I love Top Chef. I will watch it every Wednesday. The 29 cheftestants in the new season, if they’re like the ones in every other season, will be diverse and range from annoying to likably annoying. The new twists and gimmicks will no doubt make for entertaining television. Nonetheless, I am more convinced than ever that Top Chef is bad for gastronomy.
You occasionally hear the criticism that, thanks to the rise of the celebrity chef, few major cooks actually want to stay in their restaurants anymore. They’d rather do big licensing deals, hit the festival circuit and find themselves a sinecure on shows like Top Chef, Chopped, or Iron Chef America. This is probably true, but it’s sort of irrelevant. Big-name chefs have always wanted to get out of the kitchen. The real damage happens on the level of the young, up-and-coming cooks, a generation of whom have been trained by Top Chef to think of themselves as bold, creative brands, waiting to blossom under the klieg lights.
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Top Chef, and the foodie fashion that it helped to create, has attacked American gastronomy at its root. The craft of cooking, as Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio will be the first to tell you, is based on endless hours of unglamorous, repetitive labor: making salad, cooking stock, getting yelled at. My friend Marco Canora, Colicchio’s opening chef at Craft, spent the first year of his career at Dean & DeLuca, cutting up carrots and onions for soup. By the time he opened his own restaurant, he had been in kitchens for over 10 years. That was the source of his authority with young cooks, who aspired to his station. Along the way, they would learn what tastes good with what, and how to cook things.
TV’s not like that; it needs everything to be exciting at all times. Top Chef, as an hour-long narrative, has to compete for viewers’ attention with viral videos, Michael Bay movies, multiplayer gaming and pornography. So the show needs to ratchet up the prettiness of the food, the novelty of the ingredients, the personality of the young cooks, and worst of all, the tired, ingenuous spiel about how every pork belly with a Mr. Pibb glaze represents a contestant’s “memories and pride in where I come from.” The universal cry of all the cheftestants, whenever they’ve made one of these dubious, slapped-together dishes, is “I’m willing to go home if the judges don’t like it, but this dish is me.” Dude, nobody cares! It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t even matter if you can think of something new to do with pork belly, which you can’t. At least, it doesn’t matter from the point of view of the poor customer who is going to be eating your stuff once you have been bounced from the show.
This would be a minor quibble, if it only concerned actual Top Chef alumni. There are less than 70 of them out there, hardly enough to wreck a strip mall. But Top Chef is the inspiration and the aspiration for a whole generation of young cooks. Chefs in every part of the country routinely complain to me that they can’t get good line cooks — the lifeblood of any restaurant — because they all want to be known and loved, their “unique” dishes fetishized by their generational counterparts among the dining public and the blogging corps. “These guys come right out of cooking school and think they know everything. They don’t know s___,” one chef recently told me. “They all watch Top Chef and think I’m supposed to give a crap about their ‘skills.’ They can’t cook and they don’t listen.” You can see it in this preview, where a cheftestant hacks helplessly away at a pork loin, seemingly for the first time. “I don’t usually butcher whole pieces like this,” he tells an amused Colicchio.
The result has been hundreds of small, Brooklyn-style hipster restaurants opened on a shoestring by young cooks who are not ready for prime time, and which succeed just long enough to inspire equally wretched emulations. The Top Chef alumni who have succeeded, like the hardworking Harold Dieterle, the masterly Voltaggio Brothers and the can-do Stephanie Izard, were exceptions to the rule; they were seasoned young veterans who had paid their dues and knew better than to cop an attitude. This also made them dull cheftestants, since, as Top Chef: Masters proved, professionalism is not good for reality TV.
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So here’s my plea to young cooks: forget about your own recipes for the moment and look at some of the books that just came out this fall, like The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat, by Joshua and Jessica Applestone and Alexandra Zissu, or The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook: 2,000 Recipes from 20 Years in America’s Most Trusted Cooking Magazine. The Top Chef kids have zero interest in cooking roast beef or making eggs, but that’s all they should be doing when not hamming it up on screen. They need to study food the way professionals approach food, even when cooking at home. Or if you kids learn better by watching rather than reading, the full season of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin’s cooking show is on Hulu. Or watch old episodes of Molto Mario. By all means, watch Top Chef, or even go on Top Chef if you can manage it. Just please, take your knives and go to work afterward, and forget everything you saw on the show. It will be better for everyone concerned.