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Top Chef Post-Mortem
Thursday, October 04, 2007 | posted by Mike

Well, Hung it is.

I guess we could characterize this as a mild upset. Or maybe they were throwing Casey’s recent “success” out there as a red herring. Or maybe there just wasn’t that much difference between the three finalists after all and it came down to a last meal where Casey spit the bit and Dale just came up a bit short.

Regardless, it really doesn’t matter that much, as I laid out some time ago. I’m sure we’ll hear about Hung from time to time, and we may very well hear from a couple of the other contestants in the future. Heck, they could end up being the next generation of great chefs for all I know. It’s just that, as far as food TV goes, the Iron Chef winners usually don’t have much of a shelf life past the final episode.

For that matter, the careers of all reality show contestants have a pretty limited lifespan, Guy Fieri’s continued employment notwithstanding. And, really, I get a kick out of Diners, but do we need someone dreaming up new ways to tell us how much the food “rocks?”

The seeming disposable nature of these food competition contestants underscores the point made in an article by New York Times food critic Frank Bruni (h/t to PhilaFoodie for passing this along). He uses the Top Chef finale to come at the situation from the opposite angle, lamenting not that we’re denied the ability to look over Hung’s and Casey’s or Amy’s and Rory’s shoulders, but rather that these shows bring on true talents like Batali, Bourdain, Ripert and Boulud without asking them to pick up a chef’s knife.

One after another, the country’s most esteemed culinary practitioners — Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud and Geoffrey Zakarian, to name a few — sauntered onto the set, where they ate on command and frowned on cue.

What they didn’t do was cook. And in that sense the show perfectly illustrated how far these celebrities — on “Top Chef,” on “Iron Chef” and its progeny, on any number of programs — have traveled from the tedious, earnest hands-on work that gave them their luster in the first place.

Bruni’s essential point is the same that we’ve been making for some time, which is that there’s just not enough cooking going on with these world class chefs. It’s almost like the more knowledgeable and experienced a chef is (i.e. the ones who really have something to show us), the less likely we are to actually see him or her in action.

As someone who gets home from work fairly late, I can certainly appreciate the appeal of “home cook lessons” from Rachael Ray and Robin Miller. But the fact of the matter is that I’m more likely to reach for a recipe from a cookbook on my shelf than I am to take one off of the website after seeing it on a show – due in large part to the fact that recipe-providing shows are relegated to daytime and Saturday mornings, when I’m usually sleeping off my hangover.

So the type of information that I need isn’t how to stretch my chicken purchase into three meals or how to cut corners by using a jarred pasta sauce. What I need is tips and hints that will let me translate that cookbook recipe into something great. We’re talking about hints on how to tell doneness of meat, how to pick quality ingredients and why it’s important to render the fat out of that duck skin (and why I should put that fat in my fridge and use it later to roast potatoes).

At the end of the day, I get that sort of info from Mario, not Sandra.

Hey, how did my recap of the Top Chef finale turn into a rant? Oh, that’s right:

Long Commute + Laptop = Soapbox



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