Why do we enjoy Top Chef so much? Aside from the fact that it’s one of the few respectable, legitimate competition shows, and aside from the fact that we are all gluttons for culinary-inferiority punishment, why do we watch a show in which we cannot participate? With So You Think You Can Dance, you can see the dances. With Project Runway, you can see the designs. But with Top Chef, you cannot taste the food. You must watch the judges reactions and rely on their appraisals.
It reminds me of my chief complaint about food shows: there are only so many responses TV chefs can give when tasting their own concoctions. The head tilts up toward the heavens, the eyes roll back, the eyelids flutter. “Oh, oh. That is so good.” Or “Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.” Or “Yumm-o!” Or the old standby: “Mmmm.” (Really, Rachael Ray, could you vary it up a little?) I have wonder what happens when these people blow their own recipes. Do they fake it? (Holy mole rojo, he thought, anxiously. When did I put in so much garlic? Crap, the cameras are still rolling. “Mmmmm!”)
Tangents aside, the judges on Top Chef are under no such obligation. They are free to hate on the food. They’ll straight-up spit your food into their napkins if it’s not good. Padma is especially good at this. “Did you shell these pistachios yourself?” she demands, shooting a death glare at the hapless contestant, then plucking a shell shard from her teeth and then dropping it on the plate for effect.
It’s a good thing the judges are so frank, because they’re our only conduit into the competition. We experience the food through them. If they say there’s not enough acid in a dish, then dammit, there’s not enough acid! (Though I’ve never in my life tasted food and thought, “Gee, Dan. Some more acid would really give this dish that much-needed oomph.”)
The answer to this quandary eludes me at the moment. But I’ll be tuning anyway in Wednesday night, peasant food in hand, pretending I know the first thing about black truffles or foie gras. When it comes to Top Chef, I may not know the secret ingredient, but the final product is, well, mmmm!