I was waiting to see whether I had malaria, or cholera, or influenza, or something else. I was not going to get much done. So I watched a season of Top Chef on my iPad.
These were the first reality TV episodes I’d ever watched. Some observations:
- The formulaic, plot-heavy format soon grows tiresome. There’s more melodrama here than anyone really needs.
- Aside from some unimaginative and slow shots to heighten suspense, the editing here is impressive. We don’t see enough of anything, but we see a lot of lots of things.
- There’s not nearly enough information about the food, and too much attempt at cheap characterization. Many of the tasks are fairly silly, and many of the judgments seem forced or arbitrary. (Several contestants expressed the same opinion, even though saying so was clearly against their interests.) But other tasks are more interesting than you’d expect: how does a pro approach making a soufflée when she can’t, for the life of her, remember the recipe?
- Still, we learned lots of interesting things. For example, you can outfit a popup restaurant, at retail, for $5000.
- Most of the food budgets were exorbitant. This makes interesting television, since part of the appeal is cooking in a fantasy kitchen stocked with everything, where you have some idea of what to do with everything.
- Aside from some fun with sweetbreads, there was surprisingly little interest in unusual cuts of meat. No hog jowls, no cockscomb, no crispy duck necks or bunny McNuggets.
- The racial and class politics of a show in which the judges dismiss a contestant who failed to cook them a sufficiently delicious and perfect dish are dense. The panel of judges typically includes a chef (who presumably represents the notional restauranteur), a critic, a guest, and spokeswoman Padma Lakshmi, who wears evening dresses expertly. What role does she notionally play? I think she must be understood to be the Investor, the outside money and the silent partner. She’s the dentist who always wanted to work in the Industry and kicked in a hundred grand for a piece of the action. She has some food chops, I understand, but doesn’t show them on the show. Casting a Brahmin Indian actress in this role was smart.
- The criteria for judging are often unclear and sometimes silly; specifically, the judges (and consequences) are ridiculously dire when addressing small mistakes and failed experiments. There’s no perspective at all, and the mock-heroic voice of food criticism turns into the sour whine of the greedy martinet whose beans were slightly undercooked. It’s one thing to say, “You lost because your beans were a little underdone, and Stephanie’s weren’t.” It’s something else entirely to turn this into a great moral confrontation.
- There is, apparently, a rule against looking stuff up. That’s absurd. Now that everyone has a cell phone and an iPad and Google is seconds away, what’s gained by memorizing recipes you don’t expect to use?
- I wish they’d show us a little more knife work. We can’t taste the food, we can’t see much about seasoning and doneness, but we can see just how these folks approach cutting. And there’s always plenty of cutting to do. (I was impressed that, when not whaling, these guys were not a whole lot faster than a duffer like me. Better cuts, but not necessarily faster unless the clock was ticking.)
- What did these guys eat during the competition? Did they cook snacks for each other? We see them drinking, because it’s a product placement opportunity, but we don’t really know about eating.
- Pros do the same dumb things you do. They leave stuff out overnight: there goes the second course. They forget pots on the burner. They lose their towel. I like some the the extra twists the planners toss in. “Hey guys! They took away all the Robo-Coupes today!”
- Ruhlman should get a royalty.
- Boy, can these guys plate! (I’d like to read something about plating. Ideas?)