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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.

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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.