bravo, on Wednesday nights. I don’t have cable, so I just watch it in segments on youtube…

      | Reply Posted 8 years, 10 months ago

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