Top Chef’s Dissembled Feast

Avant-Garde Breakfast

Coffee caviar, hot molasses foam, coddled quail eggs,
blini, and bacon powder
For the coffee caviar:
8 ounces freshly brewed coffee
1/2 teaspoon alginate acid
1/2 teaspoon calcium chloride
While cold, mix coffee with alginate in blender until alginate has dissolved. Heat mixture to 205 degrees and hold. Dissolve the calcium chloride in the water and reserve. To serve: Fill a syringe with the coffee solution. Release one drop of coffee solution at a time into calcium chloride solution and cook 1 minute. Strain and rinse the caviar in a cold water bath. 

(From Marcel Vigneron & Heidi Knapp Rinella, printed in Las Vegas Review Journal, October 18, 2006.)

How delightful to love a show that lies to you!

And viewers did love Top Chef, notwithstanding the critics’ griping about the untasted food, the arbitrary judging, the unceasing product placement, and always the upwelling drama. Of course Manhattan chef-owner Tom Colicchio dithered on about the contestants’ travails “in and out of the Kenmore Pro Kitchen.” The chef-contestants would always be challenged to concoct an amuse-bouche of Nestlé and Kraft products. Food & Wine magazine would forever be finding its way into conversation. And Tim Gunn would always be streaking by in his Saturn Sky Roadster. These were the small dishonesties that served the budget; the larger ones bolstered the plot.

Moral clarity is crucial to the survival of reality television. Good must battle evil, emotion must battle intellect: jock against nerd, Ilan Hall against Marcel Vigneron, “avant-garde breakfast” against the ordinary kind. The producers painstakingly placed character-defining red herrings in the form of cosmically ironic bluster by the contestants (“I felt really confident, and I knew that this time I was in it to win”), and brutal juxtapositions dramatizing the character arcs (Sam’s weekly imperious recounting of the drama of the diabetic chef, while across the room Michael clowned, pounding beers and giving noogies). The reality was manifestly cherry-picked, which is still a perfectly acceptable form of reality—in fact, it was details like these that set Top Chef and Project: Runway at the top of their class.

The advanced, virulent form of television pioneered by MTV’s The Real World is an inside-out machine of sorts, making viewers into actors in a drama informed by their ignorance of what is really going on around/between/to them. Survivor turned The Real World’s crank one click further, updating reality television by splitting reality neatly into Documentary and Competition. Top Chef and Project: Runway cut the average viewer from the cast of characters, as exotic locales were traded for exotic states of mind: high culture. Producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz have stated that one of their goals in Top Chef and P:R was to portray moments of artistic inspiration, citing Jay McCarroll’s invention of the Chrysler Building dress in the first season of P:R as one of their great triumphs. Thus is divine afflatus collapsed into skirts and braised short ribs.

What did Cutforth and Lipsitz find interesting for us to watch in Top Chef? Not so much the food, to be frank. We saw the ingredients from too many angles to understand it during the cooking montage, then caught only a single close-up flyover during judging. If we were particularly lucky, we would be granted a shot of Eric Ripert shoveling Ilan’s unarticulated chicken-liver chocolate into his quick, wet lips, or a sweaty Gail Simmons fidgeting with an inexpert forkful of Fideo’s. For the most part, however, the food was revisited only in withering epithet (“To be honest, I had a hard time getting it down,” “Well it wasn’t crap on a plate!” “It’ll take more than saffron and paprika to make me cry”), and this was sensible: no one really convincingly won on Top Chef, the contestants who proceeded only didn’t lose.

Talent is of limited interest to reality-television producers. Inspiration is fascinating; craftsmanship and execution are engaging. (Though also suspicious: contestants accused one another of cheating almost nightly—whether Marcel, for possession of unauthorized recipes and chemicals, or Betty, for use of unsanctioned olive oil and sugar to curry favor with overweight children at Camp Glucose.) Ambition and commitment are assumed from the beginning (“I’m in it to win,” repeated by everyone ad nauseam). But what the producers really love is the Fall Guy.

It was hailed as Clippergate on chow.com the night that Elia and Ilan shaved their heads and exhorted Cliff to shave Marcel’s as well. It had been a successful elimination challenge—the preparation of romantic dinners—though Marcel persisted in his program of whining about refrigerator doors left open. The contestants asked for a camcorder to record their drunken exploits that evening, and the shaky, dingy-colored playback made watching what ensued even more peculiar. Cliff flipped the light on in the living room and gently roused the slumbering, shirtless Marcel from the couch before clapping him in a full-nelson and pinning him to the floor. The camera panned to the left to show Sam lounging and smirking on the facing couch. In Marcel’s retelling, Cliff allowed Marcel up only to pelt him with oversize chocolate bars as he scampered off to bed down in the bathroom behind a locked door.

The producers repackaged this event in numerous dishonest ways—they forced Elia to wear a wig and Ilan to don a mélange of scalp covering devices as they recorded follow-up personal testimonials—and then, oddly, reedited the handheld footage so as to flip the chronology. It appeared as if the breaking of Marcel Vigneron was the uncouth culmination of a raucous evening. Shots of Cliff’s full-nelson were juggled and resized to make it appear that Elia and Ilan were elsewhere, though careful viewers at chow.com posted screencaps showing clear proof that Elia was not only present, giggling in a heap on the floor, but that her head was not yet shaved. Most mystifying: the sight of a freshly buzzed Elia mugging horrifyingly as she recommended shaving off Marcel’s lamentable hairstyle as well. That she said this after the incident had already occurred raises suspicion that the chefs themselves were attempting to control their own character arcs. In a subsequent interview, Tom Colicchio revealed that after watching the raw footage from that night, his intention was to eliminate all four of Marcel’s tormentors, but the producers intervened and helped him choose a sacrificial lamb. For Cutforth and Lipsitz, blame must always be assigned, losing teams must select a weak link and pile on, and any footage that makes the outcome ambiguous has to be edited. Cliff was named Fall Guy, and Ilan Hall’s ascension unfolded inexorably.

Incidents like this one did the better part of the souring of traditional food authorities on Top Chef. Naturally, the Brunis and Steingartens of the world would prefer their meals to join the table in a state of perfect Kantian detachment. If the project of Top Chef was to capture moments of inspiration in the midst of a larger competition, the accomplishment was primarily a record of inspired failures. These are the most memorable dishes: a smeary, chunky tomato-beet soup drunk out of a champagne glass; the single Cheetoh rolled in chocolate; the hot watermelon enveloped in Gorgonzola for dessert. The final assessment in the finale was just not about the food. Ilan won for being a leader, motivator, politician, businessman. On ruhlman.com, Anthony Bourdain lent his voice to the discourse: “So Ilan cribs his offerings shamelessly from Andy Nusser. And he’s a manipulative, conspiratorial, vindictive, weasely little shit… (Hardly impediments to a career as a chef.) These are classic assets.”

The fundamental argument of Top Chef did not concern the struggle of soulful chef against intellectual chef (Ilan wasn’t soulful enough, and Marcel certainly hadn’t any type of great brain), so much as it did the internal ordering of business virtues and artistic virtues. The prize money was called “seed money”; the guest judges throughout the season resembled a pantheon of bigwigs from every corner of the fine-dining and lifestyle world; the challenges took the form of open-ended questions designed to filter for the particular talents a functioning profitable celebrity chef would (claim to) possess; the outcome hinged on blame, not inspiration. What was exciting about watching Top Chef was the montage of activity, as that strange bass and electronic song played: the flurry of professionals doing what they had been trained to do, screwing up, dropping things, breaking glass, getting furious at each other, in a drastically truncated space of time. Writ small, this is the montage of the larger career of a chef, with the finger on fast-forward, the faces recognizable sitting at table, the failures standing out while the routine successes blend together night after night. This is what the character arcs beget: the small and large dishonesties create an imagined documentary that can only arise from playing through the entire competition, until you yourself finally lose, take your position among the fallen, and comment on your own highlights reel, as if you were there again, recognizing yourself in your own fictional career.

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