Of course, I love to watch Top Chef. Who doesn’t? The feverish competition, the self-doubts, the dormitory squabbles, the preening neophyte chefs upstaging the semi-seasoned veterans, the absurdist hairdos, the supermarket sweeps looking for obscure ingredients, the fledgling romances detected by midnight video cameras, the pressure of cooking as time runs out–it all adds up to plenty of drama. And then there’s the heartbreak of the episode-by-episode elimination. It can keep you glued to your set.
But what has food got to do with any of it?
The quintessential fact is that you can’t taste any of the food being cooked on Top Chef. Any judgment you make about the prepared dishes is based solely on how they look, and you really have no idea if the elaborate concoctions are even edible. Sure, there are judges, but can you trust them? The agendas of reality-type cooking shows are so diverse and hidden–don’t forget they own a piece of every contestant, and, by extension, the judges themselves–that you have no idea to what extent the outcomes are pre-determined, or what has been stage-managed out of the view of the cameras.
But let’s focus on the food for a moment. Because it only has to look good for the cameras–the more garish it is, the better. So, “heap up the ingredients” is the mantra of the contestants. A perfectly cooked, grass-fed steak, with a pat of melting herb butter on top, would be a total loser on the show–even though, that’s exactly what you, as an avid eater, might desire. On the show, the same steak is likely to be julienned, sauteed in a wok, covered with a sweet mango-bourbon glaze, garnished with toasted pistachios, and then finished with a squirt of concentrated raspberry vinaigrette and a grating of Parmesan. Any dish featuring a catalog of extraneous (and often absurd) ingredients is a winner on Top Chef.
These sad facts were brought home to me recently as I stayed in a rustic guest cottage on California’s Mendocino Coast. It seemed like every accommodation up and down the cliffs, no matter how humble, had a pretentious restaurant with a view of the ocean. And it seemed like every menu had been heavily influenced by the Top Chef approach: That is, every main course was an entry, rather than an entree. Here are some examples:
Grilled pork tenderloin, tender boneless pork, marinated with white truffle oil, raspberry vinegar and garlic, thinly sliced and finished with a shiitake mushroom, blue cheese and cream sauce.
Roasted breast of duck, tender boneless duckling, sliced thinly and sauced with roasted shallots, Marsala wine, French vanilla and veal stock reduction, served over toasted orzo pasta-wild rice blend and sauteed snow peas.
Lime and ginger grilled prawn, sweet jumbo Mexican white shrimp marinated and basted on the grill with lime, ginger, garlic, and soy, sauced with tangy cilantro lime butter and served with steamed coconut jasmine rice and caramelized beets.
I’m encountering similar menus everywhere as I travel lately. Menus in which you become fatigued just reading the overblown descriptions of the dishes. The true principle of gastronomy is to let simple ingredients sing. The true principle of Top Chef is to create a kitschy painting on a plate. Sadly, this wildly popular series is influencing menus all over the country, and soon you may no longer be able to get that well-cooked steak with a pat of herb butter on top.