The pleasure of Top Chef

David brings up an interesting question about Top Chef : “How do they deal with the fact that they are judging a competition based on a sense that can’t possibly be transmitted to the viewer?” If we can’t taste the food and we can’t know whether judges are being honest, then how does the show capture viewer’s attention?

I think this is an excellent point of inquiry.

Here’s a quick answer: Top Chef usually challenges contestants to organize and execute good food in difficult catering situations. You get a strict shopping budget, a crazy time limit, and intense pressure to be creative. This, coupled with the ongoing drama between contestants, makes the viewer want to see what the chefs can come up with, regardless of the fact that they can’t participate in the judging. (Plus there’s the Schadenfreude when contestants make mistakes.) After witnessing the frantic kitchen drama you choose favorites and you watch the judges (who are indeed not accountable to viewers for their decisions) to see if they jibe with your own estimate. If so, you feel validated. If not, you get immense frustration!! (the very emotion which started this whole blog-a-log.) That’s why you watch the show.

Here’s a longer answer: The question brings up related questions about TV cooking in general. If you can’t taste what someone is cooking for you, how do you know the food is good? Why do you watch? There is (as of now) no way to transmit taste via television — so what is the deal with food television, particularly televised competitive cooking?

Scholar Pauline Adema maintains that the pleasure of watching cooking shows is a false satiation of, “the hunger for emotional and physical pleasure vicariously grafted by watching someone cook, talk about, and eat food.” I think that’s about right — food television is about vicarious pleasure.

Some cooking shows display the ease of cooking good food with ordinary ingredients (Rachel Ray, Paula Dean, Jaimie Oliver, etc.) while other shows feature haute cuisine methodology (Wolfgang Puck, Jacques Pepin, the original dean of TV cooking Julia Child, etc.) Regardless of these shows’ different goals, the viewing pleasure is about the same.

However, new forms of cooking show have appeared in recent years, particularly on Food Network. These shows alter the standard cooking show, usually borrowing from other successful TV genres. Food 911 features an expert helping ordinary folks, akin to Nanny 911 and the like, Emeril is a variety show with a classic ostentatious host, Good Eats with Alton Brown is more of a Bill Nye-esque science show, etc. Each of these change the cooking show formula to produce different viewing pleasures. TV cooking programs with a focus on competition, like the original Japanese Iron Chef, its American spin-off, and the old UK favorite Ready, Steady, Cook, add something unique — the suspense of cooking against opponents and against the clock.

Top Chef is ingenious because it incorporates both the competition/race against time cooking show with the relatively young reality TV form, perfected by producers at Bravo. Watching Top Chef is multifaceted fun: suspense, reality TV personal drama, AND cooking. (Food Network has tried to capture this formula with it’s Top Chef imitation The Next Food Network Star — a show that falls flat in a number of ways.)

Should we let a table of authoritative judges dictate what counts as good food via the TV? Giving up our real senses to their televised equivalent is certainly bizarre and possibly quite dangerous.

How do we know that TV food is good? We don’t. Ignoring this question, and indulging mindlessly in TV food, is arguably disempowering with respect to your own personal dealings with food. Fellow Wesleyanite Johanna Goetzel writes about the feminist implications of Food Network’s comodification of the traditionally feminine sphere of the kitchen — a place where cooking could be empowering for women! Goetzel argues that, “while it can be argued that food produced on Food Network shows is real, it requires a trust beyond the sensory, and beyond the viewer’s discursive power. By exploring the extensive following of Food Network, American interests in the culinary comes to the front and threatens the real (personally experienced) empowerment in the kitchen.” Traditional cooking shows (and cookbooks from time immemorial) are involved in marketing a false discourse of domesticity, making public the private sphere of the kitchen, and promoting a corporate-sponsored ideal of cooking and, hence, of the feminine.

I’d argue that Top Chef inaugurates the TV cult of the professional chef and restauranteur rather than contributing to the ancient cult of the domestic wife and cook. There has been a spate of Bravo shows about professionals in an affluent service economy (professional dancers, fashion designers, hair stylists, personal trainers, etc.) of which Top Chef is one. Any analysis of Top Chef from a cultural studies perspective should take this into account: Top Chef is about professionalism, power, superiority, and, ultimately, class. (Think about the many challenges that call for serving “the masses” or using low class ingredients to create top flight dishes, or distinguishing between high quality and low quality ingredients, etc.) So asking why we watch it can be drawn out into a difficult but important question about ideology, the full answer to which is beyond the scope of this blog.

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One Response to “The pleasure of Top Chef”

  1. Sam Hoyland Says:

    I would like to mention that the invention of Wonkavision would solve this little dilemma.

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