It appears that watching Top Chef gets my wheels spinning. The season has concluded, not necessarily a bad thing. Hung won, and based on the final meal, that was as it should be. The wrap up show was revealing if for nothing other than the holding room information. The viewer gets snippets of the contestants sitting around waiting for the judging in a room. As with any ‘reality’ show, you never know how much of what you are watching is in any semblance of real time. But it does appear to be a stressful, grueling wait. They cook in a frenzy, focused intently on completing the task(meal) at hand. Then they have to verbally defend their work. Then they wait to see what the judges will decide. What I learned in the wrap up show, is that that wait can be hours. The idea that they have to sit there in that close room, with no windows to give them a sense of the passage of time, and wait for someone to decide on their fate for that week’s episode has got to be disarming at best. On some episodes you got a feel for the tension when outbursts were shown (Howie comes to mind). But now I understand that they spent much more time in that situation, which would try the patience and spirit of the most dedicated chef. I have my issues with Top Chef. Some of those quick fire challenges are simply ridiculous, the elimination rounds are slightly better, but still verge on the inane. But I have a new found respect for the contestants and what they actually go through. Do I think it will make them better chefs (or chefs at all), I don’t know. But it usually makes for good TV. Certainly better than most anything on the Food Network.
During the season finale something occurred to me that got me thinking, and led me to this post. We live in a food town. We are surrounded by food culture on all levels: from the purveyors/farmers/foragers who deliver to the various restaurants on our block; to the chefs and cooks who come into the store looking for reference or inspiration; to the arguments about the ethics of Whole Foods; to the meals we eat out and cook at home; and not least to things like the Venison Death Match. We live and breathe food and it’s issues. So when I am watching Top Chef, and they flash a cover of Food & Wine magazine (the cover with their Top 10 Chefs for ’07, including Steve Corry of 555 right here in Portland),and spin on how the winner of Top Chef will be given an editorial spread in the magazine, it makes me think. I have some knowledge of the machinations that go into a national editorial magazine story, I was a photo editor at People magazine for 7 years. I have also worked in the food business, I was a baker at various restaurants in NYC (including a stage at Craft of Colicchio fame) and Maine before we opened this store. So I recognize that it sounds so glamorous and exciting to be featured in Food & Wine. Sounds so much like success, like accomplishment, like having reached some level at which you have made it. Bravo TV throws those rewards around like they are something that will change these contestants lives. But the reality (no quotation marks here) is something much less tangible. Being on the cover of Food & Wine with the ensuing publicity is a wonderful thing for a chef and their restaurant. Reservations get booked, people travel for your food, connections that may previously been tenuous are secured and certain worries are usually lifted. But the fact remains that food needs to be prepared every day, every week, every month consistently. Day in and day out the stock needs to be made, the birds must be spatchcocked and the doughs have to be mixed. The extra publicity of the limelight helps smooth the edges, but the work still has to be done. And it is not all glamorous, hell sometimes it’s downright dirty. But when one is lucky enough to observe it done regularly, and with the style grace and imagination that most of the chefs in these parts do, you appreciate the depth of the commitment.
So when I watch Top Chef I smile to myself and say, yeah, that’s great but lets wait and see how they do the year after.
And the year after that.