Thursday, March 30, 2006

Cooking Up a Winner?

I expected to hate Bravo's new series Top Chef. I have avoided watching episodes of the show for weeks. I was a pretty big fan of Hell's Kitchen, which I discovered thanks to Fritz, and I just didn't think a new show could measure up to Chef Ramsay.

My objection to watching the show were overthrown the other day by two clips from a promo for the show. The first was listening to the chef's complain about having to make dishes from food purchased at a mini-market. This was immediately followed by Top Chef's top chef, Tom Colicchio, saying that he wished the rules allowed him to fire " all three of you." I immediately knew I had to give this show a try. Besides, it was a Bravo show. They were responsible for Blow Out, another show I enjoy when I am feeling ornery.

Top Chef follows a tried and true formula for reality television. First you have an "immunity" competition, followed by an elimination competition, ending with the board room interview. This is the Apprentice/Endurance model and creates a natural narrative structure with minimal need for "editorial creativity" to increase tension. The challenges, like the mini-mart grocery hunt, are sometimes silly, but they highlight the creativity and talent of the chefs. In fact, that is where this show truly shines. I actually believe that the contestants on this show are all competent cooks. That wasn't true on Hell's Kitchen which seemed more about turning people into good chefs by putting them through cooking boot camp.

Every week, on Top Chef, the winning recipe from the elimination challenge is featured on the website allowing for additional audience participation. This is something that was lacking on Ramsay's show. In fact, I can't really recall much about many of the contestents on Kitchen other than the fact that they all smoked like chimneys.

Hell's Kitchen was about how well the contestants could handle the stress of running a high-end kitchen. Top Chef combines the stress of providing and presenting food. The chef's are expected to be more than cooks, but personalities as well. After all, if you want to be a "famous chef" your personality is almost as important as your other talents.

The prize competed for is another major difference between HK and Chef. Chef Ramsay was supposed to provide the winning chef on HK with their own restaurant, but when Chef Michael won he was offered a job at one of Ramsay's existing restaurants. This is a significant offer, but is more along the lines of Trump's Apprentice than the initially advertised prize. Top Chef, on the other hand, offers a three prong prize. First, the contestant will be featured in Food and Wine Magazine and be a featured chef at Aspen's Food & Wine classic. Second, they will receive a full line of Kenwood appliances for a restaurant kitchen. Finally, they will receive $100,000 to assist in their culinary career, a nice down payment on a loan to start a business if you ask me.

Structurally, I think Chef is what I wished Kitchen would be. The lack of a strong personality like Ramsay is a drawback, but overall I think Chef is a better show. I have already begun developing favorites and foes.

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