LA Chef’s Editorial: Top Chef and food TV

(Originally published February 12, 2016 on Examiner.com).

Have to admit, I never really watched Top Chef until writing this column and profiling one of the show’s contestants from Season 10, Kuniko Yagi. When it comes to food television, I’ve always been more fond of the travels shows like those with Anthony Bourdain, and other educationally based shows from other countries like “The ‘F’ Word” with Gordon Ramsey from England and my favorite thus far “Paddock to Plate” with Matt Moran from Oz. “The ‘F’ Word” did have a competitive portion to each episode but also had an empathetic Ramsey as a clear mentor plus educational food components regarding cooking techniques and sourcing. Whereas Top Chef, (and the other timed competitive cooking shows it has spawned) is almost exclusively about the competition, the ticking clock, and the judgment with some conflict between the contestants thrown in for production value.

If you watch too much Top Chef, you may think all food can be cooked in under an hour or in a 30 minute quick fire challenge plus all chefs are fully autonomous individuals who just cook and plate the best dish that each one makes him or her self. Obviously being a chef is a lot more than that and many of the world’s greatest chefs are also mentors who frequently check their egos to build their crews. The analogy is a good one of an executive chef being a conductor of an orchestra or, in an old school kitchen, a General in command of his troops. Often while watching Top Chef, I wonder whether they should insert the word sous in-between the words top and chef. Nonetheless, to be a truly great chef, one does have to really know how to cook and that’s what Top Chef is really about: culinary ability as well as the ability to listen to what a challenge really is asking for when it’s presented.

Top Chef winner Chef Michael Voltaggio said to me in a recent interview “… a lot of these cooks are like what do I have to do to do this, and how do I get to be there and my answer is always the same, just keep learning how to cook. That’s going to be the only difference between you and somebody else.” Michael also noted later during our conversation, “…but at the end of the day you should listen to the people that you’re cooking for as well. I learned that in a big way even on Top Chef. Those challenges were won by listening to the descriptions of [each contest]. The challenges were won through cooking and I believe it was the best dish that won, but a lot of times, the challenge itself was just as important as that part of it too. So if they told you to cook using chocolate and you didn’t use chocolate then maybe you couldn’t win the challenge. It doesn’t mean your dish wasn’t good….”

In addition to speaking with Chefs Yagi and Voltaggio, I’ve also done either detailed profiles, dish stories, Q & A or first job stories with a number of other former Top Chef contestants including chefs Brooke Williamson, Katsugi Tanabe, Dakota Weiss and both of this season’s contestants Giselle Wellman, and Phillip Frankland Lee. With most of these contestants, they viewed Top Chef as a way to increase their personal brands which, in turn, attracted investors for some and customers for others or both. Brooke specifically noted an increase in customers at her restaurants during her time on the show. As one English chef told me, “TV puts bums in seats.” So for many chefs, Top Chef is a means to an end.

I was a bit surprised by Chef Giselle Wellman’s poor performance this season. Though I haven’t been in her kitchen during service, I’ve spoken with her about her style of management. From my understanding she tends to be really collaborative and seeks a lot of input from her junior personal before asserting her will. Thus as depicted, her style of management obviously wasn’t well suited for Top Chef’s format where she just came off as indecisive and lacking leadership skills.

Phillip Lee is a different story. On a certain level, he’s actually quite affable. What Top Chef’s editors did though was really condense all of his worse traits and statements that are usually a bit more spread out. Lee also comes from a family of performers. His mother is an acting coach, his grandfather was the legendary comedic actor Phil Silvers, and his biological father a musician who played in one of the many incarnations of the band Badfinger. Phillip’s first name came from his grandfather. So needless to say Lee is a bit prone to grandiose drama plus likes the spotlight and thus obviously a self-promoter. Though the inability to take constructive criticism is a real trait, not just editing for TV. In kitchens such a trait is a liability not an asset. How cooks handle and respond to constructive criticism is key for their growth to become chefs. Rather than listening attentively to and taking to heart such criticism, getting defensive stunts growth. This is true of pretty much any profession.

Rather than be open and responsive to constructive criticism, Lee also often instead likes to portray himself as a victim to generate sympathy, which in turn only generates something a lot worse than honest criticism, and that’s false praise. Friends and especially family members become enablers with comments like “the other chefs are just jealous of you.” So rather than face reality and grow, a false reality is created where someone like Lee, who completely lacks self-awareness, dismisses the criticism but embraces the false praise. Thus Lee just becomes plain delusional with his grandiosity and bombast in particular about his culinary abilities which, based upon my frame of reference, are very mediocre. So other chefs aren’t the slightest bit jealous. They can just quickly see through the BS, that is the talk instead of substance. So that lack of substance is Lee’s other huge downfall. During the course of the show, on which producers in my opinion obviously kept him around for production value, Lee’s constant mentioning of his doing food from his restaurants wasn’t just self-promotion. Such incessant comments in my opinion were due to his very limited culinary skills. He really doesn’t know how to cook much other food than what he’s already cooked in his restaurants. Lee was in such a hurry to open his own restaurants and “do the fuck whatever he wants,” that he never spent enough time in other chefs’ kitchens to gather a wide array of culinary tools from my perspective. (Don’t get me wrong, there are some great self-taught chefs out there especially Heston Blumenthal, but in my opinion Lee’s not one of them).

Note too that in Lee’s first restaurant, the pop-up concept per my understanding was originally a collaboration between Lee and two other chefs, Joel David Miller and Ryan Duval. When Lee’s mother gave him the money to partner with Lee’s original business partner in Beverly Hills and place this concept in that business partner’s existing restaurant, Lee took ownership of the concept and made it about himself. Miller became the chef de cuisine and Duval the sous for a year before they left and took the entire kitchen crew with them to The Wallace in Culver City. Needless to say from my perspective, Miller and Duval conceived, developed and cooked most of the better dishes at Lee’s restaurant. Both Miller and Duval were and still are much more accomplished chefs than Lee, in my opinion. So I wouldn’t be surprised if any good food coming out either of his restaurants’ kitchens now was the product of Lee’s current CDC’s especially since, from what I’ve witnessed, Lee seems to prefer schmoozing in the front of house rather than working the pass or on the line in the kitchen.

Thus in some ways, Lee represents the downside of such shows like Top Chef, and that’s creating cooks who are in too big of a hurry to do their own thing plus want to be celebrities rather than real chefs. Though shows like Top Chef also represent the other side of the coin, since these shows create greater awareness and excitement about the restaurant industry. This excitement raises the stature of the profession as a whole, and further expands the culinary boundaries of these shows’ viewers. Thus ingredients like uni, tripe and bone marrow become more common place on menus. However, I’d wish these shows did de-emphasize some of the egotistical aspects. I’d wish they’d make the judging more transparent and provide scoring criteria for use of ingredient, meeting the challenge criteria, degree of difficulty, creativity, flavors and presentation. I’d also wish they gave a little more attention to the suppliers since the quality of ingredients are so critical for elevated food.Top chefs use top ingredients.

On the supplier end, note too chefs like Tom Colicchio, Alice Waters, and Dan Barber to name just a few have been and continue to be significant forces behind improving our food systems for the better especially in terms of humanely raised meats, Dan’s Third Plate, supporting farmers markets, education, reducing food waste and dealing with hunger. Many chefs today are agents of positive social change. I can clearly see corporate sponsorship is involved in these shows, but still sourcing proteins from Whole Foods that are the fifth step ofWhole Foods’ five step program are a way to further those initiatives, plus being in California this year, there’d be a great opportunity to mention the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch sustainability program when making seafood choices. So, in other words, such cooking shows can deal with and present bigger issues without dwelling upon them or lecturing viewers by figuratively shoving an explicit agenda down the viewers’ throats.

Anyway, those are just some of my random thoughts regarding Top Chef this season and in general…Now I just have to find some way to convince someone to make an American version of Matt Moran’s Paddock to Plate….Are you listening Tom or Curtis?

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