How We’d Fix It: A Four-Step Recipe for Restoring ‘Top Chef’ to GloryBravo
This week Top Chef will pay the check on its 12th season. As a loyal diner — I haven’t missed a single Quickfire in all that time — you’ll forgive me if I’m feeling a little stuffed. At its best, the Bravo series remains a classy outlier in the grimy world of reality television, still stubbornly dedicated to the idea of promoting craftsmanship and skill over cheap catfights and cheaper hookups. Not even the obscuring scrim of a thousand Glad™-branded plastic bags can stop Top Chef finalists from presenting plates of artful, often deeply soulful food to the judges. Buried like truffles amid this season’s muck of dorm-room ramen and over-marbled beef were genuinely moving moments of inspiration and grit. In a season that expected its contestants to transform cranberries into something sweet, there was no better metaphor than watching Mei construct dirt that was not only edible, but evidently delicious.
But enough with the gratuities. Even the most ravenous of fans would admit that Top Chef is losing steam. Ratings are down across the board (though, it should be noted, still relatively robust by cable standards). And in a far more worrying trend, the talent pool is severely diminished as well. Part of this can be ascribed to competition — sous chefs with loans and a lack of free time are better served by Chopped; hacks will always have Hell’s Kitchen — but it’s also clear that established chefs are increasingly wary of loaning out top talent for six weeks of televised ego-stoking. If the country’s best restaurateurs are no longer willing to offer up their lieutenants — José Andrés, onetime mentor to Michael Voltaggio and Mike Isabella, has shut off the pipeline for good — then Top Chef will surely suffer. A considerable chunk of the show’s prestige has always come from its connection to the deeply ingrained, highly respected chain of influence that defines the American culinary scene. Without access to the best-trained young cooks, Top Chef is forced to skim from the same cloudy consommé as everyone else. The result, which was evident in Boston, is a very clear distinction between legitimate contenders and a soggy stew of betoqued human interest stories, overmatched culinary instructors, and vain, dilletantish private chefs.
This divide is a problem because, unlike most reality shows, Top Chef’s appeal comes from excellence, not meritocracy. As I’ve written before, I don’t want to see a nobody become a star; I want to see a potential somebody given the chance to excel. Today’s season finale is unquestionably just. It will pit Gregory, a slashing rapier of Thai spices and saucing, against Mei, an impassive craftswoman who, like many cooks, hides the soul of an artist beneath the gruff bearing of a steelworker. The chance to see the two face off with no parameters but their own imagination and skill — Top Chef has thankfully stopped tinkering with the format of its final challenge — is thrilling and a worthy representation of whatever it is that keeps stalwarts like Tom Colicchio and Jacques Pépin coming back year after year. The problem isn’t where we ended up, it’s how we got here. Thanks to a diminished talent pool and some stale decision-making, this season felt less like a competition and more like a grueling war of attrition. Since the outcome was never in doubt, why did we have to suffer so long to get here?
Top Chef has already been renewed for a 13th season. There are rumors flying that the host city might be Nashville, a hugely exciting choice for a show that can live or die on its location. (Aspirants should begin working up a personalized take on hot chicken now.) Still, it’s not too late to tweak the recipe. Last year I wrote that Top Chef was gliding into a middle age of stubborn professionalism. Since professionalism, in food and television, can often translate as boredom, here are four suggestions for bringing Top Chef back to a boil.
1. Reduce the Stock
“Sous Your Daddy!” the best episode of Top Chef: Boston, was notable for many reasons, among them Melissa’s touching relationship with her mother and Mei’s inability to look her doofus brother in the eye. But what made it truly special wasn’t the surprise family pairings; it was the fact that at the end of the judges’ table no one was eliminated. I realize it sounds counterintuitive to suggest that a televised competition show cut down on the cuts, but hear me out. The best installments of Top Chef have always been those that have given the competitors a chance to translate intensely personal experiences to the plate, whether through family, history, or shared experience. (The Ellis Island episode of Top Chef: All Stars remains the best in series history for this reason.) Removing the threat of elimination encourages the chefs to push themselves to greatness without the fear of falling flat on their faces. Yes, it’s a competition, and no, they’re not there to make friends. But one of the best and most reliable pleasures of Top Chef is the way it reveals something essential about cooks, even highly ambitious ones: that the job is, first and foremost, about nourishing people. The show is at its most appetitizing when it allows its contestants to do their best without worrying about who among them is doing worse.
Of course, even if you eliminate eliminations entirely, I doubt Bravo and its many, many (many!) corporate partners would be interested in reducing the number of episodes per season. So my suggestion would be to simply start with fewer contestants. Rather than stock the larder with inferior ingredients, Season 13 should begin with, say, as few as 10 cooks in the kitchen. This would mean up to six weeks would be elimination-free, but this could be a very good thing. Perhaps there could be a seeding system, in which victories during “free” weeks would lead to advantages when the judges finally convened; perhaps the losers’ Whole Foods budgets could be snipped from week to week. Elimination, when it arrived, would be both jarring and more meaningful. I can’t be the only Top Chef fan weary of the empty calories wasted on the opening weeks of the competition. Beginning with a more concentrated stock always leads to a more satisfying meal.
2. Cut Deeper
It’s admirable that Top Chef has mostly stayed true to its core values, even as its popularity has cooled. The most obvious solution to juice ratings would also be the most wrongheaded: to dumb down the cooking and replace it with manufactured blowups and underseasoned beef. What I would suggest is the opposite. Top Chef has its core fans, all of whom have spent the last 12 seasons diligently learning the difference between ras el hanout and vadouvan. The trick going forward is spicing up interest with these diehards, not dumbing down the palate for newcomers.
And so I would love to see Top Chef using its kitchen time to explore and explain the whys of cooking, not just the whats. It took until about Week 6 of Top Chef: Boston for me to realize that the front-running Gregory was primarily cooking with Thai spices. A few weeks later, a competitor derisively referred to Gregory’s reliance on coconut milk and curry in all challenges. Ever since then, I’ve been waiting patiently to learn more about Gregory’s predilection for lemongrass and galangal, to hear why, exactly, a former addict from Queens found his muse half a world away. But on this point Top Chef has remained frustratingly silent. How do Gregory’s methods differ from the kosher Mexican stylings of Katsuji? What are the specific differences between Doug’s background as a Texas chef and what he does on a daily basis in Portland?
The silence around these questions wasn’t just deafening, it was contagious. It was a total surprise when Melissa suddenly burst from the mediocre pack on the back of what appeared to be some truly exemplary vegetable cookery. Would it have killed the show’s producers to illustrate exactly what Melissa was doing and what made it so special? At this point in Top Chef’s life, it’s possible to push further into the specifics of the kitchen. If the audience can’t taste the food, we should at least be given more of a chance to understand it.
3. Oui, Chef!
The best ingredient in Top Chef: New Orleans was a surprisingly hardy chunk of ham. Emeril Lagasse, years removed from his bam-bam heyday, was a revelation during his tenure on Top Chef, dispensing sage advice and forming remarkably intimate connections with contestants in a relatively short amount of time. (I spoke to Emeril about this and more on my podcast last year.) Emeril didn’t return for Top Chef: Boston, and his absence was keenly felt. Not at the judges’ table, mind you — there will never be a shortage of jowly men in white coats proffering strong opinions on saucing — but in the contestants’ living quarters. Emeril was the best mentor in Top Chef history, which is saying something since Top Chef, in its attempt at aesthetic purity, doesn’t even have mentors. What I’m saying is that it should.
New Orleans, where last season was filmed, is Emeril’s spiritual home. Having him amble into the house to cook gumbo for the fraying contestants and instruct them on the finer points of Acadian culture was a boon both to the finalists and to the audience. As I wrote above, one of Top Chef’s greatest strengths is the seriousness and rigor with which it considers both a sense of place and professionalism in restaurant kitchens. As such, allowing the contestants to talk shop with a master isn’t indulgent fat, it’s essential protein. Rather than trot him out for a chowder challenge, I would have much rather seen New England legend Jasper White tasked with a similar role in Boston. If Nashville really is up next, perhaps local stars Tom Morales or the dudes from the Catbird Seat could be drafted into service. Or maybe Sean Brock could be convinced to serve as a sort of whiskey-dipped Yoda of Southern cuisine?
Finally, Richard Blais is wasted on the judging panel — though his hairstylist might disagree. The guy is hands down the best contestant in Top Chef history. He was consistently the most innovative, the most thrilling, and the most dedicated. Why do we want all of that experience and perspective languishing on the sideline? I’d suggest throwing him in the house as an adviser for the competition side of things. Learning about local foodways is great, but getting advice on how to articulate that knowledge in the context of a 30-minute Quickfire or a blindfolded, one-handed clam-shucking challenge is probably more useful. Just as there is a culture around respectful cooking, so, too, is there a culture around Top Chef gamesmanship. It’s time the producers acknowledged that fact and took advantage of it.
4. Embrace the Burn
Up until now, my advice has been softer than a blancmange and nearly as sweet. Fewer eliminations? Head chef hand-holding? What is this, Top Scallop? So let me make up for that with a healthy squeeze of sriracha. The fourth member of the judging panel and a permanent sidekick to Padma Lakshmi in every Quickfire ought to be Roy Choi. The Los Angeles–based chef is no stranger to the Healthy Choice–GE-Terlato™ kitchens. That was him choking up with Emeril in Alaska during Season 10. And that was him again giving the contestants a jaw-dropping mouthful of reality in New Orleans. You remember it, right? After the contestants attempted to “reinvent” the classic po’boy by adding pancetta and gochujang, Choi refused to do the by-now familiar Quickfire fake-out. (“I think our chefs did very well,” says the visiting luminary through gritted teeth, while being jabbed in the calf by a Toyota-branded cattle prod.) Instead, he was honest: “Y’all fucked shit up,” he said, before demanding a more honest and soulful effort. It was exactly the jolt of acidity that a long-running show needs.
Making Choi a fixture on Top Chef wouldn’t just spice up the in-show criticism. It would help ground the series in the sort of fascinating, quotidian challenges of cooking that are all too easily scrubbed by good-natured guests and even better editing. To Choi, the key question is never just “Does this taste good?” or “Doesn’t this look impressive?” It’s always “Is this dish respectful of both the ingredients and the cultural and personal history that inspired it?” It’s a deeper consideration for a show that has earned the right to challenge its audience as much as its contestants. After almost a decade on the air, Top Chef remains plenty filling. But there’s a difference between eating and savoring. Here’s hoping for a lot more of the latter in the meals, and seasons, to come.