Tonight, safely past the May sweeps afterglow and Sopranos finale frenzy, New Yorkers will be tuning (and D.V.R.-ing) into yet another television obsession: Top Chef.
The show kicks off its third season at 10 p.m. on Bravo, this time trading Los Angeles for Miami Beach, but bringing all the usual players: the flinty-eyed and dignified Tom Colicchio of New York’s Craft restaurant (and all its little Craft spawn); the preternaturally gorgeous slow-talker (and Salman—not salmon!—spouse) Padma Lakshmi; Food & Wine’s shiny-haired, raspy-voiced Gail Simmons (who almost glows with an eerie, quiet rage). There’s a new addition, too: Top Chef part-timer Ted Allen—best known as the food guy from Queer Eye—goes regular. Oh, and the contestants, of course, who we can count on to make up that now-expected, evil-genius-Bravo-casting mélange of pink-cheeked earnestness, snotty behind-the-back undermining, confrontational bitchery and—often—genuine talent.
The premise is straightforward: 15 contestants compete in sometimes nutty challenges (make an amuse-bouche from vending machine snacks!) to demonstrate their creativity and skill, win the cash, glory, etc. It’s great fun to watch these chef-lettes dashing around the kitchen, but it’s tough to play judge, from the sofa, when the thing being tested is taste. You can imagine what geoduck (an ingredient that comes into play during tonight’s episode) might taste like, but you don’t know, not really.
However, as Mr. Allen was quick to point out, “You can see the dresses on Project Runway but you can’t touch the fabric …. You can’t put it on no matter how badly you want to—and boy, do I,” he said. “[On Top Chef] it’s not just about whether the food is delicious. It’s about whether they [the contestants] had a good idea and whether they responded to the challenge in a creative way. If someone tells you they’re going to put saffron and garlic and clams into a flan, you can pretty much calculate that it’s going to taste like shit.”
That’s true, but still. If we can’t judge the work based on its most important quality, why are so many New Yorkers obsessed with this show?
Maybe it’s because we love our food. We love our precious organic grocery stores, specialty cheese and butcher shops, and hearing about that upstate farm all the vegetables and baby lamb chops on the menu came from. We can chat easily about the influence of Alice Waters, the earth-to-table movement or about the rise of the Meyer lemon in new American cuisine. The fact that most of us use our stoves as storage for various pots and pans (or, in some cases, magazines) and have kitchens the size of most Americans’ closets matters not a bit, nor does it make a difference if you can, you know, actually cook.
Some of us can watch a show like Top Chef and huff pronouncements like “A cranberry reduction? That’s a mistake” while somehow forgetting we (cough) don’t even know how to roast a chicken. Or make meatloaf, clam chowder or eggs Benedict. Whatever! We are a city of knowledgeable restaurant order-ers—our 2 a.m. steak frites, properly seared tuna steak, how much is too much citrus on our $28 entrée—and we know our Kellers from our Batalis and Changs.
“New Yorkers are food obsessed,” said Mr. Colicchio, who benefited from such rabid devotion at Gramercy Tavern, the Quilted Giraffe and the Mondrian, before opening Craft, the crown jewel of his ever-expanding empire. The haute-barnyard restaurant boasts a high-concept menu that allows diners to feel smug and smart by building their own meals, choosing from the most pristine of quality ingredients. (There are six different kinds of mushrooms on the menu. Six!)
“Restaurant culture is a spectator sport here,” agreed Mr. Allen. “Even if New Yorkers don’t know anything about food, they are very inclined to pretend that they do. It’s really kind of ironic in a town where people never cook … but I think when people in Manhattan decide to cook, they’re probably going to the Union Square Greenmarket and getting ramps and artisanal cheeses and doing it right.”
Of course, part of the fun of any reality/game show is the sitting on your rump and passing judgment on people infinitely more qualified for the task at hand than you’d ever hope to be. The other is watching the rise of reality-show villains and heroes. Each season of Top Chef has had its share of made-for-TV characters. See Season One: haughty, wine-obsessed Stephen Asprinio; scarily ambitious Tiffani Faison; hunky, grumpy Harold Dieterle (the eventual winner and current West Village restaurateur); and emotional and endearing Dave Martin, who once famously snapped at Tiffani (and instantaneously spawned a T-shirt slogan), “I’m not your bitch, bitch.”