While designing and sewing together my latest quilt — a complicated affair — I took in a little Top Chef on Hulu. I watched the entirety of Season 9 and enjoyed it, but I’ve had enough of that show for a while. I’m pushing my plate away. I’m dabbing the corners of my mouth with my cloth napkin. I’m telling the waiter to not serve me any more…metaphors.
Top Chef is a great show. I watched 17 episodes back to back over the course of about ten days as I stitched and snipped through the evenings. It’s good television. But either the show changed or I forgot just how grave it all is, and by the last four episodes, the vacuum of food-centric seriousness began to (cheese) grate on me.
The judges got to me first. Each judge is a talented and successful food industry person who has earned his/her opinion on kumquat, fried caper blossoms, fried caper kumquat blossoms, etc., etc. You’ve got restaurateurs, cookbook authors, chefs, vintners, celebrities in their industry — hard workers all, at the top of their game. Plus, the three main host/judges, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons, have been conducting Top Chef for years. They not only know food, wine, and chef-i-ness, they know Top Chef.
But all this success and knowledge is diminished after too long in hyper-focus. I don’t know if that hyper-focus is the nature of the show itself or the nature of watching an entire season in about as much time as it takes to roast a turkey. Either way, let’s look at some examples of what started to burn me out.
Gail Simmons, pained, looks at Contestant X, who is also pained. Simmons then looks at Tom Colicchio, then back at Contestant X. “That crouton was…problematic,” Simmons says, and folds her hands. Contestant X deflates, stares hard at ground.
Tom Colicchio, pained, looks at agonized, pained Contestants Y and Z. “I just don’t understand,” Colicchio says, earnestly baffled. “Where was the cohesion? I’m eating arugula, I’m eating cod. The cod and the arugula were not having a conversation. That was upsetting.” Contestants Y and Z shuffle feet, mumble something about the oven not being hot enough. Colicchio doesn’t blink.
Look, I get that the stakes are high. There’s a lot riding on the competition and it is a cooking show. But the problematic croutons feel silly at a certain point.
The contestants started getting to me next, but not because I decided I didn’t like them personally. I make a small portion of my living being on television, and I know firsthand how unfair it is to pass judgment on people you have never met simply because they show up on a screen in your home. A few edited minutes on camera hardly illustrates the grand symphony of one human’s experience, so judge not.
In fact, it was precisely this human shrinkage that I couldn’t get over. I’m certain the show’s audience sees 10-15% of what’s filmed in a day of Top Chef activity, and I got more and more frustrated at the style of editing we the audience are made to endure. Let’s say this is an actual sentence said by a contestant on Day 26 of the competition:
“There are no useable cherries in this bag. What the heck am I supposed to do with this? Oh, wait. Phew! Here they are! Gosh, I was really worried for a second. Sorry, that was uncalled for. Hey, does anyone have any lip balm? It’s windy on this mountaintop where we have to cook fresh fish that we caught ourselves with one hand behind our back. I really need some lip balm because I’m concerned that my lip is cracking.”
What you get on the show is this:
“There are no useable cherries in this bag. What the heck am I supposed to do with this?… I was really worried… It’s windy… We have to cook… I’m cracking.”
The fractured image I was getting of the contestants, the characters I was seeing as shaped by the producers and line editors, it all just stopped working for me.
I love to cook and I love to sew and I love to see talented people doing what they love. Therefore, I enjoy shows like Project Runway and Top Chef, because it’s interesting to watch real people do hard things that they (usually) love to do. But it’s only fashion, and it’s only food, and it’s just a bit much after so many hours, even when I’m busy doing my own art. Maybe some people live in a world where they mete out an episode a week for themselves, even while entire seasons are at their fingertips, but I am not those people. I go big when I’m home.