When "Top Chef" first premiered on Bravo, it was in the shadow of its production sibling "Project Runway," and I couldn't see how it could possibly be as compelling. Watching cooking programs has always been fun, but in a cooking competition a television audience is hampered by not being able to smell or taste the results. On "Runway," we saw as much of the designers' garments as the judges did so you could more or less follow along. But over the course of four years and seven seasons, plus spinoffs, "Top Chef" has been proving me wrong. Right now I'm keeping up with "Top Chef: Just Desserts," the newest variant featuring pastry chefs.
I really enjoy these shows for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with being a foodie or liking to cook. "Top Chef" is a very well produced competition program that understands all the ins and outs of the formula. The weekly challenges are well-conceived and fun to watch. While viewers don't get the sensory experience of the food, the judges and contestants are very good at being proxies for us. In a way it's more accessible than the fashions on "Project Runway," because not everyone gets the allure of a thousand-dollar dress, but everybody eats. And being fashion-forward is a harder concept to grasp than a dish being too salty or meat being overcooked.
There's also my favorite aspect of these competitions, which is watching creative people being creative. The amount of time actually spent depicting the food preparation is limited, but the efforts taken by the chefs comes across. The cooking is often secondary to the conditions in which it is being undertaken, usually limiting ingredients, equipment, and time. Past challenges included catering an entire wedding in two days, cooking on the beach in barbecue pits, and creating dishes from the contents of a vending machine. The resulting frenzy in the kitchen makes for very good television. An extreme cooking show on the Food Network, "Dinner: Impossible," gets a lot of mileage out of similar challenges.
However, "Dinner: Impossible" doesn't have the competition dynamics of "Top Chef." The show's usual panel of of judges includes Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, who don't have the personalities of some of their counterparts on similar programs, but come off as knowledgeable and outspoken critics with no shortage of zingers in their repertoire. The contestant chefs are usually a good mix of up-and-coming professionals with a few larger-than-life characters in the mix. Interpersonal tensions sometimes erupt, the way they have with contestant Seth Caro on "Just Desserts," but it's not really necessary to the show and doesn't affect its watchability. The competition itself provokes plenty of good drama.
There's also the benefit of getting what feels like an insider's glimpse into the world of professional chefs, the same way that "Project Runway" does with fashion design. I've picked up all sorts of interesting food-related terminology and can identify many ingredients and foods that I never encountered before watching "Top Chef." The show usually won't slow down to explain what a ceviche is or where jicama comes from unless it's specifically part of the challenge itself, like the time where the contestants were directed to make an amuse bouche, a one-bite appetizer. The more you know about food and cooking, the more you get out of "Top Chef," and I appreciate that the show doesn't pander and maintains that level of professionalism and authenticity.
Because they keep that nice balance between being a show that actual chefs won't groan at, yet novices will find accessible, I find that I keep watching. "Just Desserts" has been especially addictive because I have a sweet tooth and a yen for pastry shows like "Ace of Cakes" already. I wasn't surprised when "Top Chef" snatched the Emmy for best reality show away from "The Amazing Race" this year, ending its multi-year streak. However, I am a little worried about overexposure. Back when Bravo had "Project Runway," they would stagger their broadcasts or alternate between the two. However, with all the different versions and spinoffs, "Top Chef" has been going practically nonstop. Bravo will be rolling out an "All Stars" version next and a "Juniors" competition for teenage chefs in the near future.
As for me, I had my first ceviche a few months ago, followed by my second, third, and fourth. I think watching "Top Chef" may be turning me into a foodie. Alas, for all my appreciation, my cooking skills have not improved at all.