Top Chef Final Tonight: Win Or Lose, We Like to Watch

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Top Chef hasn’t suffered from sophomore – okay, junior – slump at all. Bravo’s reality show is turning out to be one of the most consistently entertaining programs on television, thanks to one simple rule that’s all too often overlooked in the reality game: talented people make good television.

Unfortunately, not everybody agrees: Regina Schrambling over at the LA Times recently decried the “tentacles” of advertising that have a firm grip on the show’s content (watch them jump into their Toyotas on the way to Whole Foods to buy stuff to cook on their Kenmore stoves!), and dismisses wholesale the “bloggers” (at this point her tone absolutely drips with contempt) who recap the show with a near-religious fervor.

These complaints remind me of indie music fans who whine when their favorite band “sells out” – okay people, what is this, 1992? News flash, LA Times: it’s called TELEVISION. Advertising is kind of the point. So what if the program walks all over those boundaries separating talent from celebrity, content from advertising, viewer from contestant? Did you not notice all the Flash-enabled ads that LAT is running alongside your article, Regina? Am I not supposed to take you seriously as a writer because a banner ad from Classmates.com is jumping out at me? Aren’t most of your readers viewing your article online anyway – and what is this about the Times expanding their blog offerings? Pot, kettle – you get the point.

But Frank Bruni over at the NY Times has similar complaints: the challenges don’t imitate real life, the problems of “celebrity chef” culture, we're getting away from the food, etc etc etc. Now, I don’t know too much about the restaurant industry, but it’s my understanding that high-pressure conditions and time constraints are a big part of life in the fine dining kitchen. And maybe chefs don’t get a “surprise” ingredient every morning like they do on Iron Chef, but most of the good chefs do work on the fly with seasonal ingredients that may change from week to week, and there are always occasions when a delivery doesn’t come in, an ingredient gets ruined, a recipe gets panned, or a huge order comes in and the chef must hustle to get it completed in a timely fashion. Improvisation and resourcefulness are two key skills for any chef, and challenges like catering for a nightclub or whipping up a twenty-minutes shellfish dish are merely heightened versions of how an everyday chef might work. So why the frozen-food challenge and the silly “surprise you’re cooking on a plane!!” episodes?

I repeat: it’s called TELEVISION.

But even some of the bloggers agree with these "print" media critics. The Amateur Gourmet also takes issue with the barrage of in-show advertisers -- but then again, he also watches the show just as anxiously as the rest of us to find out (to steal a phrase from the network) "what happens next."

Even the Chowhounders (who seem to ignore Shrambling's slur about "anonymous carping" on their message boards) agree with the LAT, but thankfully their criticisms are couched in a constructive suggestion for improvement: "why don't you fatten up the prize money offered? A hundred grand is barely enough to buy pots, pans, and dishes for a restaurant, and certainly not enough to "kick-start" a culinary career."

But other blogs like EaterLA and Blogging Top Chef don't manifest any such anxieties over the moral implications of advertiser relationships: in fact, these blogs take a simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and obsessively enthusiastic attitude towards the show as (gasp!) a source of entertainment. For somebody who loves food, restaurants, and chef personalities, this show is a godsend - and isn't advertising and sponsorships all a part of the restaurant business anyway? What exactly is everybody COMPLAINING about here?

Furthermore, this season of Top Chef has proven that reality TV can rise above the faults most often ascribed to it by cultural critics - i.e. that it's not "real" drama, that editing and the clever use of sound-bites can make conflict appear out of nowhere, that it's more about people back-biting and talking shit than, you know, telling a story.

But compare this season to last's, when the infamous Molestation of Marcel episode led to Cliff's removal from the show (black man still can't catch a break, even 15 years after David got the boot on Real World: Los Angeles) and Elia's inexplicable head-shaving urge (although damn if she still didn't look great even totally bald - bitch!).

This season? Aside from a few empty threats from Howie and Hung's drama-queening, the contestants all seem to like and respect each other. They work hard to present good food, they seem to know their stuff (Casey especially is a remarkably knowledgeable in classic technique, despite never being classically trained) and they give the judges their due.

The drama doesn't come from "who dissed whom, who's sleeping with whom," but rather "Who cooked the best dish? Who's performed best over all? Who might have an off night and get the boot?" You can dismiss reality programming all you want, but it's here to stay, and Top Chef (and its network buddy, Project Runway) provides the best paradigm for compelling competition-based TV I've seen so far.

And another thing, Mr. Bruni -- I don't care what you say about CraftLA or Craftsteak, Tom Colicchio is a good chef and a great mentor (methinks I detect a bit of Right Coast snobbery in comments like "The chances seem slim that diners at Craftsteak will be exposed to Mr. Colicchio's cooking the way diners at the original Craft in Manhattan once were. What they'll experience is a remote brush with his celebrity." It's like these critics think people don't go to restaurants to eat anymore, but instead to patrol for celebrities. Have they been spending too much time with Michael Bauer? Some of us still like to eat, you know!

But I believe in the opinions of people like Anthony Bourdain, Daniel Boulud, and even the steely-eyed Gail Simmons, who may look pretty and pillowy but is possibly the toughest critic of them all. Yes, having Rocco DiSpirito on the show is an occasion for serious eye-rolling - but then again, who better to serve the specter of what could befall the careless chef who privileges "celebrity" over "cooking"? Just cause he's a douchebag doesn't mean he might not have some good advice about the pitfalls of being a food media star. And Padma? Well, she's not an asshole and she probably knows a frying pan from her ass, and isn't that all you really need in a reality TV show host?

But the show does not begin or even end with celebrity. EaterLA said it best:

at its core Top Chef is still about food, cooking, and those who cook for us. Watchers who never picked up a spatula in their life are now talking about mise en place and sous vide. Big name chefs jump on board because it's a vehicle to get their established names (and faces) in front of a targeted audience. Sell outs? Not really. In the end, it's all about money, to keep the restaurants open, to keep the best chefs employed, to keep everyone well fed. We'll geek out on that any day.

Who wins tonight? It doesn't really matter - and perhaps there's the rub. Does Top Chef really deliver on the promise inherent in its name? Do its winners actually go on to become prominent (read: wealthy) chefs at thriving metropolitan restaurants? First season winner Harold Dieterle has: his Manhattan restaurant Perilla, while not the toast of the town, seems to be doing solid business with solid food. Last season's champ, Ilan Hall, has been MIA, but I'm sure we haven't heard the last of him. Will this season's winner go on to fame and fortune? Maybe, maybe not, but I'm more excited about next season than each contestant's next move.

There's no doubt, though, that most of the contestants from all three seasons are still cooking their hearts out somewhere. Maybe Top Chef doesn't do a lot of the competing chefs, but it does a lot for its audience: we want to watch good cooks cook, and we want to talk to each other about it. Personally, my own knowledge of the world's "real" top chefs, people like Eric Ripert and Andre Soltner, has greatly improved, and my interest in cooking and cuisine has skyrocketed. I'm learning from cookbooks, frequenting great restaurants, and educating myself about nutrition and ethical consumption practices.

Can that really be so bad?

P.S. My prediction: Casey for the win, Hung and Casey in the top two.