Top Chef Texas, Week 16: Preparing to Say Goodbye
Some thoughts on Top Chef: Texas before the lights go out
By Melanie Haupt, 1:42PM, Tue. Feb. 28, 2012
So, we’re here today to talk about the penultimate episode of Top Chef: Texas. The fact that I’m writing this recap on the eve of the finale seems kind of moot, so I thought I’d do some reflecting on Top Chef: Texas before we say goodbye to it tomorrow night.
Sure, it might be fun to make fun of Sarah and her childish behavior, from her fixation on Bev to her embarrassing red-faced squealing and bouncing and face-covering when she gets excited about something. (Believe me, I have said some very unkind things about her in private conversations, things I would never repeat here.) And it might even be useful to talk about how, in these “Linsane” times, Top Chef: Texas has thrown into relief a whole new catalogue of the ways in which we fall on our collective faces as an allegedly post-racial culture when it comes to talking about race, particularly Asian-ness. We could even talk about how I Read On The Internet ™ that the fix is in, that Tom Colicchio has a total boner for Sarah (how else can you explain his forgiving her frozen ginger mousse but having an absolute tantrum over Paul’s arugula on this last episode?) and that she’s going to win no matter what, but I don’t really feel like going there today.
Because I have a job that requires me to eat a lot, I often go run on the Town Lake trail, which is also when I catch up on my backlog of podcasts. This morning, I was listening to a recent episode of This American Life called “Playing the Part.” It started off with a discussion of how when people participate in reality shows, their perception of reality – and even their very identities – become blurred.
That got me thinking about Top Chef and how, over its run, it has lost its sense of itself. In the beginning, it was a cooking competition, with challenges that focused on an individual chef’s ability to turn an assemblage of raw ingredients into an edible masterpiece. Or that tested a chef’s knife skills or palate (remember “Name That Ingredient”?).
But with Top Chef: Texas, Top Chef has become acutely aware of its position as a reality show and has folded that awareness of its reality-show-ness into its narrative. The result is chefs preparing meals on tiny, ineffective stoves while dangling above a chasm in the Canadian Rockies in a swaying gondola. Or cross-country skiing and shooting at targets in a “culinary biathlon” for a coveted spot in the finals. (I Read On The Internet ™ that next thing you know, they’ll be making the competitors on Top Shot caramelize a crème brulee before stepping onto the firing range, which is just as ridiculous as what’s been going on here all season.)
This also raises the question of, if you are a competitor on this show, what is the part you want to play? Do you want to be the bullied underdog, a la Bev? Or the one who does the bullying, a la Heather and Sarah and Lindsay? Or do you want to be the class act, the one who chooses not to go all meta on everyone with some sort of performance or fabricated persona and just cook, because that’s what you’re there to do? Even if that means helping your competitors by busting apart blocks of ice that contain frozen ingredients, or sharing the ingredients that you retrieved for yourself because, when all is said and done, what this show used to be about and should still be is the food.
All of this is to say that I used to really love Top Chef. And I still do, even though now that love is sort of like the love you have for that cat that you sort of hate because he shreds all your furniture with his angry claws but still makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside when he jumps up on your lap all purr-y and innocent. But Top Chef’s identity crisis has really infuriated me this season, in large part because in making every challenge a gimmick, they turned Texas into a gimmick. The producers of this show missed out on a huge opportunity to showcase the truly exciting things happening in Texas foodways right now.
But I applaud Paul Qui for doing his best to keep the show honest, by staying focused on the art and craft of being a chef, and for also just being a class act and not getting bogged down in typical reality show misbehavior. And I’m not just saying that because he’s representing Austin; I would be impressed by his ethos even if I were writing this from Boulder or Seattle or Miami. But because I’m writing this from Austin, I am proud in addition to being impressed. We have the cheftestant with the most integrity, who has chosen to show his class instead of his ass, and who also happens to be insanely talented. And if this means I’ll never be able to get a reservation at Uchiko again, so be it. It is SUCH a cliché to say it, but I think it really applies here: Paul Qui has already won Top Chef: Texas, even if the actual title goes to someone else tomorrow night.