Last night I watched the reunion show for the recently completed 7th season of Top Chef, and a point was brought up that has occurred to me often while watching the various cooking competition shows: After a montage of his numerous failed dishes, cheftestant Stephen Hopcraft said (with what I considered startling clarity) that he didn’t disagree with any of the criticisms. He pointed out that his method of working, when he develops new dishes for his restaurant, involves a lot of trial and error, and that didn’t fit well with the format of the competition. Chief Judge Tom Colicchio quickly agreed that there are chefs whose creative process just doesn’t work for Top Chef’s particular type of competition.
Why Stephen didn’t realize this before he signed up to appear on the show — which has broadcast 6 previous seasons, after all — is a separate question, but the exchange brings up a point I’ve long thought bore mentioning: What the chefs do on shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef America, and Chopped isn’t really much like what professional chefs do in their actual working life.
If I might digress... I have a Master's degree in English/Creative Writing. Happily, I was able to do a collection of short stories as my thesis project, to complete the degree, but my fellow MA candidates who were studying literature had to do something called a set text examination, in which they were given a short list of literary texts, expected to study the texts and critical work about them on their own for several months, and then take a (IIRC) 4 hour closed-book essay exam on the works, citing specific sources for critical commentary. It occurred to me, as I watched them prepare, that they were being tested on something nobody actually does in the academic world: Students would have the benefit of a whole semester of class discussion and lecture before taking such an exam; working scholars would never be expected to write from memory, nor in such a constrained time period.
In the same way, timed cooking competitions, often with arbitrary constraints on ingredients, "test" skills no chef would actually use in a professional kitchen: In conceptualizing a new dish, no chef would serve the very first attempt, without any tweaking or development of the recipe and procedures. And no chef in a working restaurant would serve a dish that failed in execution simply because an arbitrary time limit ran out. And yet, in all these cooking shows, chefs are required to make up dishes on the fly, within an arbitrarily short period of time, and to serve their first attempt, whether it's been successfully executed or not.
Given that on many of these shows, the contestants are high-profile chefs, with real reputations (and restaurants) to protect, I always wondered how it affected them when their work was harshly criticized in front of the TV foodie audience. As the exchange between Colicchio and Hopcraft reminds us, though, what we see them do in TV competition is not what they do in their own restaurants.