Top Chef BFFs
Apparently, this is the week I love Bravo reality shows (or former Bravo, sorry Project Runway). I just last night got around to watching the season finale of Top Chef Masters, which aired last week, and I would like to announce my huge chef crush on Rick Bayless. Of course, it’s impossible to know with reality shows what got cut and what was edited to appear differently than it actually happened, but from everything shown on Top Chef Masters, Rick Bayless comes off as the classiest, most professional, passionate, meticulous, talented guy. And come on, look at him! (This is after judge Jay Rayner announced that Rick took Jay’s molé virginity.)
Aside from my newfound love of Rick Bayless, I think it’s worth mentioning that Top Chef Masters
was a pretty classy show in a lot of ways. The dynamic between the chef-contestants was totally different than on any other reality show. Rather than the desperately fame-seeking former celebrities who show up on places like The Surreal Life or the painfully ambitious young designers trying to claw their way into Fashion Week on Project Runway, the men and women who participated on Top Chef Masters are all extremely successful chefs who are doing it entirely for charity, fun and bragging rights. Sure, they want to win, but their lives are not on the line, and they all seemed comfortable enough with themselves to not be too threatened by the competition.
That kind of participant led to an entirely different type of reality show than the standard worst-behavior-makes-the-best-television programming. These people were nice to each other. They genuinely liked and respected each other. Whenever they were able, they helped and praised each other. For the most part, they seemed like decent human beings. I’m telling you, it was like watching some alternate reality show universe! One of the better examples of this bizarre, Twilight Zone television experience was the mystery box challenge, where each chef had to fill a box with ingredients that another chef would have to cook with. On the regular Top Chef, or on really any other show, this is an opportunity to screw someone over. Put pig’s ear in there, or Cool Ranch Doritos, or frozen fish fillets. Fill it with stuff you know they hate. And instead, all of the chefs ran around Whole Foods trying to fill their baskets with stuff they knew their fellow chefs would love to cook with. Roy Yamaguchi gave Art Smith a box he was thrilled with, and Roy told the cameras, “I really believe you have to give people opportunities and set them up for success rather than failure.” I think it was a first in the history of reality television.
By the end, it was clear the producers had conned onto the make love, not war atmosphere, and started giving them challenges best suited to making great meals. The final challenge was for each chef to re-create their lives as chefs in a four course meal, beginning with their first food memories and working through the dish that made them want to be chefs, a dish associated with opening their first restaurants, and a dish that represented their futures. As Kelly Choi explained it to the chefs, their faces lit up with pleasure. (Kelly Choi, by the way, was the one dark spot on the whole feel-good experience. Kelly Choi had the charisma and sparkle of a Barbie doll. Kelly Choi made Padma Lakshmi look like a rocket scientist with the food skills of Jacques Pepin.)
It’s not as though they weren’t competitive, and Art Smith didn’t cry every episode, and some of the chefs didn’t swear incessantly. It was still good, dramatic, entertaining television. But unlike Rock of Love or The Bachelor, it didn’t leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth (or a visually-transmitted venereal disease). So here’s to you, Top Chef Masters. I’m glad the regular Top Chef has returned to fill the void you’re leaving behind, but you’ve left my expectations a bit higher than they were before, and I think anything else is going to feel a little disappointing.