Sunday, March 4, 2012

Top Chef 3-05: Latin Lunch

Food television is one of the stranger genres that emerged out of the great cable TV explosion.  Shows like Top Chef or Food Network programming seem completely unsuited to the medium, as food interacts primarily with the senses completely removed from TV.  On Top Chef the judges pay lip service to food needing to appeal to all five senses, hence their favouring of elaborate plate setups, but in reality taste is what's really important, with smell and touch also playing key roles.  This means that, unlike a show like American Idol (or Top Chef's unofficial sister show, Project Runway) the audience has to be told, not shown, whether contestants are succeeding or failing.  From the soft-porn shots of each contestant's dish, it's really impossible to tell whether it tastes good or bad.  This would seem to violate some of the most important rules of storytelling, and completely estrange the audience.

From a different perspective, it seems only natural that art and popular media would deal with food -- after all, it's a critical part of daily lives, and something that appeals to us on a visceral level.  A cooking show can be educational, offering a direct intervention into our lives, or sympathetic, providing us with something we can relate to our own cooking experiences.  However, Top Chef does neither.  It's hard for the ordinary mom making a tuna casserole to relate to the stainless-steel kitchens and haute cuisine of this show, and as far as the educational aspect goes I've watched several seasons without figuring out what the heck emulsification means.  (Imagine my shock when I finally looked up foie gras on Wikipedia).  Moreover, the type of food that gets cooked on Top Chef is not exactly something that appeals to a mass audience.  Before this started airing, if you asked me to draw a Venn diagram of fine dining connoisseurs and reality TV fanatics, I probably would have given you two circles several metres apart.

But despite this all, Top Chef works, both commercially and aesthetically.  It's currently in its ninth season with several successful spin-offs and is widely recognized as one of the best reality TV shows around (although this may be damning with faint praise).  Even though I'm a fast-food junkie who would probably hate most of the dishes on the show, I love it anyway.  And this is because, although Top Chef certainly doesn't elide the topic of food and the pleasures of food porn, it's not fundamentally about food.  It's a story about competition, and a perennially well-executed one.

After the previously-ons and opening credits, "Latin Lunch" starts off as most Top Chef episodes do, with a rare moment or two of the chefs hanging around their home apartment.  The whole "having to share a house" part of the competition is a vestigial element of previous competitive reality shows, as it rarely seems to be more than a producing convenience here.  Every once in a while they'll be some trivial drama when someone is using all the burners to cook breakfast or something, but it mainly seems like an odd addition to try and add cheap drama to a series that is at least ostensibly focused on competition.

I say "ostensibly focused" for a reason, and not just because I like using big words.  Format-wise, Top Chef appears to be all a battle about culinary skills -- there's only a minute or so of hanging around the house before we jump into the first challenge, and the competitions are loudly announced by jarring smash-cuts to super-serious bumpers.

But this appearance is somewhat deceiving.  While the vast majority of its runtime is spent in competition, the bedrock of Top Chef is the kind of interpersonal relations, carefully edited narratives, and sudsy drama which propelled Survivor to the top a decade ago.  The key to Top Chef's success is how it weaves these stories primarily through the cook-off segments[1], allowing it to eschew the aesthetic of trashy reality TV (wannabe actors screaming at each other in a McMansion) in favour of high-culture sheen, while delivering all of the pleasures of those trashy shows.  In other words, it's a guilty pleasure without the guilt (and this may be what lead to its critical success more than anything else).  On a second look this becomes clear even in the one-minute prologue to this week's challenges, which quietly lays the groundwork for all of the episode's major storylines: the increasing difficulty of the competition, Joey's redemption for previous poor performances, and Hung's arrogance and growing insanity.

This brings us to the show's major strength, editing which is among the best on TV (at the very least, it's among the most editing on TV).  In this episode there are eleven chefs still in the running, which means that on top of any interpersonal stories there are eleven narratives to weave together into a short amount of time.  Some of these narratives are simple -- the basic conception, construction and cooking of a dish -- and these tend to be the ones that are lost in the shuffle, the quiet contestants you don't really notice until they make it really far.  Dishes that succeed or fail, or cooking narratives that display the contestants' personal traits -- like Hung's arrogance over his later-pilloried rice -- get more time.  And all this is not counting the Quickfire Challenge, which is the same thing in even less time.

The visual style of Top Chef is, then, often chaotic, filled with many second-long cuts of people running around the kitchen or chopping vegetables.  This style not only allows the show to fit in all of the different contestants and their narratives, but creates an undeniable sense of tension and conveys the stress the chefs are going through.  The panic of the kitchen gets taken to another level this episode when Hung starts running around with a knife, almost stabbing another contestant.  That there are still coherent narratives through this is a minor narrative, and the skill of the creators of Top Chef should not be underestimated just because it's a reality show.

Of course, reality TV conventions are still here in force.  For instance, "Latin Lunch" features a prime example of the "loser edit", where a contestant who's previously been in the background is suddenly developed and focused upon, only for them to get eliminated at episode's end.  So in this episode we have Lia suddenly being all over the place, with the episode focusing on her anxiety about the competition, her growing friendship with Casey, and the flaw that leads to her downfall -- her unfamiliarity with Latin cuisine.  All that was missing was her calling a loved one or revealing that she had cancer.

This is a shame, as Lia was one of the more likable people on the show this season.  The perpetual front-runners thus far are arrogant Tre and Hung and obnoxious Howie and Joey, without anyone really worth rooting for.  On the one level, this is oddly reassuring: if the most successful chefs happen to be unlikeable (and this doesn't seem like a stretch in such a competitive profession), then they should win, and the plucky underdogs should go home.  But reality TV is all about manipulating reality into a narrative, and it's a curious narrative that the Top Chef producers have chosen here.  Given that you can edit someone to have just about any personality you please, it's hard to see how they're going to pull this into a satisfying narrative.  Or maybe I'm just an oddball and we're supposed to find Joey endearing or something.

The challenges for this episode are fairly standard, the sort of mid-season treading-water stuff that makes for a fine but not especially memorable story.  The Quickfire involves the chefs attempting to make dishes out of frozen pie crusts, one of many challenges that involve salvaging low-culture food products and reworking them into haute cuisine.  There's a comparison to be made here between the show's own aspirations, attempting to class up the reality format (at least on the surface) and its fondness for this type of challenge.  If that comparison is accurate, it bodes well for the show, because the chefs never fail at converting the kind of cheap food that us lesser mortals gorge ourselves on into something that at least looks and sounds like it would fit into any pretentious French restaurant.

The elimination challenge, which takes up the bulk of the episode, challenges the contestants to cook a Latin cuisine dish for the cast of a telenovela.  This challenge embodies a lot of the ethos of Top Chef.  First off, no celebrity is too obscure or too unrelated to cuisine to work an episode around.  Secondly, there's a commitment to mass appeal that at least tempers the show's high-culture pretensions.  No matter how much these meals may appeal to someone with "developed palates", they also need to succeed with less knowledgeable audiences like the actors of this episode.  In the past, contestants have had to cook for children and the TGI Friday's audience, and people have gone home for failing to appeal to the people they dismiss.  In that sense there's an unexpected egalitarian streak to Top Chef.  Finally, the show argues that being a good chef means being well-rounded, able to cook any style and any type of food.  In the actual culinary world, Lia's unfamiliarity with Latin cuisine might not hold her back this much [2], but here it makes her an incomplete chef and ultimately dooms her.  There's an expectation of universal mastery which is reasonable if you want to call someone the best, although perhaps not quite practical.

So we have here the essential contradiction (or perhaps just contradiction) that keeps Top Chef going: the clash between the trashy and the refined, the feels-good and the good-for-you.  It's compulsively watchable due to the skill of its execution, and it placates both the elitists who wouldn't normally deign to watch reality TV and the reverse elitists who spit on your foie gras.  And maybe that goes a bit towards explaining why I can't stop watching it.

Next week: "If it ain't Bjork, don't fix it."

[1]If I was feeling provocative, I might make a comparison between this and pro wrestling, which similarly weaves a fabricated narrative through the natural emotional beats of a competition.  Or at least pro wrestling does that when it's done right, which it rarely is.  Top Chef is, of course, moderately less fixed.

[2]The dish she's sent home for does look genuinely bad -- a bunch of trout on a soggy polenta cake -- so the lack of flexibility isn't the only reason for Lia's dismissal.  And it's rare to see food that looks genuine unappetizing on this show, where I frequently suspect that all of the food is actually pretty good despite the disgusted faces of the judges.

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