Thursday, September 23, 2010

Unreality TV

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.


  1. I have to say, I thought about this one for a bit, Bill. I am of two minds - at least! - on it.

    The first mind is saying something like "... but - that is how nachos were created!! And Buffalo wings... and probably many other tasties!"

    The second mind is saying "... well DUH! Of course a quality restaurateur will not just slap something together based on what she has lying around without much more than a reactive thought! No good restaurant would do something like that!"

    The first mind is blissfully ignorant of there being at least 5 stories regarding Buffalo wings....

    However, regarding the second mind, I once had what had to be a "considered" dish of a lovely light fish (sorry, I don't recall what the fish was) on a bed of rice containing a spicy sausage. Now I have had gumbo and I have had fish sausage and I have had other dishes where fish and sausage were mixed, but when the main dish is fish and it is accompanied by something that makes me think the chef has had his taste-buds shot off in the war, I have to say that sometimes, lengthy consideration doesn't do it either!

    Your point is well taken though - kidding aside. In the main, developing a successful dish is normally not done in an instant, and those that are are generally lost, happily, to obscurity or the disposal. Frankly, I have had a few of those myself. Bacon gravy comes quickly to mind....

    Shows like Chopped and the like do serve to occasionally get my Creative Juices flowing now and then. It might seem unfair that the chefs are eliminated based on rapid return quality, but it's a bloody game show! Even the losers benefit, I am certain.

    Except for that one guy that used salt instead of sugar. Not sure I would want to eat someplace where the chef failed to actually taste what he was making :-)


  2. Oy, Jack: Your comment was longer than my post! You're gonna put me to shame on my own blog!

    And I don't doubt that necessity has more than once been the mother of (salutary) invention in real restaurants... but still I doubt many chefs' creative process looks much like: "OK, I'm going to take a handful of insanely incompatible ingredients, slap 'em together in 30 minutes, and serve my first attempt to the Times' critic."

    That said, it's the insaneness of the exercise, in large part, that makes those shows so fascinating!

    BTW, nice Lehrer quote. Say hi to your old mess sergeant for me! ;^)

  3. Eeek. It seems I have quoted Lehrer without knowing it! It wasn't intentional, as most of my (very few) Lehrer quotes are, so I guess I have to ask you to point it out!

    Never mean to upstage with writing (not ever gonna happen!). Never fear, quantity will never equal quality.

    Always enjoy reading your stuff and being a Creative Black Hole myself, I just feed off other's work ;-)

    Oh - and I was Navy, not Army. Never had any "mess Seargent". Made a few messes though, particularly when that plate of freshly served spaghetti slid in it's entirety off my plate and into a shipmate's lap.....

  4. Jack, Lehrer had a song called "It Makes a Fellow Proud To Be a Soldier" that included the line...

    "Our old mess sergeant's taste buds had been shot off in the war."

    It's such a singular image that I thought you must be slyly quoting. Plus which, I know plenty of our phellow Pharyngulans are Lehrer fans.

  5. Ah - well, unbeknownst to me (a Lehrer fan, but not as knowledgeable as I should be), I have been saying that for years - usually against my father. I think I picked it up from him, and he had far more experience with Tom than I. Thanks for the enlightenment! I will have to give proper attribution now.

    On a side note - is there any way you know to set these threads to follow any commented in aside from each time remembering to "sucbscribe" to the individual thread? I almost never remember to do that.