Note to Top Chef: Stop sucking

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It's been three weeks since I wrote a word about this season's Top Chef on Bravo.  Know why?  Because it has been so boring and so contrived and so stupid that the episodes themselves were painful to watch -- making me less than excited about the notion of then rehashing them here.

There was the bogus "Thanksgiving" episode that was filmed right in my hometown of Rochester, New York, of all places. Should've given me all sorts of fodder for a blog, right?  Wrong.  I spent many years suffering through the seasons in Rochester (two months of hot, wet heat like a damp goat sitting on your head, followed by ten months of snow and ice and sludge and endless iron-gray skies like something out of Dante), so remember them vividly.  And no matter how much the Bravo production team wanted to try and make Rochester in the summer look like Rochester in the middle of autumn, they couldn't manage it.  Rochester at the end of November is like no other place on earth.  The sky is like a weight, hanging low and pregnant with clouds.  The air tastes like a mouthful of cold nickels.  The light is thin and watery and mean and the trees, already stripped of their brief autumn finery, have the look of skeletons, inexpertly buried, and still reaching for the air.  There is no sun.  Ever.  No one but the suicidal or the clinically insane are wandering around down by the War Memorial in shorts.

 For the episode, the chefs were supposed to cook a Thanksgiving meal for the Foo Fighters.  They were forced to prepare their food mostly outside, with no proper ovens, no stoves -- nothing but hot-boxes, microwaves and portable butane burners.  The fact that the chefs didn't all immediately die of exposure or start going after each other with butcher's sabers was proof enough that this was not Rochester in November. 

And the fact that the food all looked like the Thanksgiving feast at some residential nursing facility?  Well, that's what you get for bringing a bunch of chefs together and not giving them any tools to cook with.  What's next?  Tom and Padma coming in and announcing, "Your challenge, chefs, is to butcher and break down this entire side of beef using only...plastic knives!"  Bullshit.  I have no idea who went home because I fell asleep before the episode was over.

The next week?  Catering judge Gail Simmons's bridal shower--a hundred-odd guests, mostly food writers and editors and magazine people.  The week after that?  Christmas episode--fake trees, fake snow, gaudy decorations--and catering a charity event for 250 people based around the theme of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  Both episodes featured food-world quasi-celebrities (Rocco DiSpirito, still doing highly public penance for his own disastrous reality show, and Martha Stewart, who, like some shambling Dickensian spirit of Christmas Present, has never met a holiday she couldn't turn into an excuse for her own lockjawed brand of ruthless self-promotion) pimping their new cookbooks for the holiday shopping season and grinning like they knew exactly what kind of whores they were being and happy to suck as much televised dick as they were asked. 

Both episodes were so full of product placement and shameless brand-name cutaways that the stoves and wine bottles and Whole Foods produce aisle have started to take on more personality than any of the chef-testants.  And both episodes focused exclusively on catering/working on-location somewhere so that even more half-celebrities in the final seconds of their fifteen minutes of fame (Michelle Bernstein) could be trotted out.

The result?  Snoozeville.  The chefs are pissed, the challenges are either awkward or stupid or both, the "guest judges" must've come from some kind of showbiz last-call bar where desperate producers just scrape up whatever eleventh-hour dregs they can find, and the entire show now seems dedicated to nothing but bullshit "surprise twists" (everything has to be cooked in one pot!  Everything has to be cooked over Bunsen burners!) and lovingly shot close-ups of Hosea's T-Mobil LX Sidekick by Sharp, available at fine retailers this holiday season, or the cases of diet Dr. Pepper conveniently placed behind every chef's head in every shot of the stew room.

I don't know who's been sent home.  I don't care who's been sent home.  After several seasons, all the chefs have learned that the best way to survive the first ten episodes or so is to simply cook boring, predictable things while letting some barely ambulatory knucklehead brought on by the producers in order to fill some quota (loud Bronx guy, flaming gay guy, cute girl, ex-dishwasher made good, whatever) fuck himself out of his slot by burning his rice or poisoning the judges by serving raw pork. 

Hosea (from Jax Fish House in Boulder, who actually won the Christmas episode just by sucking less than everyone else) seems incapable of cooking anything that he hasn't done a million times before on one of his Boulder menus. Melissa (sous at Centro, also in Boulder) has spent the entire season in some kind of lithium coma. The lesbian girl with the tattoos (whose name I can't remember and don't even care to look up even though I have her picked as making the final three) appears weirdly obsessed with scallops, unable to cook anything else. My little buddy Eugene (the ex-dishwasher made good) has blown it in the clutch almost every week by, apparently, not knowing how to cook.  And the only fun at all has been counting the number of times Stefan (odds-on favorite to win) and Fabio (odds-on favorite to fuck Padma Lakshmi) kiss each other.  I've turned it into a drinking game.  I never get through an episode sober.

Even judge Tom Colicchio (who has been suspiciously short on screen time for the last few episodes) has begun to seem annoyed with the direction the show is taking.  He's been grumpier than usual, more frustrated.  And with good reason, since Top Chef has, in previous seasons, been the best cooking show on TV--the most real of the reality shows, the least false or contrived, an environment where good and talented chefs were simply told to cook the best they possibly could while being judged in their efforts by true food-world luminaries. 

There was a time when this was an unmissable show for me and for a lot of other pros in this business, a truly interesting, valid and (at least partly) realistic look at how chefs work and how chefs think.  But at the end of the most recent episode--after the Harlem Gospel Choir had left and Martha Stewart had been packed back into her cryogenic sleep tube, after Bravo had crammed in thirty or forty more product shots and collected their blood money from Glad and GE and Dr. Pepper--Colicchio finally sat down with all the remaining chefs and told them, point-blank, that he was disappointed, that, were it up to him, they would all be going home and that, more or less, they all sucked.

But that's wrong.  What sucks here is not the chefs.  They're playing a game and trying to win.  What sucks is not the food (although, jesus, some of that food has looked like it sucked) or the hands that made it.  What sucks is the show itself--the piling on of pointless guest stars, the over-done product placement affecting the (admittedly weak) narrative, the ridiculous challenges that no longer bear any resemblance to actual professional cooking.  At some point, the producers at Bravo apparently forgot that Top Chef is supposed to be a show about chefs doing what chefs do: bitching, complaining, smoking, drinking, talking shit and, most important, actually cooking.

Here's hoping that Colicchio and company can turn this ship around before it's too late. -- Jason Sheehan

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