People compete over a lot of things on “reality” TV: love, survival, jobs, student-loan forgiveness and even other people’s junk. The competition for the title of Top Chef, however, is hands down the best of them all. No doubt living in New Orleans, one of the culinary capitals of the universe and home to more than a few “Top Chef” alum, including Nini Nguyen who killed it this season, adds to my enjoyment. But there’s a lot of other reasons why this show is the best.
1.It inspires me to get off the couch: There aren’t many shows I find that actually cause me to be more active, but whenever I finish watching an episode or two…or three of “Top Chef,” it inevitably leaves me feeling hungry. This in turn causes me to head the kitchen where I spend more time cooking and pay more attention to plating than I normally do.
2. The respect everyone tends to have for each other: There’s a lot of competition reality shows where it’s nonstop trash talk and where the contestants appear to be willing to do anything it takes to win. “Top Chef,” with a few notable exceptions (Marcel and a possibly-hijacked pea puree’), is full of people who admire and respect each other, especially towards the later rounds. Contestants regularly help each other, loan each other ingredients and offer advice to their competitors on the grounds that they want to beat them for having cooked better food as opposed to winning because someone forgot to bring their eggs. In short, it’s a competition without the win-at-any-cost attitude that seems so pervasive on many shows.
3. It’s a roller coaster ride: While there are certainly some excellent cooks and big egos on the show, there has yet to be a season where someone effortlessly sails through. Someone won two contests in a row? That’s great because next week they’ll be on the chopping block. The show has a way of humbling even the most confident contestant (read: arrogant if you don’t like the person) from week to week.
4. Many of the contestants, especially those on the verge of elimination, are often able to own up to their own mistakes and shortcomings. Something about this seems refreshing in this day and age. The contestants are often their toughest critics, as I think anyone who is truly at the top their game should be. They hold themselves to high standards both in terms of food they put out and how they conduct themselves in the kitchen and on the show. At the end of the day, these are real cooks, and this show can be an excellent resume boost for them – if they don’t make themselves look like jackasses, and virtually all of them seem to be well-aware of this.
5. The show promotes diversity: Every season has an equal split between men and women, or a near equal split (I didn’t go back to actually count, but it seems pretty evenly divided). This is no small deal as one of the constant things a viewer will hear from the women on the show is how underrepresented they are throughout the industry. No doubt the male dominated industry has a lot of things deeply embed in its culture that has made it harder for women to succeed, but “Top Chef” is helping to elevate many who might have otherwise been overlooked.
6. The show is about the food. Period.Full stop. Put out the best food consistently, and you win. Personality, popularity and likability play no part (aside from who might lend a hand to someone who is in the weeds, but even then professionalism tends to win out). Watching a show where real people aren’t playing caricatures of the “villain” or the “jokester” or whatever else they think will extend their moment in the spotlight also makes the show more real and enjoyable.
7. Viewers can learn something: While the show doesn’t go out of it’s way to be a cooking demonstration, and many of the chefs are way more advanced than me (I don’t see myself using liquid nitrogen in my kitchen anytime soon), I can pretty effortlessly pick up a couple of usable tips and tricks each episode.
8. It highlights foods and regions a person might not be familiar with. Whether it’s touring the cuisine of the host location or learning about the traditional or ethnic foods from a contestant’s background, “Top Chef” gives viewers a tour of the world. This season I’ve been especially excited to see a Ghanaian chef on the show as African food is still a bit of a mystery to many here in the States, even though it has been the foundation of Southern cooking.
9. Watching trends come and go: In re-watching several seasons over the past couple of months, I’ve looked on as the bacon-craze took full hold of the “Top Chef” kitchen. It then, just as quickly, disappeared only to be replaced by roasted root vegetables and kimichi. How long will these things stay around? Keep watching “Top Chef” to find out.
10. This might just be me, but I don’t think it is: of all my senses I have the hardest time describing taste. People can usually get away with just saying if something tastes good or not, but ask them to actually describe how something tastes and they’ll likely struggle. In walks the “Top Chef” judges, Tom, Padma and Gail, among others, with their ability to over analyse everything they eat in the hunt for the smallest flaws in a dish. The simple act of learning how to talk about taste in a more descriptive way has also increased my ability to enjoy food more since it helps me better understand what to look for while eating.
11. It gives me an ever growing list of places to go and eat: Some of them might be well-established restaurants with a storied past and some might be new shops recently opened by a former contestant. Living in New Orleans, we have no shortage of both. A recent re-watching of the season set in NOLA sent me racing down the river to grab a huge bowl of pho’ at Kim Anh’s Noodle House. I also recently had a very enjoyable meal at Issac Toups’ Meatery Restaurant, but I’m still waiting for a chance to eat at Nina Compton’s highly acclaimed Bywater Bistro.