Thursday, January 12, 2012

Food TV: Top Chef: Texas "Restaurant Wars"

OK, to begin with, why, oh why, in the suffering world did the geniuses at Top Chef decide to make this season's Restaurant Wars a "battle of the sexes" (or "boys versus girls," if you prefer the cheftestants' own cutesieness to the producers' war metaphor)? And why did the "boys" (Chris, actually) have to make it worse by immediately calling the "girls" catty (not that the women didn't seem to be doing their best to embody that invidious stereotype)?

To the show's (very minimal) credit, they didn't go on to pound on any masculine versus feminine tropes in discussing the decor, service, or food... but that's small comfort. The most charitable interpretation is that they ended up at RW time with an even split between the sexes, and just thought it would be "fun" to pick the teams that way... but even that points out that sex-based segregation remains a (sadly) socially acceptable trope well after separating people in other ways has become taboo: Would Top Chef have considered, even for a second, putting Ed, Paul, and Bev on one team and calling it Asians vs. Whites? Of course they wouldn't... but somehow they can still pull the trigger on a Battle of the Sexes. Grrrrr.....

Beyond that disappointment, I found the episode a bit perplexing: Both restaurants were appealingly decorated (I liked Canteen a bit better, though I think the open kitchen was a bad idea for a one-night popup restaurant), and their menus seemed like I would enjoy them, as well. Even though both had problems with service, what we saw of the judges' and guests' dining experience seemed mostly positive, with Canteen having an edge on the overall dining experience, Half Bushel having an edge on food, and Padma declaring that the judges had a tough choice.

So I was surprised to find that, at Judges' Table, the competition didn't seem to be close, and the critical comments were so much harsher than they seemed in the event. Did the diners' survey data come out different than they expected? Did the judges' positions harden with time (and I must say that the consecutive-nights format seems to give whoever goes second an advantage, especially since they got to dine in their opponents' restaurant)? Or did the producers simply edit the in situ comments to make the contest look closer than it ever really was, for the sake of preserving the suspense?

In any case, I was happy that Beverly won, and less happy that her team did, and for the same reason: I thought her teammates abused Bev, basically treating her like a sous chef or less instead of a colleague and teammate. I had thought the bullying would stop once Heather (who seemed to have a particularly personal beef with Bev) was eliminated, but apparently not. Bev doesn't appear to be the best cook in the group, and who knows, maybe there really is something lacking in her work ethic... but I find myself rooting for her, both because I fell in love with Korean food years ago when I lived in Seoul (so how could I not love a contestant whose cast bio says if she were a food, she "would be kimchi since it is funky, spicy and addictive which matches [her] eccentric, yet soulful personality."), but also because I think she's been treated awfully, which gives her story the underdog appeal. Amazingly, after celebrating their victory with approximately 12.72 seconds of hugging, the Half Bushel team went right back to glares and recriminations. Lindsay (did she really mention having been prom queen as an example of how driven she is?!?) seemed visibly pissed that Bev had won; she scares me just a little.

I've been rooting for Ed, too (though his attitude has tested my patience at times), so I was glad he (seemingly) "won" among the chefs on the losing team. He did, however, fall into what I'm beginning to see as a universal cooking show trap: Giving your dish a name it doesn't live up to. Based on the comments, his dessert may have been the single best dish at either restaurant, but because he called it Almond Joy, he got more rips for not enough coconut than compliments for how good everything else was about it. IIRC, one of the judges (Emeril?) even said that the name was the only thing wrong with that dish.

The other dessert (along with an apparently passive effort) seemed like it would send Chris "Let Me Mention Moto One More Time" Jones home, but Tom Colicchio was obviously in his corner, resulting in the departure of Ty-Lor Boring (can that possibly be the name his momma gave him?)... or at least his short trip to Last Chance Kitchen (which I haven't watched yet... shhh; no spoilers!)

[Edited to correct a misattribution.]


  1. Great blog, Bill. You nailed it. The division of the teams was definitely growl-worthy and the treatment of Beverly is terribly bullying. I too hoped that it would stop with the demise of Heather, but no. And when Sarah actually had the nerve to announce in front of Beverly that Lindsay should have won, I literally rose up in my seat.

  2. Update: I'm realiably informed that it was Chris, not Ed, who used the word "catty." Sorry for the mixup! I'll fix it in the post (or will have fixed it, by the time anyone reads this).

  3. Paul is still my favorite. I'm looking for him to win it all.

    Beverly is interesting - she's said she's been abused, and it really shows. She's very deferential to everyone else, and they're bullying her in a terrible way. What they don't seem to understand is that if they'd just lay off and let her do her thing, she'd be quite fine without them yelling at her every two minutes, thanks. I don't think she's that strong, but she doesn't deserve what she's gotten, either.