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December 19, 2006 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | December 19, 2006 |

I’m not sure why I had never watched Bravo’s “Top Chef” (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.) up until about a month ago. After all, I’m an unabashed whore of most reality TV, and I love both cooking and shows about cooking (two confessions on that point: (a) I’ve been known to spend endless hour upon hour of a sick day or hangover day just watching the Food Network, and (b) from about 2001 through 2003 I had an almost unhealthy man-crush on Tyler Florence). But for whatever reason, even though I was aware of its existence, I just never watched it. I might suggest, simply, that I had too much on my plate already, but I hate puns.

But last month I saw a commercial for an upcoming episode that was going to have Anthony Bourdain on as a guest judge, and I decided to give it a look-see because I love me some Anthony Bourdain (he’s almost certainly one of the people I’d invite to the hypothetical dinner with X number of famous people). That episode was enough to quickly earn the show treasured Season Pass status, and thanks to the numerous reruns and marathons on Bravo, I’ve managed to get all caught up with the second season, which is about eight episodes in right now (and appears to be on hiatus until after the holidays). So I’m now comfortable in saying that “Top Chef,” at least this current second season, is some damn fine TV.

But you may already know this. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve said to several people, “So I’ve just started watching this show, ‘Top Chef,’ and it’s pretty damn good,” and the response has almost always been “Oh yeah, I love that show.” In fact, just such a dialogue occurred between myself and two friends while in a wine store recently, and the girl behind the counter jumped into what turned into a 10-minute conversation about the show, about how hot the girls think diabetic Sam is, about how the wine girl knew a dude from the first season and he’s not actually quite the ass he appeared to be on the show, etc.

So maybe I was the only one out of the loop. But if you’re out the loop, too, maybe it’s time for you to get with the program. Particularly if you’re any of the following:

A foodie. If you love the cooking shows, there’s plenty to enjoy here, particularly since every episode has two separate cooking competitions with folks generally making their own separate dishes in each competition. So you get to see tons of dishes getting cooked up, ranging from more pedestrian fare (like grilled cheese sandwiches and onion rings), to fancier stuff (like various amous bouche), to shit you’d never even think of (at least, I’d never think of bacon-wrapped-strawberries). And while not everything they cook up seems to work out so well, I learn almost as much from their mistakes and missteps as they probably do (for example, if you’re trying to make low-cal food, don’t use Splenda in your cookies instead of sugar — just don’t do it). But if you see something you like, even though the recipes aren’t detailed the way they are on regular-type cooking shows, you can dig up the full recipe over on Bravo’s website. So the show totally meets my food porn desires.

A fan of good reality TV. On top of being loaded with food porn, “Top Chef” is just a really solid reality show. The competitions are, to me at least, just as entertaining as the best “Survivor” and “Amazing Race” contests, with the only real problem being the necessary subjectivity built into it all (i.e., the outcome often comes down to what one or more people think tastes the best, so the viewers at home are slightly removed from the whole thing). But as with all the best reality shows, “Top Chef” really works, not because of the scripted competitions, but because of the characters. There’s the aforementioned hot diabetic to act as eye candy for all the ladies (and from all appearances, he also appears to be one of the best cooks on the show and is likely to be one of the ones competing at the end). There’s the smartass schlub, former bartender Mike, who’s funny and entertaining with his asides and apparent lackadaisical approach to it all. There’s the requisite pompous dick, in the form of this cat named Marcel, who thinks his shit don’t stink despite the fact that many of his dishes, while looking good, don’t seem to be terribly well received during the competitions. And there are the necessary underdogs, including the self-trained Betty, who continually seems to surprise folks with her abilities, and my favorite contestant, Elia (whom I deem an underdog because even though she appears to be very well trained, she’s only 23 years old, which is on the young side for a chef).

And because of this solid casting, we get tons of the great conflict, which we all know is the real heart and soul of reality television. While some of the best conflicts are of course with Marcel (that’s one of the main purposes in casting a pompous dick, ain’t it?), they don’t all involve him — almost everyone gets into it at some point. Plus, there’s a very interesting dynamic that’s not present in other reality shows, even the similarly-career-oriented “The Apprentice.” These folks are all in the exact same industry, and one that really isn’t all that big. So not only have some of the contestants worked together before the show, but there’s every reason to believe that they could bump into each other again down the line. So it gives a little extra substance to their conflicts and relationships, since there could be post-show effects, something we rarely see with other shows (aside from the MTV shows, since those kids keep coming back to the MTV trough).

A fan of smoking hot former Indian supermodels now married to famously fatwa’d authors. While there are two principal foodie judges who, along with a guest chef/judge, critique our Top Chefs each week, for my money it’s really all about host Padma Lakshmi. She makes a passable host in terms of her actual hosting ability, but she’s great eye-candy for the male pig in me, which makes up for the diabetic Sam eye-candy the ladies get. Plus, having such eye-candy keep the testosterone portion of my psyche occupied, so it doesn’t get bent out of shape and try to beat up the rest of me for enjoying a cooking show so much. Not to mention the fact that Lakshmi is married to Salman Rushdie, which I just find cool as hell.

If you haven’t been watching “Top Chef,” don’t worry — you’ve still got time to catch up. Bravo’s running a marathon of all eight of the Season Two episodes on Christmas day, so it’s the perfect thing to test your freshly unwrapped TiVo on. (You are getting a TiVo from your significant other for the holidays, right? ‘Cause even if you already have one or two or three or … you can always have one more!) And while you’re at it, you might want to catch the Season One marathon running on the 27th — I can’t vouch for it, having not seen it myself, but I can’t wait to spend that whole Wednesday lying on the couch in my most comfortable robe and slippers and watching the marathon. That’s what holiday vacation is all about, damn it!


Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. He got so hungry writing this column that he had to take an hour break to cook up some tasty breaded chicken cutlets (sometimes the simplest foods are the best foods).

"Top Chef" / The TV Whore
December 19, 2006

TV | December 19, 2006 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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