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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Is Bravo TV's Top Chef the Next "Hell’s Kitchen"?

Last night’s episode of Top Chef All Stars just isn’t sitting right. In fact, the last 3 seasons have seemed to be losing the Top Chef magic. As a die-hard foodie, I am mesmerized by the culinary world and the abilities of great chefs. And the reason I fell in love with Top Chef was because it showcased the culinary arts in a way that no other reality show has ever done.

But the episode I watched last night made me think I was watching Hell’s Kitchen instead (a show that I dropped from my roster after the second season for its tacky drama and lack of focus on the culinary arts).

The Quick Fire Challenge:I was elated to see Tom Colicchio take the floor and show off his supreme cooking skills. He was absolutely remarkable. But there are a few questions that keep running through my mind:
- How much notice did Colicchio have about this specific task before he stepped up? Minutes? Hours? Days? Weeks? If you look at this from the legal perspective, chances are that Bravo had to put a special agreement in place with Colicchio weeks or months before this episode was filmed. After all, he joined Top Chef to judge the competition – not to compete in it.
- But let’s say Tom had just an hour’s notice before heading into the kitchen and whipping up his dish. Did he already know what ingredients to use? How did he know those ingredients would be there?
- How can the chef’s dishes be compared fairly to Colicchio’s, when they had to fight with each other over ingredients and only had a couple of minutes planning time?

Regardless, much of the media has really slammed all of the chefs for their performance, but some have been asking the same questions I have:
- Is it fair to expect any chef to cook an amazing dish in less than ten minutes with only a couple of minutes to prepare?
- How does a challenge like this prove that someone is a top chef?

The Elimination Challenge:I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: There was nothing fair about expecting a bunch of Americanized chefs to take over a Dim Sum restaurant in Chinatown during the lunch rush and cook Chinese Dim Sum. Thai, Vietnamese, even Japanese food would have been more reasonable. At least the preparations of those cuisines have a little in common with American, Italian, etc. Chinese Dim Sum is one of the few cuisines that I honestly think stands alone - it requires a completely different skill set and very different kitchen tools.

Forget the Jamie Lauren drama (even though we’re all tired of seeing her just slip under the radar), but just looking at the quick fire and elimination challenges as a alone, I’m struggling to see how any chef could shine under those conditions unless they had previous experience in a Dim Sum kitchen (which is why Dale T. won – the only chef with Dim Sum kitchen experience).

And if the Top Chef producers are hiking up the drama, I hope they also make time to research their actions. There’s a reason FOX’s Hell’s Kitchen ratings have dropped so significantly over the past few seasons. Copying a dying show just seems a waste when you have such talented judges and chefs to play with.

But if they do continue moving the focus from cooking to drama, I guess we can always replace Top Chef with “The Next Iron Chef”…



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5 comments:

  1. Boy, it's really a stretch to compare Top Chef with Hell's Kitchen. Not even close. Regarding this episode: as Tom explained in his blog, the chefs weren't competing against his dish, he was there as a pacesetter. He made a simple dish with simple ingredients, ones that would be found in any basic pantry. And the cheftestants work in that kitchen all the time, so they know what they have to work with. And I really get tired of people talking about what's "fair". It's a TV competition, not the Olympics. Everyone has their own definition of "fair", and what it usually boils down to is, whenever their favorite doesn't win it's "unfair".

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  2. I don't agree with you at all. Maybe the ingredients were simple,but I don't know anyone who keeps a steady supply of fresh seabass on hand.

    And I think you missed the author's point: Tom had an advantage that the contestants didn't. He had prior notice (probably by a couple of weeks) that he would be preparing a dish based on speed - which gave him time to plan. They only had minutes to figure out their game plans.

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  3. Why are you hung up on the seabass? They had their choice of any protein. I repeat, the cheftestants know what's stocked in that kitchen. I would love to hear someone explain exactly why this was so much more "unfair" than any other Quickfire. There are limitations in all of them. In this one the limitation was time. End of story. Many of the chefs did come up with good dishes, so it was obviously possible. I can't believe it's become such an issue. (P.S. Per Tom's blog he had a two-day notice. Yes, it's not minutes, but it's certainly not weeks either.)

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  4. Harsh! Top Chef hasn't gotten bad enough to be compared to Hell's Kitchen, yet. Though the speed factor of the last episode did make for some hellish drama. The quickfire was intense and it must have taken a lot of skill, (very)quick thinking and luck to make a decent dish in that amount of time. Those are all qualities I'd want in a Top Chef.

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  5. Actually, the contestants are given some time to think about their dishes; for obvious reasons, that time isn't filmed. Really, the major flaw with the challenge is that no matter how much the chefs screw up service, they never have to pay the piper, because they are judged on the quality of the food. Why would they work hard to get the food out? It brings no advantages.

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