Tim Goodman of the SF Chronicle wrote an insightful post this week about what makes a good reality show. For all the “dreck” in current so-called reality shows like “The Hills” and “Real Housewives of Atlanta”, there is also a slew of decent reality shows that are in fact competition shows that, as Goodman states, are “acceptable” non-scripted programs. A show like “Project Runway” inspires awe because the contestants/designers literally have to produce each week, creating, fussing, crying, screaming, and then one of them is deemed “Out” by the Teutonically blunt Heidi Klum, who usually shows up wearing something pretty amazing.
There’s also real suspense in shows like “Survivor”, the ne plus ultra of all reality TV, dating back to 2000. The juggernaut that is “American Idol” falls into this too. I mean, how do you script the way in which a singer can possibly murder a song? Or that there will be train-wreck moments involving Paula Abdul opening her mouth? We follow these unscripted reality shows because there is real drama, real characters (most of them over-the-top somehow), real accomplishments amid the real failures, and we get to follow it all. For all its tawdry and claustrophobic nature, even “Big Brother” still commands a decent audience in the summer months.
“Top Chef” is a bit different. For its fifth season on Bravo, hosts Padma Lakshmi and Tom Collichio bring the series to New York City, one of the big culinary capitals of the world, and where, as Padma tritely announces, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’’. Then again, food is taken very seriously here in the Big Apple, and on the show itself. Nineteen “chefstestants”, all of them in some ways real experienced chefs or food people, are brought together to go through “quick fire challenges” and then “elimimation challenges” that test their creativity and culinary mettle. At the end, the final contestant wins a $100,000 grand prize and a feature in Food & Wine Magazine.
So what makes “Top Chef” so addictive and so appealing? Well, for one, the show isn’t simply for foodies who are skilled food technicians. Who amongst us (I didn’t) actually know what it means to “brunoise” an apple? (Huh?) That was one of the quickfire challenges within the first several minutes of this episode –according to Wikipedia, it refers “a method of food preparation in which the food item is first julienned and then turned 90° and diced again, producing cubes of a side length of about 3 mm on each side or less”. Who knew? This show is also about watching these skilled (or supposedly so) chefs create both wonderful and complex dishes under pressure, or in some cases, fail miserably. There is, for example, always a “bistro” episode on “Top Chef”’, in which a team has to assemble a menu and “open” a bistro with little advance time. At the end of every episode, a winner is named among the celebrity chefs along with Colicchio and Lakshmi. A loser is told to “pack up” his or her knives.
I’m also consistently amazed by another more sociological aspect of this show. Maybe the correct word is anthropological. It’s not just a matter of having colorful and eccentric characters on another reality show. I happen to think that chefs are a rarified breed of nutty people, with oversized egos and who cuss like sailors. Anyone remember Marcel Vigneron, the poofy-haired jerk from season 2? We all wanted to kill him. Or Hung Huynh, the winner of Season 3 who felt he was better than anyone else. (Turns out he was.) Or evil Lisa Fernandes, last year’s runner-up with her potty mouth and surly demeanor. These are hard drinkin, mostly loud, odd, egotistical personalities who are bent on defeating everyone. It’s as if we are watching all of them in a specific arena and they’re fiercely touchy about their workspace and creations. (Me? I do sympathize with those chefs who admit they don’t like to talk while they are cooking. I can be a cranky beast when someone’s trying to have a chat with me whilst I’m brunoising some turnips. Yeah.)
And we’ve already got some interesting characters on season five. Patrick, 21, is a fresh graduate from the Culinary Institute of America. He, along with Jamie and Richard, form part of their self-described “Team Rainbow”. Richard, a burly bearded guy of 27, talks about his “inner queen” asking what Padma will be wearing (as the show’s website advertises); later, he reveals a weakness for the bald (and handsome) Colicchio. Jeff, a chef from Miami, has hair issues. Carla, a 44-year-old caterer from Washington DC, looks like a cartoon giraffe and is easily the most colorful and wacky. In one scene she reveals that she wants to “be inspired and lead by her spirit gods”. Finally, there are two European contestants: Fabio, a 30-year old Italian from Firenze and Stefan, 27, a German-born chef with a bit of arrogance. The two Eurochefs actually go at it a bit themselves (ego, again) but they are also sorta united in their dismissive attitude towards the loud Americans.
The action gets started right away, but before the chefs can get their competition coats, they have to perform a couple of quickfire elimination events. The first, announced by Chef Colicchio, is simply to peel 15 apples —without a peeler, using only a paring knife. The fastest ones will move on and are immune from elimination. In round two, they have to brunoise the same apples –they have to fill up two cups, and in the words of one of the chefs it’s “one of the hardest knife skills”. To me, it looks very tedious. After the two rounds, Colicchio announces that the four final contestants will now have to prepare something with the apples. The problem is that they have all of 20 minutes, a single burner and other ingredients in order to prepare something fast. Patrick’s Apple Slaw Salad looks pretty simple and unsophisticated, but the presentation is OK. Radhika, an Indian-American, does a Pan Seared Pork with Apple Chutney, thus melding the flavors of pork and apples. Looks appealing. Leah’s Seared Scallops rest atop an apple hash and
a small pool of apple juice and vinegar. But it’s Lauren’s Spinach Salad with the apples, blue cheese and bacon that seem a bit pedestrian to Colicchio and Lakshmi. It just misses the run-of-the-mill nature of Patrick’s and before anyone even sets forth into the Top Chef kitchens, Lauren is set home on the ferry boat.
The first elimination challenge of this season is to have the chefs pair up and design two dishes inspired by one of New York City’s ethnic neighborhoods. Chinatown is, of course, Chinese. Little Italy, Italian. Brighton Beach is Russian, etc. Then the pair is sent to that neighborhood for inspiration so they can then go and purchase their ingredients for their dishes. They then return with their loot to the Top Chef kitchen and they have two hours to prepare their dishes that they will present to the judges head-to-head. One fascination the show holds is the way in which these chefs work –their technique, their discipline (or lack thereof), and their ability to handle what all chefs have to master: time. In one remarkable scene towards the end, Jeff basically underestimates the time it takes to properly plate up his dishes before the signal is called. Like “Project Runway”, the contestants are constantly looking over their shoulders and commenting on what they are seeing. Hosea can’t believe his partner, Carla, is tediously picking out bones
from a smoked trout for their Russian-inspired meal. Compared to Stefan’s stunning self-confidence in preparing his Middle Eastern meal, his partner, a much shyer Ariane, feels a lot of pressure. People can’t believe the rapid knife skills of Daniel, who seems pretty super-human. Gene, who hails from Hawaii, is terrified that he knows nothing about Indian cuisine yet he attempts to create some complex dishes like masala anyways.The celebrity chef is Jean-Georges Vongerichten, probably one of the finest chefs in the world. All are awed, and of course, the contestants know who he is (more added pressure, because you could imagine cooking for your very highest peer in the industry.) Along with Gail Simmons, from Food and Wine Magazine, Tom and Padma review all the dishes as the chefs appear in pairs to present. Richard and Jamie (Team Rainbow) plate up their separate dishes that showcase Greek cuisine. Richard’s Lamb Sliders with Orzo Pasta Salad looked fantastic but I wondered whether small hamburgers would prove a little underwhelming. Jamie’s Eggplant Puree with Seared Black Bass, while possibly passing for Greek, didn’t look all that interesting, with the puree looking like gruel. Yikes! Richard’s lamb is deemed overcooked –something that’s easy to do for us layman cooks at home, of course.
The best dish? That title went to Stefan’s Lamb Chops with Tabouli Salad and Beef Onion Skewer that looked impressive on the plate. He prepared it carefully and according to Tom, Stefano is already showing some style and technique. Stefan, who was the first person to finish peeling the apples at the beginning of the episode, thus won immunity from elimination. Looks like he didn’t need it. I was thrilled to see Gene prepare something almost by accident. Admitting that he knew nothing about Indian food, Gene claimed to have prepared a Masala Rubbed Lamb with Basmati Rice and Tzatsiki –yet this was supposed to be an Indian dish, and Tzatsiki isn’t Greek. What a pleasant shock, then relief, it was for him to have Padma, herself Indian, declare that he had actually prepared a dish that he “knocked out of the park” with its authenticity and flavor. His dish was one of the finalists.
The worst dish is probably a tie between Ariane’s Crusted Rack of Lamb with the Farro Risotto and Patrick’s uninspired Seared Salmon Bok Choy with some gummy Black Rice Noodles. I couldn’t even tell you what farro was, but if it’s like couscous as a grain, it’s probably easy to cook. But I take it it behaves a lot like a risotto, which is not a simple thing to whip up. Between Ariane’s dish and Patrick’s, this competition came down to experience versus simple technique. Why go through the trouble of bringing out a frou-frou dish like farro if you’re going to undercook it? Also, when you think of Chinese food, can anything be simpler than a simple bok choy?And since when is “mirin-glazed” Chinese-inspired? Ariane really flubbed it when she admitted that “she had books to look at” when getting ideas for her dishes, which earned her a tongue-lashing from Tom (”We don’t learn to cook from a book”), which goes to show that these chef judges mean business. Tom is a relentlessly tough but awesome presence on the show, and if anything, he provides a lot of inspiration for the contestants to always aim high. In the end, Patrick went home because he simply lacked, er, seasoning that he would need. “You have a lot of years in front of you”, said Chef Tom, which Patrick took pretty well. He’s 21, he’s just starting out and he took his lumps well. This will probably be the only graceful exit from this season, since usually what you see on the show are crying jags, cuss-a-thons and ego trips (can you believe it) when these accomplished chefs are told that they are not up to snuff. Welcome back to Top Chef and keep the drama –and the cool dishes–coming!
Quickfire Challenge: Peel 15 apples, brunoise them and then prepare a dish using apples in 20 min.
Immunity Winner: Stefan
Elimination Challenge: Prepare an ethnic dish from one of New York’s neighborhoods
Dish: Lamb Chops with Tabouli Salad and Beef Onion Skewer
Best Quote from Judge: “Without knowing it, you have actually made one of the most classic dishes that every South Indian home has, and that’s curds and rice” - Padma
Best Quote from Contestant: “In Europe there is two kinds of people -the Italian and (who) wants to be Italian” -Fabio