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Ah, food. For years (thousands, really) we as a species were only content to eat it. What barren, miserable, lonely years those were. Now, as we lurch forward gracefully into the dawn of a new millennium (hey, technically it’s still early on, all things considered) we find ourselves in a world where food can be ogled, dry-frozen, dry-heaved, prepared in 30 minutes, or thrown together in slightly ridiculous situations under extreme duress by a bunch of sleep-deprived chefs longing for a monetary reward furnished by the elite Glad Family of Products. It is in that breathless latter category, my friends, that we find ourselves face-to-face with the beast that is Top Chef.
There’s one thing I really like about reality competitions and that’s that you usually can jump in at the beginning of any season and be pretty much up to speed. Top Chef is no exception. Every season has varying degrees of talent or interest, but unlike Project Runway, which has undeniably had its ups and downs, Top Chef has maintained an extremely high level of quality throughout, especially in its most recent seasons. With this show, the season finale is never one or two talented contestants thrown in with others who don’t deserve to be there. The finales are almost inevitably a culinary crapshoot; the level of skill is so high that the prize may literally rest on a slightly overcooked steak. Which is perhaps why Top Chef is so thrilling to watch. And, of course, it helps if you like food.
An average show is structured into a Quickfire, which usually is a warm-up with immunity or a cash prize on the line. Then there’s the elimination: the chefs are set up against a series of guidelines and must perform to the best of their abilities, be it in harsh conditions or with unfamiliar ingredients. Once a season the chefs are divided into teams for Restaurant Wars, where they have a day to set up and create an operating restaurant. And that’s it. There is the simplicity and the brilliance. Let the games begin.
The judges are typically Tom Colicchio, the resident Sturdy Impressive Bald Restauranteur and Padma Lakshmi, token Smoldering Model Type Who Wrote a Cookbook Once (that’s a bit unfair to her, I’ll admit, she does a great job as both host and judge) and adorable dessert connoisseur Gail Simmons. A veritable pantheon of godlike guest judges have cycled through, from Anthony Bourdain to Emeril Lagasse.
My recommendation? Start with Season 6 (in which two equally-talented brothers compete in the finale) or Season 4, which has a perfect combination of excellent cooking and strong personalities. Soon you, too, will be pretending you are cooking your weeknight orzo in some sort of ninja-attack cave restaurant against an ever-ticking clock or announcing your meals by saying something along the lines of, “Tonight I have a de-hydrogenated Ramen noodle medley with a festoon of aromatic spices and extra sodium.”
Really, the only bad part is you never actually get to taste the dang stuff yourself. I’m sure there are NASA scientists somewhere working on that.
Tune in next week for our classiest Series Primer yet: Next.