Top Chef: Season 9, Ep. 1
Everything's Bigger in Texas
Michael Richardson
There is no better reality show on TV than Top Chef, plain and simple. The ones that could compete for that title - Project Runway, notably, with a few other runner-ups - are also great precisely because they ape what Top Chef does perfectly. You have a bunch of talented people performing their craft for an audience. There's a bit of drama, but it's always secondary to the competition. But most important, I think, is this: the audience, most of whom have ingested solid food and thus know what taste is like, can follow along even if they've never bought a knife-sharpener. As opposed to shows that failed the Top Chef formula, this is an everyday art. The hair styling shows - only a handful of people are really going to appreciate that. Work of Art went the complete opposite direction, hoping people would watch a show about a subject that is, by definition, removed from the everyday and the practical.

Top Chef is wonderful because we've all made bad meals, and we've made a couple of great meals, and we can see that, at the end of the day, those contestants are just like us. I've never made a pea puree, but nothing is stopping me from making it, if not at a professional level. It gives us ideas, inspirations and aspirations even as we laugh as somebody's soufflé falls apart. When I'm done watching an episode the day after it airs, I walk right into the kitchen and figure out what I can make for dinner that goes beyond jarred spaghetti sauce. And from talking to people about the show, it seems to have that affect a lot.

That, of course, is not to say that Top Chef is a perfect show. Oh my, how that is not the case. It tends to fall into some of the more problematic reality show ideas. Even if you think that the producers have all the integrity in the world and would never hope that someone would stay on because they film well, a conscious viewer can pick up enough cues from the editing to figure out a rough estimate of what will happen. Take tonight: if one of the chefs talks about how he went to prison and is now trying to turn his life around, the judges probably aren't going to send him home. The judges may not let that fact affect their decision, but the editors know what pulls heart-strings.

Then again, I said the same thing about Tyler Stone, the most memorable slice of tonight. From the beginning of the show they set him up as this season's villain, an arrogant 22-year old who talks about cooking for the stars. They even show part of his audition tape ("The name's Stone. Tyler Stone.") And then, as everybody starts cooking, Tyler reveals his ineptitude, hacking away at a pork loin like it's a tree trunk. Cue Tom, who walks over, tells him he's incompetent, and sends him home before he can even heat up a skillet. That's the moment I realized how excited I was Top Chef was back.

Of course, it was easier to send people home tonight. Here are 29 contestants competing for 16 spots in the Top Chef house. They've done this before, and it always feels like a cheap way to expand the season by a couple of episodes. While it creates a few good moments, it doesn't have the same kind of sour grapes that auditions for American Idol does. That being said, it is sort of interesting to see what a high level this competition is at, where even the losers go home for something as simple as a messy plate.

But the first episodes are always rougher - we don't have a handle on styles or personalities, who we want to root for and who we hate. To make this one worse, it's half of a two-parter, where the drama is largely missing from this half. Because they're sending some of the chefs "on the bubble," the drama is only on the best of the meals and the worst of the meals. And we can see which is which from the onset. Next week's episode will probably be better by comparison, because that middle ground is where the heat comes in, the make-or-break moment. Here's hoping for the best.

Grade: B


Because this is, as of right now, the only reality show being covered by Review To Be Named, try not to pay much attention to grades, as there's little to compare it to. I'll be grading the first few episodes relative to the show as a whole and what we know it's capable of. As the season goes on, I'll try to shift to judging it on the merits of the season itself. If it's the best season ever, I'll be more critical. If it's beginning is terrible and the ending improves beyond anything imaginable, I'll try to reflect that accurately.

A few weeks ago, as part of our question of the week, I suggested that the show would be improved if Padme disappeared. Maybe the editors agree with me - she only offers her opinion once or twice throughout the whole judging.

Anthony Bourdain has been replaced by fucking Emeril. All letter grades may be lowered three or more grades to reflect this.

The first line of the night: "Damn, Padma looks hot! I have to stay in competition just to look at her." Stay classy, Bravo.

Tags: Top Chef
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