Reality Bites

What’s missing from Top Chef and The F Word.

Top Chef’s Ilan Hall and Marcel Vigneron

Monday, as Food and Wine scrambled to cover up a leak of who won Bravo’s Top Chef competition before bloggers could pounce on it (to no avail—click here if you really want to know), it demonstrated how decidedly perishable food TV is today. It’s hard to imagine the same fervor being applied to an episode of Baking With Julia. While the days of the lone host chattering behind the counter as she demonstrates how to make boeuf bourguignon may not be doomed, they are at least dispirited. New programming has largely been given the American Idol treatment, repeatedly reformulated as a talent contest with a deliberately careerist bent, promising amateur and unknown cooks money, jobs, and plenty of PR.

The Food Network has The Next Food Network Star; BBC America ran the more pedagogical Master Chef; even PBS had its own contest, Cooking Under Fire, with a job at one of Todd English’s restaurants as the prize. The most compelling of these cooking competitions, in terms of ratings and zeitgeist, have been Top Chef, which wraps up its second season tomorrow night, and Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen on Fox.

Top Chef, from the creators of Project Runway, offers a similar structure to the popular fashion talent-search program. The show starts with 15 contestants, from self-taught caterers to French-trained chefs. Each week presents two challenges: one quickie, which generally earns the winner immunity from elimination, and one more elaborate, which gets the loser or losers kicked off.

As with Project Runway, the challenges have little to do with the real demands of the profession. There’s no demand for consistently acing the same dish night after night, or for dealing with investors, employees, or customers with allergies. But they’re fun to watch nonetheless: Contestants have a stingy two hours to cook a dish of variety meats like pigs’ trotters or oxtails; they must make a classy snack out of a Kraft product. Much of the food looks disastrous—overcooked eggs, soggy funnel cakes—but some looks truly well-conceived—sweetbread and scallion beignets, or fideos with clams and saffron.

Of course since we can’t taste it, we have to trust the judges even more than reality contests about singing or fashion, and it’s an uneasy relationship. Foxy host Padma Lakshmi, a model, actress, and cookbook writer, who parades around the kitchen in belly shirts, doubles as a judge, along with stiff Food and Wine editor Gail Simmons, and semi-gruff head judge chef Tom Colicchio. One of the distinct pleasures of Top Chef is its star power. The panelists are joined by rotating guest chefs: real-life restaurant idols, the kind who don’t usually show up on cooking shows, like Suzanne Goin of Lucques, and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin.

Last week, when dreamy frontrunner Sam Talbot was booted off, the show abandoned any pretense that it was seeking a winner truly ready to run a restaurant. Instead, the final episode will witness what feels like a bronze-medal match between Ilan Hall, who has been a line cook at Mario Batali-owned Casa Mono in New York and Marcel Vigneron, who cooks at Joël Robuchon’s Las Vegas restaurant. Both are young and brash men who have goaded each other throughout the series. With lofty hair and a needling voice, Vigneron has been the show’s pest since the first episode when he showed his knife collection off to Hall. * Hall has shown himself unable to resist Vigneron’s baiting, insulting him in front of the camera, the judges, and anyone else who will listen.

Talbot’s ouster provoked bloggers, who claimed that the producers somehow pushed the judges to pit the rivals against each other. No doubt Bravo can milk Hall and Vigneron’s sneering rivalry, but in its own half-baked way, their battle is bringing a very real aesthetic conflict to a broader audience. Though we as viewers can’t taste it, we get that Hall’s food is essentially conservative, while Vigneron’s is sometimes stupidly, occasionally ingeniously, provocative. Hall is a practitioner of the elevated rustic, using big, broad, mostly Spanish flavors like smoked paprika and saffron, while Vigneron is a self-proclaimed molecular gastronomist, inclined toward digital scales and algae derivatives that make sauces more viscous. He is criticized by the judges and fellow contestants for repeatedly making foams—a double whammy since foams are neither new (Ferran Adria’s been doing them for a decade now), nor reliably classic. But in last week’s Hawaii challenge, it was a frothy dish—a take on Hawaiian salted salmon—that ensured his place in the finale.

Somehow, Top Chef is less endearing than its sister, Runway, though. There is no Tim Gunn-like mentor in the kitchen to help guide the chefs to better work, nor is the matter-of-fact Colicchio a rival for the hilariously bitchy critiques of Runway regular Michael Kors. And finally there are the contestants themselves, who seem all too media-hungry for my taste. In the end, the only character I had any really fondness for was Michael Midgely, the party-boy line cook, who made it farther than expected because he learned from his better-skilled competitors.

In his cooking contest, Hell’s Kitchen, due to return to Fox this summer, Gordon Ramsay, the lauded and fully media-saturated British chef/restaurateur emphasizes the daily grind and pressure of restaurant cooking more than creativity. He has his wannabe chefs run a made-for-TV restaurant and chews them out with his famously filthy mouth. It’s all very shrill, although I agree with his basic premise that the cooking life is a hard, repetitive one. Those who are missing Hell’s Kitchen can turn to the BBC America broadcast of his series The F Word, which will resume its season on March 4, where Ramsay chews out not aspiring chefs, but “passionate amateurs” who cook with him purely for the thrill of being called, say, a twat on television. In the nine-part series, a different crew of amateurs—male butchers one week, female doctors another—cook in another made-for-TV “restaurant,” competing to see which group can get the most customers to agree to pay for their food.

Interspersed with the not-too-compelling drama of the amateurs is Ramsay on a series of food adventures, teaching hapless bachelors and divorcees to cook something wholesome. As a sign of humility, Ramsay has regular recipe cook-offs with various British celebrities, and repeatedly loses. The general message is that restaurant cooking is best reserved for hard-asses like Ramsay, but that preparing good food is very much in the reach of the average cook. I like Ramsay when he’s bantering filthily with some of the celebrities he invites on his show, but The F Word has none of the direction of his earlier show, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, which I adored.

The F Word’s competitions put very little on the line. In fact, I found the overproduced recipe segment my favorite part of the show. At least the camera lingered on the food, not the theatrics of the guy making it, as culinary competitions are compelled to do. I’m tired of contests, now—the time is ripe for someone to reinvent the old-fashioned recipe show.

Correction, Feb. 6, 2007: An earlier version of this piece misstated that Vigneron showed off his knife collection unbidden. Hall initiated the knife show-and-tell. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)