Top Chelf

This blog has waxed poetic about TV cooking competitions, the granddaddy of them all being Top Chef. An effective milieu of sport, food, back stabbing, emotional dressing down, smack talk, and ridicule. If you add 1989 wrestling and loose-fitting cardigans it would have all of my favourite things. But it does well on its own. It’s one of the shows I still watch “live” and I have to cook along with it. As I have to eat when the judges are eating, watching it having already eaten, or to eat later in the day just seems wrong. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Toast will suffice. But you better finish in time.

This year Top Chef’s locale is Boston, and one of the bones I have to pick with the season so far is that it is ham-handed in its Boston-alia. And the awful puns regarding the challenges. Judge Tom Colicchio is forced to spew out aching doozeys like, during a revolutionary war challenge, “one team has won the battle but lost the war.” Or during the baseball challenge, “well chefs, back to judges table and we’ll see who hit a home run and who struck out.” Blech! The only other umbrage I take is that of Padma Lakshmi as host. It’s a food show, let’s have a shapely girl do some hosting. We never find out what Padma’s credentials are. She knows the difference between Pho and Fa but these days who doesn’t. I enjoy when the other judges give her the jazz and question the integrity of her palette. As a host she’s fine. She moves everything along, but should not be at the sacred judges table. I mean Martin Yan has sat at judges table. What Top Chef is trying to tell me that the lovely but not necessarily talented Padma Lashkmi is on par with that of the host and creator of Canada’s finest culinary series, Wok with Yan (with all apologies to the Urban Peasant). But that is just a minor irk on my part. I am a fan of the addition of Richard Blais to the judges dais for this season. As a former winner he comes at the game from a different perspective, most of which is knowing it’s a game. And, as we have seen from other Top Chef spin-offs, even the most decorated of chef’s have trouble navigating their way through the Top Chef rigmarole.

I do love the casting of Top Chef so. It has done a good job of being considered a big deal amongst the cooking community. The early episodes are always peppered with the contestants dropping names of people who have worked for and their placement in the prestigious James Beard Awards. I often have no clue who these people are but the chefs drop the names with such vigour that I’m left to believe that are big effin deals.

They are cast. Despite who they are; are portrayed as heroes, villains, and the chorus. Aaron is one of my favorite of all reality show villains. Almost of parody of everything wrong with the MTV Generation/Me culture. Never seen without his baseball cap cocked to the side, a mouth breather (not an insult, his mouth is always open) and he has the look on his face that always denotes, “Pshh, I’m the best.” Despite his lack of cooking school education he still maintains his status of cock of the wok. He has shown hints of a maudlin, “my father didn’t love me and I never went to cooking school like some of you kids from the right side of the tracks.” Oddly enough the person he has a mini feud brewing with is also in my mind a villainess. Blessed or cursed with the villainess-esque named Keriann Von Raesfeld. She was born pretty but she’s no softie. I hate the pretty girl who doesn’t want to be treated as a pretty girl because she is so tough but then folds under pressure. She is the tried and true mom who questions being in the competition because she misses her family so much. Gauging this piece of work, I contend that her family are refreshed at her absence and welcome her return with the all the fanfare of a canker sore resurfacing. She spars with Aaron, but the fireworks themselves are the only real redeeming point. As I don’t care who wins I hope they both devour each other. I guess, I’ll cheer for Keriann – she’s pretty.

The heroes are not always the most skillful but this year they are the ones with the most skill. We applaud their technical prowess and hope they aren’t up-ended by schemers or forced to make dessert or risotto (the kiss of death in seasons gone by). The man to beat this year seems to be Gregory, who is from all accounts the reflection of perfection. His only stumble was when he literally stumbled and lost his bun for the “Norm from Cheers pub grub challenge”. His ace in the hole seems to be his seasoning, which every year is an issue. Every year chefs must pack up their knives because of (usually) under-seasoning. It makes us at home feel good about ourselves. I know all my food is salty. I put lots of mustard on stuff, I’m just as good as this schmendrick. Chef Tom was almost agog at Gregory’s seasoning, marveling how he salted perfectly with one less grain being not enough and one more being too much. Seemingly the only challenger toward Gregory’s possible coronation would be Mei Lin, the diminutive and always smiling competitor. In the interactions that the two have had there is not the sniping that the villains had, but a professional respect and, best of all to watch, they seem content that they are not amongst punks. That someone else has a championship skill set. If they win they will have won against a worthy foe. As I have over thought and over analyzed Top Chef, I enjoy that the nobility amongst the high-end competitors mirror the petulance of those just getting by. There are also the group I call the tweeners. They can be jerks but have flashes of talent and grace. Here we find Adam, the brash New Yorker. New Yaawwwk – Yankees! My ma’s saaaawwwce. Brooklyn represent! We get it, Adam. Despite that, he has some pretty solid chops. Also a key to the enjoyment in the show is the inter-chef banter. Adam is good at this straddling the line of positive attitude, and punch-in-the-junk inducing arrogance. The other tweener is the cuddly Mexi-Asian Katsuji. Oh Katsuji, will you ever edit yourself? He is the puppy who stains your carpet. You get frustrated but cannot summon the emotion to actually hate. He uses far too many ingredients, but makes good sauces and has his ethnic charm waft through the series.

By the end I expect Mei and Gregory to have a throw-down for the honour of being Top Chef. If you haven’t checked out this season yet, you may binge watch online or cook along with me and the competitors by watching live. Still to come are the staples of the show; the epic “Restaurant Wars”, the switching of locales, and Padma’s ever plunging neckline. The formula still works, with subtle changes from year to year. I do have respect for the contestant’s talent. I don’t see them as artists but rather as master craftsman, welders and or millwrights and such. The production itself must be respected as it is the ultimate star of the show. The set up and execution of the challenges makes for a show that is well done. Dammit, now they have me doing it.

Raphael Saray is a broadcast journalist based in Flin Flon MB. He is suffering through a Revenue Canada income tax reassessment that has left him emotionally exhausted and morally bankrupt. He hosts a mini podcast called “the best and worst persons in the world” and is only somewhat about that base.

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