How best to describe the arc of a successful reality show? Is it a soufflé, puffed and impressive right out of the oven but with a tendency to deflate quickly? Or is it a risotto, a delicate melding of flavors and textures that demands constant attention and tweaking to get right?
In the case of Top Chef, the dry-aged cooking competition that will air its 11th season finale tonight, the appropriate metaphor might be a simple stock. Regardless of what you throw in the pot — bones, aromatics, perhaps the hint of a pea puree — the trick is maintaining a steady simmer. If the temperature is too low, nothing will happen. If the temperature gets too hot, everything falls apart.
Never quite coming to a boil has been a virtue for Top Chef ever since it debuted in 2006. Its even keel has allowed it to stay on the flame long after many of its bubbly competitors have frothed over or gone cold. Other cooking shows (and really, there have been a lot of them) use a heavy hand when it comes to saltiness and fat — the better to keep ravenous viewers salivating. Yet aside from the occasional, egregious cream cheese challenge, Top Chef has remained resolute in its commitment to gastronomic purity. Personality doesn’t factor into judgment. Beef is used solely for the grill, not to goose ratings. No one is there to make friends, but they’re not on the lookout for enemies, either. Mostly, they’re there to make scallops. Top Chef continues to insist, almost to the point of preciousness, that the only thing that matters is what’s presented to the judges on the plate.
This is all well and good if said plates contain the virtuosic deconstructions of a Michael Voltaggio or the cerebral perfection of a Paul Qui. Genius doesn’t need to be tasted to be believed. But the longer this type of competition show — one that requires ability, not just hubris — is on the air, the shallower its talent pool becomes. Since Top Chef premiered, an entire industry in televised cookery has risen around it, providing a surfeit of options for would-be celebrity chefs: The deluded can try out for Food Network Star, the masochistic for Hell’s Kitchen. The underage have MasterChef Junior, while the merely busy have Chopped.1 But the high-minded Top Chef selects from a far more limited group. And the truth is, there simply aren’t enough underappreciated savants remaining to stock its pantry, too few expansive flaneurs in the mold of Fabio or Stefan willing to shuck and fry for six demanding weeks. As a result, the casting shelves of this particular Whole Foods have become picked over and bare. A lesser show would call for takeout; Top Chef has tried to make do.
And so, as the 11th, mostly underwhelming season comes to an end, it’s clear that Top Chef’s commitment to solid professionalism has resulted in a solidly professional show. There have been no breakout stars this year and, unless you count the glare from guest judge John Besh’s smile, very little flash. The food has (apparently) been exceptional, but not much of it has been inspiring. The season’s lone dash of vinegar — Nick Elmi’s refusal to give up his immunity to save the likable Stephanie Cmar after he made what was clearly the night’s worst dish — was quickly washed away in a backstage sea of pinot grigio and hugs. Tonight’s finale is a clash between two likable and relatively worthy avatars of the only remaining archetypes available to Top Chef: the steady, unfussy lifer (represented by Nina Compton, an Italian chef descended from Caribbean political royalty) versus the technician who learned to sprint before he could salt (represented by Elmi, a Philadelphian stress ball able to assemble a dozen components on a dish and season exactly none of them). Good as they’ve been, I’m not sure either elevated themselves to reach the finale. They merely endured.
For the second consecutive year, the most gripping drama was provided by Los Angeles chef Roy Choi. Flown to New Orleans to judge a relatively straightforward Quickfire — the cheftestants were tasked with making their own “twist” on the classic po’boy — Choi rejected the back-patting that has become the norm for Top guests. Instead, he sliced into the show’s rapidly congealing bonhomie like a steak knife through tofu. “Ya’ll fucked this shit up man,” he declared, stone-faced, to a group expecting to be praised for squeezing gochujang on lobster and calling it Korean. “You gotta find your soul in your food right now.” (Padma Lakshmi stood next to him with a shell-shocked expression I haven’t seen since the last time Mike Myers shared the screen with Kanye West.) Far from rude, Choi’s acid was the sort of jolt this increasingly bland soup desperately needed.
It seems obvious to suggest that a heavily sponsored reality show might, occasionally, appear a bit manufactured.2 But the beauty of Top Chef has always been the way its best competitors understood the increasingly complicated challenges not as an obstacle course to be maneuvered but as a staircase to be climbed. For nervous or sensitive types, the show can certainly be a pressure cooker. But a pressure cooker is also an incredibly useful tool, something capable of accomplishing miraculous things in a short amount of time; it transforms the tough into the pliable and the complicated into the sublime. I’ve always admired the unfussy egalitarianism lurking behind all the Reynolds Wrap on Top Chef, a belief best embodied by head judge Tom Colicchio and his steadfast belief that all properly trained cooks ought to be good and, when pushed, every one of them could be great. But Top Chef is the rare show that’s actually lessened by this sort of parity. It simply doesn’t account for the incandescent creativity that makes for truly transcendent food and, conveniently enough, truly exceptional television. And it’s an ingredient that’s suddenly in precious short supply. What happens to Top Chef when the talent cupboard finally runs bare?
It’s clearly a concern for Bravo. Back in 2006, Top Chef was the continuation of what was then the network’s brand, something I’ll call competitive refinement. Along with Project Runway (since decamped to Lifetime) and, later, the now-canceled Top Design and the severely underrated Work of Art, Top Chef was targeted at an upscale demographic, one apparently uninterested in the dumbed-down catfights of more pedestrian reality fare. Now, surrounded on all sides by shrill Housewives and interrupted by Andy Cohen’s rictus grin of empty enthusiasm, Top Chef is quite literally in a class by itself. It’s a bistro surrounded by Burger Kings, a lonely lobe of foie gras sandwiched by Wonder Bread.
Various attempts to expand the Top Chef brand have faltered, mainly because that brand, nebulous as it may seem when plastered on frozen dinners or cynical plonk, is still mostly associated with restraint. Top Chef: Just Desserts lasted a scant two seasons (not even Gail Simmons was savory enough to cut through all that cloying sweet) and Top Chef Masters continues on as the strangely peripheral charity bromance it’s always been.3 This year, in an attempt to move the needle, Masters added a new wrinkle: In addition to their knife bags, each of the featured chefs packed a sous-chef to help them out. When they weren’t deboning on the main show, these ego-free dudes (they were almost entirely dudes) faced off against one another on a web series called Battle of the Sous Chefs.
I have a feeling that, in many ways, Battle of the Sous Chefs was a vision of Top Chef that purists like Colicchio and Hugh Acheson might actually prefer. These yeomanlike contestants weren’t improvising and they weren’t aggrandizing. They were simply executing. It was a fascinating glimpse of the guys behind The Guys, the people who cook the food others get credit for.4 The only problem with it was that it was also boring. Cooking can be art, but it’s mostly still a trade; the very things that made these sous-chefs invaluable to their bosses — repetition, precision, loyalty — made them zeros on the screen. Bringing water to a boil is hugely important. It doesn’t mean anyone wants to watch it.5
Perhaps as a sign of recognition that their leftovers are now spicier than any potential fresh meat, Bravo this summer will debut Top Chef Extreme, a spinoff clearly modeled on Chopped, which is, itself, an aggressively boiled reduction of Top Chef. Though specifics are scarce, it’s been announced that Extreme will feature fan-favorite cheftestants and Masters competing head-to-head across three rounds.6 It’s a more appealing version of the strategy that launched the ill-fated Life After Top Chef, a stilted nothing of a show that didn’t just waste the talents of Richard Blais and Jennifer Carroll, it ignored them. The real problem facing Bravo is one of its own making: for the majority of contestants, life after Top Chef is actually quite good. Savvy winners like Stephanie Izard and Kevin Sbraga took their newfound fame and (relative) fortune and immediately returned to their hometowns like conquering heroes, opening successful restaurants and paying their good fortune forward. For them, the show wasn’t a shortcut, it was a leg up. Unlike the other infamy factories on its air, the people made famous by Top Chef have something to fall back on when the cameras go away. They don’t need Bravo half as much as Bravo suddenly needs them.7
While Top Chef continues on its noble, diminishing pace — Season 12 has already been green-lit for the fall — other shows are picking at its bones like stragglers at Thanksgiving. One of the absolute joys of the past few years of Top Chef has been the emergence of Emeril Lagasse as a gumbo-streaked Yoda, a wise and rumpled guru who this season welcomed the starstruck cheftestants to New Orleans, his personal Dagobah. Emeril’s supportive relationship with Shirley Chung, a manic striver from Vegas by way of Beijing, was incredibly touching. Where there once were catchphrases, now there was nothing but kindness and, as the challenges mounted, Shirley increasingly credited Emeril for her emerging point of view. With two distinct rounds plus judging to get through every week, Top Chef episodes are far too in the weeds to devote much time to these sorts of relationships. But I wish it were otherwise. What developed between Emeril and Shirley is precisely the sort of identity-building mentoring that happens in real kitchens every day, and it’s more or less the sole redeeming conceit of The Taste, ABC’s improved, but still inessential, culinary version of The Voice.
When The Taste premiered last winter, I ripped it for its hackneyed dependence on the heart-tugging backstories of its contestants, as if the sorry food they produced could only be improved with a few splashes of tears. But now I can’t help but wonder if Top Chef ought not to leave so many fatty bits hanging on the bone. Among this season of Top Chef’s more intriguing contestants was Carlos Gaytan, a 42-year-old who entered the country illegally from Mexico and built his entire life — including, eventually, a family, a restaurant, and a green card — from scratch. Carlos’s mastery of his native cuisine was both evident and impressive throughout. Yet the way Top Chef is structured, this sort of specialization is ultimately viewed as a weakness both by the usual assortment of French-trained competitors (Nick in particular sneered at Carlos for “always” cooking Mexican) and by the show itself, which tends to prioritize breadth of knowledge over depth. I would never want Top Chef to drown itself in schmaltz, but surely there’s a way to contextualize the food we can’t taste in categories other than pass/fail. Not just “What are tacos al pastor?” but “Why are tacos al pastor?” The stories behind the plates might not matter to the judges; they undoubtedly could help the audience.
But Top Chef is unlikely to take my advice. The one time its producers tried something radical — as they did with last season’s raucous, infuriating finale — it blew up in their faces. In many ways Top Chef remains as reliably hidebound as the classic French gastronomie its young, molecular-minded contestants have rejected, assuming they bothered to learn it at all. It’s ironic, then, that the one concession the show has made to changing realities, the seemingly cynical web series Last Chance Kitchen, has quietly become its saving grace. Devoid of celebrity guests, brand-integrated challenges, and all the assorted, familiar puffery of Top Chef proper, Last Chance Kitchen is food competition in its purest form, as deceptively simple as a velouté. It’s two chefs, the reigning champ and the most recently eliminated, cooking something straightforward — a piece of fish, maybe, or a beignet — head-to-head. When time is up, Colicchio tastes both and declares a winner based on nothing more than his own preference.
Last year, cleaver-sharp Kristen Kish slashed her way from the depths of LCK all the way to the title. This year, Louis Maldonado, who seemed to be little more than a smile during his brief time in the main competition, revealed himself on LCK to be a cook of uncommon intelligence and grace. (His plate of vegetables roasted under chicken skin was hailed by Colicchio as the “best dish” he’d tasted all season.) Watching their rise was often more compelling than taking in the weekly doings on the mothership, where forced collaborations and unpredictable conditions often resulted in eliminations that may, in the end, be food-based but are otherwise unpalatable. (Both Kristen and her former roommate Stephanie took the fall for other people’s crimes.) Last Chance Kitchen takes Top Chef’s spartan aesthetic8 and serves it on a platter small enough to suit it.
In reality reality — as opposed to the televised kind — the most successful restaurants are the ones that stay open long enough to be forgotten. If the tables are still turning after the stars have been doled out and the “It” crowd has moved on, that’s when the exhaling can begin and the real money can be made. In the food world, stability has always been more elusive and more valuable than sudden success.
As Top Chef enters the long slide of its middle age, it bears mentioning that the only industry less patient and forgiving than restaurants just might be television. Without constantly refreshing its menu, the cooks in its kitchen, a TV show’s life expectancy tends to shorten dramatically. Top Chef’s peers ought to be forever-running institutions like Survivor and The Amazing Race — but in those shows, the attraction is the game, not the players. Top Chef, to its great credit, has never considered itself a game. By sticking to its familiar framework, the show is making a risky bet its fans will watch the white coats no matter who is wearing them. I have a feeling it’s also making its network nervous. Can Top Chef simmer forever without steaming away into nothing? I’d like to say yes, but I have my doubts. The time to find out starts … now.