Sunday, October 19, 2014

Top Chef 6-14: Season Finale, Part 1

Whereas most reality shows take glee in rolling around in cultural trash, Top Chef has aspirations (some would say pretensions) of being classier and perhaps more edifying.  Like its stablemate Project Runway, it aims to bring a high-cultural world to a mass audience without losing the sheen of prestige that comes with that high culture.  The later episodes of each season are especially serious in tone, with most of the reality-TV drama gone as weaker contestants are weeded out and strong chefs have to bring their A games.  It's the equivalent of the play-offs, when all of a sudden everything seems to really matter.

But that's not a garauntee that the final episodes of Top Chef will be compelling television.  This is an obvious point: we can't actually experience the great taste of a masterfully-cooked dish.  There's an appeal to watching someone be excellent at something, whatever that something is, but in the case of Top Chef that excellence seems more distant to the viewer than perhaps in any other non-cooking competition show.  Despite this, Top Chef has succeeded in being good television because of its ability to present compelling narratives about what it means to pursue that excellence.

Season 6 is often regarded as the high-water mark for talent on Top Chef, but there's been relatively little interpersonal drama, and most of it has involved Robin being irritating and people reacting by being dicks to her.  The four chefs left, while obviously talented, are not the most compelling characters Top Chef has ever produced: Mike Voltaggio is vaguely douchey without ever rising to the level of villainy, his brother Brian is dull, Jennifer is talented but seems perpetually drunk, and bearded Kevin is the most likeable by default.  There are a couple of narrative frameworks created by the competition -- Jennifer's downward spiral, the sibling rivalry between Mike and Brian, Mike's vague snobbishness towards Kevin's cooking -- but they're presented almost as an afterthought.  The pleasure comes not in watching these fairly staid people interact, then, but in seeing the culinary invention as they try to one-up-each-other.

This is where season 6 really finds its success.  While we still can't taste the food on screen, seeing obvious innovation is exciting.  There's also the fact that food does in fact have visual appeal, especially the type of cuisine made on Top Chef, which frequently resembles more of a food-based art exhibit than a fulfilling meal.  Unlike in some seasons, there's no clear favourite to win, and everyone left is a contender.  So the season 6 finale works because we don't really need a narrative to care about who wins the competition: we want to see excellence.

As per usual, the finale is held in a different location than the main season and is filmed substantially later, usually after the season has begun to air on television.  As a result, there's a sense of re-acquaintance when we see all of the contestants.  It's only been a week since we last saw them, but the time that's passed is conveyed in their appearances and their refreshed attitudes.  Kevin's facial hair is even more out of control, and Padma has acquired both a baby bump and a bizarre bowl-cut.  The physical changes create a sense of renewal, a sense that this chef has already "made it", and also a sense of separation from the harried chef driven through the meatgrinder of challenges that is the regular season.  These are the contestants with their best feet forward, aware of themselves as both reality TV stars and as top culinary prospects.

The finale this year is set in Napa Valley, and that carries with it all the contradictions of wine country.  Padma arrives on a bronze train with a dining car, rustic and antiquated, but also with the air of old-world cultural prestige that defines fine wine.  And of course, the contestants have to cook on the train.  This is the weird class jumble of Top Chef: making fine cuisine with ingredients like Napa grapes, the type of food that would normally be served for obscene amounts of money, but doing so in an ad-hoc environment usually peopled by low-level service workers like the people who bring you pretzels on the train (train attendants?)  But of course, this is also the contradiction of the fine dining world: elegance and expense up front, monotonous body-destroying low-wage labour in the back.  Top Chef glamourizes this reality, but also is not afraid to call upon the toughness of being a line cook and coming up through the culinary ranks as a source of virtue for its protagonists.  This is, it seems to me, a very neoliberal maneuver: downplay labour exploitation in favour of portraying work as a (competitive) art, while at the same time making the ability to survive said exploitative labour the be-all and end-all of morality.

This particular challenge doesn't so much focus on toughness -- the obligatory mentions that real cooks have to do this work is by now long dead -- so much as it stresses the wacky environment and the difficulties it presents.  (It's not unlike the much-maligned "cook in a gondola" challenge from season 9 in that.)  Also, the winner gets a Prius.  People always win cars on reality competition shows, and it's one of those well-established tropes of the genre that doesn't serve a whole lot of purpose -- it doesn't really raise the stakes, as it has no real weight in the show's narrative, and even as product placement the strained enthusiasm of the contestants has to be a poor advertisement.  ("That's a pretty sweet prize to win" says Kevin with no notable affect).  To be fair to the contestants, it's hard to get excited about a blue Prius.

The omnicompetence of the chefs means that we don't really get the slapstick promised by unprepared people trying to cook in a moving train car.  The less exciting part of the challenge, cooking with Napa grapes, actually ends up shaping the dishes much more.  In Top Chef, food and wine have always gone hand in hand, as in the magazine that heavily sponsors the series (and provides a regular judge).  As someone who doesn't drink, this feels a bit strange to me -- no one ever asks chefs to pair a meal with a particular brand of cigarette, or their favourite type of cocaine -- but I gather it's a well-established part of the culinary world.  Nothing says prestige and sophistication like fine wine, and this prestige seems to exist even when the wine is in its embryonic form of the grape.

Bryan doesn't quite understand the importance of Napa prestige in this challenge, and uses a Concord grape instead of a local variety.  A miffed guest judge criticizes him for this, under the guise of locavorism.  Kevin is the only one to make a desert, showing that he's once again much more on my wavelength than the other contestants.  But the dish he makes ends up looking more like something you would stick a flower into.

The winner is Mike, who is rapidly emerging as a frontrunner.  His dish includes one of his patented conceptual tricks, this time placing the grapes on a wooden skewer with scallops.  It's a simple enough gimmick, putting one food (grapes) in the context you would usually find another (meat), but it's worked time and time again, especially when you add a perennial judge-pleaser in scallops.  Mike seems to have a better ability to conceptualize dishes, and that communicates skill to a TV audience much more than taste.  Jennifer and Bryan's dishes were both praised, but I couldn't follow all of the permutations Bryan's grape took, and Jennifer just seemed to throw it on top of a chicken dish.  Mike doesn't really have the mad genius persona of Marcel or Richard from past seasons (his aura is more that of your vaguely douchey college roommate), but his ability to come up with simple but inventive concepts for dishes makes it easy for Top Chef to present him as the frontrunner.

Following the Quickfire, we get a few brief moments of the chefs hanging around their hotel suite between challenges.  This is normally the milieu in which drama happens, but since everyone is being stubbornly civil to each other, it's just a quiet moment.  There's a kind of recognition, if not beauty, in seeing the contestants do totally mundane things like fix their hair or eat breakfast.  Were it not for the pointless voiceover where Jen tells us that she wants to win, this could almost be mistaken for a scene from an arthouse film.  I'd like to see a little more of this reality in my reality TV.

For the elimination challenge the guests have to cater a crush party, which was sadly not what I thought it was.  The event kind of has its roots in the traditional harvest festival, but abstracted to a point where it becomes indistinguishable from every other gala the Top Chef contenders have to cater.  Still, the aesthetics of harvest and the autumnal setting do add a rustic glow to the episode that the sanitized and geometric world of high cuisine usually lacks.

Actually, this episode kind of sits at the nexus of the culinary world's contemporary contradictions.  There's a back-to-the-earth focus on natural ingredients and farm freshness alongside a veneration of dishes that said farmers would neither recognize nor want to eat.  Food as presented on a Top Chef tasting menu is denatured, usually no longer resembling its original form and certainly having nothing to do with the sustenance of the body.  I don't want to bang the food-populist drum quite too loud, as simply rejecting high cuisine in the name of common sense has its own problems and contradictions,  But this season highlights these ideas in the narrative pitting Kevin and Mike Voltaggio against each other.

The crux of the conflict, as both men explain in confessional interviews, is that Kevin cooks simple Southern food while Mike cooks more complex modernist fare and looks down at Kevin's cooking with condescension.  If this was a movie, we know how it would go: Kevin's simple down-home cooking would eventually overcome Mike's snooty and elitist ways.  But reality, even reality TV, doesn't go quite as smoothly.  For one thing, neither man fully fits their role in the slobs-versus-snobs narrative.  As mentioned above, Mike is not Marcel -- with his frat-boy haircut and baseball cap, he looks just as much like a slob as Kevin does.  And despite the narrative, Kevin isn't exactly serving big platters of chicken and bits.  He twists and transplants Southern tastes into a format that's ultimately pretty familiar to the Top Chef world.  And Mike's desire in this episode to highlight the natural taste of farm-fresh ingredients hardly fits this profile.  This is the blessing and the curse of reality shows -- no matter how much the producers try, the narratives are never neat and tidy, and as a result conflict often ends up being more multifaceted and nuanced than scripted television.

There's nothing particularly complicated about Jen's fall from grace.  She started out at the top, and seemed to grow increasingly disorganized and manic as the competition wore on.  What's weirdly unnerving about this narrative is how there's no apparent cause for Jen's meltdown.  This episode tries to drum up a narrative about her going in too many different directions, but really what we see is an example of the inexplicable self-sabotage that affects so many people in real life.

Along with the narrative, there's a lot of proccessual stuff too: we hear about how Bryan prepares his ribs and how Jennifer adjusts to her coals dying.  This detail in part serves the same function as technobabble - even (especially?) if we don't know what the chefs are talking about, having them talk about it in detail still conveys their competence.  For those who know about all the cooking techniques mentioned, I doubt the series will really add much educational insight, but it may create a point of connection -- "oh, I should try that thing with the duck fat!".  The strength of Top Chef is the way it folds these processual moments into the broader competition narratives that are, at their core, unrelated to whether the cook chooses to braise or roast their meat.  This is best embodied in Tom Colicchio's tours of the kitchen (dubbed by some as the Sniff and Sneer), where he quizzes contestants on both what they're cooking and how they're feeling right now.  The trick of Top Chef is that it isn't really about food, but it manages to convince us that it is through carefully sparse moments of technical information.

The challenge proceeds as these things usually do: luxurious close-ups of the meal in question, brief comments from the judges, and a couple quotes from amazed diners.  The judges seem to both overreact and underreact: Gail responds to a salty dish like she's been punched in the face, while the top dishes just get tight-lipped approval.  And then we get the judge's table, which is actually a little different than usual.  There's a lot of disagreement among the judges, which could potentially highlight the arbitrariness of the whole selection process.  But we do have the narratives to lend credence to the result -- Kevin cooks simple, Michael and Bryan cook complex, and Jennifer is talented but is in a downward spiral.  So Jen goes home.  This is, in fact, where more recent seasons of Top Chef have gotten in trouble.  Instead of building up a narrative that justifies the elimination, later seasons attempt to fake the viewer out by using reality TV tropes to subvert the viewer's expectations.  With viewers still having no way to judge the decision, this can lead to confusion and even a sense of injustice, as with the eleventh season finale.  Season six uses a more conventional structure -- when you hear someone get the phone call from home, you know they're going to be on the chopping block -- but it works.  There is, after all, little room for the avant-garde in reality TV.

Given the formulaic nature of the genre (and fans who are not interested in seeing it rise above that formula), how can we critically gauge reality television?  To be more specific, what is it that makes Top Chef's sixth season so acclaimed and its ninth so despised?  The calibre of chefs?  The personal conflict on display?  (TV producers assume that viewers want a lot of drama, but the mostly conflict-free season 6 is better liked than the drama-filled season 2 or 9).  The personalities?  The unpredictability?  The prettiness of the food?  This season, and this episode, has some of these qualities and very little of others.  All we know is that we are drawn into the series and, in the end, satisfied.  Perhaps, instead of dragging over the expectations of scripted television, we need a new critical apparatus to figure out why.

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