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Reality Check: "Top Chef"

Ladies and gentlemen, sharpen your knifes. Bravo's recent reality entry, Top Chef, charts the dicing, slicing, and backstabbing among a group of chefs selected to compete for a profile in Food & Wine magazine, $100,000, and bragging rights to the dubious title of Top Chef, proving that, like revenge, a culinary competition is a dish best served cold.

Okay, I promise I'll stop using food allusions (or at least try). I caught the first episode of Top Chef when I was in Aspen (coincidentally, the home of the Food & Wine Classic that the show's opening narration refers to) and watched it at around 2 a.m. when I had had a little bit too much to drink. So I wasn't the best judge of whether or not I liked the show. However, since returning to Los Angeles, I've watched the most recent batch of episodes and have to say that, strangely, the show is growing on me.

What isn't growing on me is Top Chef's painfully obvious dubbed dialogue (and I thought The Apprentice's was obnoxiously bad) and the show's robotic host, Katie Lee Joel, a.k.a. Billy Joel's daughter. Oops, I mean wife. Katie lends nothing to the show, except to materialize during the challenges (to drone on about how there's only five minutes remaining) and offer some vapid thoughts during the judges' table conferrals. While she may have... talents, television presenting isn't one of them. Why is it that reality shows have such a hard time finding decent hosts? And in this case, why does there need to even be a host? Couldn't Tom Colicchio fulfill these hostly obligations and introductions?

Which leads me to say this. Tom Colicchio (chef-owner of a zillion restaurants, including the sublime Grammercy Tavern and Craft in Manhattan), what are you doing slumming it with this bunch? While I respect you and feel that your opinions and advice are well thought out, I wish that you would have avoided the reality competition genre like the plague. Still, you add much-needed grativas and distinction to Top Chef and seem to have a good rapport with fellow judge Gail Simmons of Food & Wine magazine.

And then there are the competitors themselves, a motley bunch of overly ambitious, somewhat talented (more on that later) would-be chefs. They range from working mother and culinary student to restaurant chef and sommelier. I'd be hard pressed to choose a favorite among the bunch (they have, um, big personalities), but--if I had to pick one--I'd say it's Lee Anne Wong, the executive chef of event operations at the prestigious French Culinary Institute in New York City. Lee Anne is the type of person you'd want to be friends with (and have her invite you over for dinner often). You can immediately tell that she loves what she does and has a genuine zeal for cooking and pride in her accomplishments. Her dishes are always beautiful, her food flavorful and well designed, and she actually has a good attitude about this competition.

It's attitude that sets Lee Anne apart from chef Tiffani Faison (above), who has superior culinary skills but a terrible attitude. Her immunity is the only thing that saved her from being booted during a challenge where the contestants were split into two teams and told that they had to prepare a dish for children. Tiffani insulted Colicchio by saying that American children's palate were unformed and that they only ate greasy garbage. Therefore, she didn't care what they thought of her food and she refused to cook down to them. And when Colicchio told her that her attitude stunk and that he would have sent her home, she seemed bewildered and surprised. Your food might be delicious, Tiff, but you need a serious attitude adjustment if you want to stay in the game...

Which brings us to my least favorite competitor, 24-year-old sommelier Stephen Asprinio (left). Every reality TV show has the competitor that you love to hate and Stephen is no exception. (Well, except for the fact that he's as maladjusted as The Office's Michael Scott; I'm sure he a had a childhood birthday party where no one else showed up too.) Stephen is condescending, pretentious, and entirely egocentric. He relies too heavily on wine pairings and cooking with spirits and, while his plates are usually beautiful designed (somewhat overly so), he 's all style with very little substance. He also feels that he is above the law, so to speak, as in the most recent episode, where he deliberately disobeyed instructions to only use dried herbs and instead used fresh basil, which he wilted. Fortunately, the guest judge found the idea of wilted basil vile and disgusting and called Stephen on it. And, in that same episode, Stephen found himself lumped into the worst dishes when his over-the-top fusion tamale (think masa and shiso leaf, plus yuzu!) disgusted both the clients and the judges. It was just desserts (sorry) for the seemingly invulnerable sommelier, but I am not sure that the experience has shattered Stephen's over-confidence quite yet, as he sat there staring at the judges and seemed to be thinking how very stupid they were for not understanding the beauty of his nauseating dish. Yes, he is--as competitor Candice succinctly put it--a "tool."

As for the rest of the group, they seem a pretty helpless bunch. Other than restaurant chef Harold Dieterle, I can't see any of them advancing much further in the competition. Natural foods chef Andrea Beaman was actually sent home once already (the judges brought her back when another contestant voluntarily left the show), so I was confused why they allowed her to return at all, but she did manage to step up during the show's latest challenge and produce a beautiful (and healthy) dish that earned her a place in the top three dishes. The youngest competitor, culinary student Candice Kumal, was sent packing this week after making a disastrous quiche that became even worse when reheated (the mission was to create microwavable dishes for Junior League members); her inexperience finally caught up to her but she graciously left and even managed to hug her enemy Stephen, who more than once berated and tried to humiliate her, on the way out.

Each episode consists of two challenges: the quick-fire challenge, the winner of which will emerge with immunity from being sent home, and the elimination challenge, which like its name determines who is packing their knives. Those challenges (like the microwaving elimination challenge from above), while frequently enraging the competitors, are actually a deft mix of situations, ranging from preparing octopus and creating a dish out of monkfish for 40 picky children to creating erotic desserts or having 30 minutes and $20 to shop for food at a convenient store. Ultimately, being a chef is as much about adapting to any situation and pleasing the customer/client as it is preparing beautiful and delicious food. As Tom Colicchio reminds them, their job is to make sure the customer is happy, no matter what.

As far as Top Chef goes, it's no Hell's Kitchen, which better depicts the chaos and insanity of kitchen life. But then again, these chefs actually seem to have experience and talent--much more so than their Gordon Ramsey-abused brethren--and might actually amount to something in the end.

Regardless, I might not want to eat in some of their restaurants after what I've seen of them on Top Chef, but I'll keep watching.

"Top Chef" airs Wednesday evenings at 10 pm on Bravo.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: College Basketball (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC; 8-10 pm); 7th Heaven (WB); Wife Swap (ABC); Prison Break (FOX); One on One/All of Us (UPN)

9 pm: Everwood (WB); Supernanny (ABC); 24 (FOX); Girlfriends/Half & Half (UPN)

10 pm: Two and a Half Men/The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS); The Apprentice (NBC); Miracle Workers (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

7 pm: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.

On an all-new episode of my favorite culinary/travel show, No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain travels to South Florida, where he'll take in Little Haiti, the Everglades, and will surely eat-and-meet his way through the peninsula. (FYI: for those of you on the East Coast, the show airs at 10 pm, but I'll be watching the East Coast feed.)

8 pm: 5 Takes: Pacific Rim.

I'm intrigued by this new Travel Channel show, where apparently five travel journalists travel to the same location and camera crews film their experiences and reactions. Tonight, five lucky souls will travel to one of my favorite cities, Sydney. Kangaroos and digiridoos will abound, I am sure.

Don't think I'll be sticking around to sample Jeremy Piven's Journey of a Lifetime, however. Even I don't think I could stomach that.

10 pm - 11 pm: The Apprentice and Old Christine.

Coincidentally, both shows are airing at at later hour tonight, at least on the West Coast. Old Christine due to college basketball on CBS and The Apprentice because Deal or No Deal is two hours tonight. Two hours?!? NBC, seriously, are you trying to put us all to sleep?

On The Apprentice ("King of the Jingle"), tone deaf candidates must write an advertising jingle for a restaurant chain. Let me guess: is the restaurant chain a promotional sponsor? Just as long as the Donald doesn't break into song again. Shudder. That gave me the creeps.

Meanwhile, over on Old Christine ("I'll Show You Mine") at 10:30, Christine has to decide whether she should let her new boyfriend Burton meet her son. Personally, I'd be more worried about Burton meeting Christine's weirdo slacker brother, but that's me.


Anonymous said…
I had no idea you were watching this show. I wasn't sure what to make of it at first, but it has totally grown on me. We have the exact same favorite and least favorite. And opinions on Tiffani.

I really hate Stephen. Really hate. Haven't watched last night's yet. I liked Candice, but she was never going to last.

Ok, I am glad you mentioned the dubbing. It's atrocious. It reminds me of the cuts of The Cut we'd get where there was temporary dubbing. It's so awful. And Katie Lee - the worst reality host ever. I looked for her last night at the concert so I could tell her that, but alas...

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