If you were to compare reality shows to food products, the “Top Chef” franchise has always been a fillet mignon to the slab of fat that many other competitions out there represent — after all, does “America’s Next Top Model” make you want to actually go on a runway and learn to smile with your eyes? The real question for many fans during this Texas-sized season has simple been whether or not the meat is the same quality that it has always been.
Really, the problem “Top Chef” is facing halfway through its ninth season is pretty much familiar to all reality shows — the power of nostalgia. Many fans are attached to earlier seasons, and with that in mind new personalities and challenges rarely ever measure up. With that in mind, there are a couple of scattered issues here or there with the overall dish the show has served this time.
In taking a page from “American Idol” or any other competition show out there, producers decided to start the season out with 29 contestants and whittled it down with a trial test to 16. This led to a pair of episodes that were cluttered, and really didn’t give us a chance to know anyone outside of some guy who acted incredible arrogant and was eliminated for butchering meat poorly.
With this in mind, this sort of mass elimination in the early weeks also disrupted some of the balance in the casting process. A number of fascinating “cheftestants” were sent home before the competition really began, and some of the ones that stayed are either not particularly excited or not the sort of people you want to root for. (For example, look at the recently-eliminated Heather.) Usually, the show can ensure balance better by having the roster set beforehand.
Twists are fantastic when it helps the overall concept of the show, but they can also be unnecessary and take away from what we know. For example, wouldn’t these two extra episodes have been better if they were used to start off a season with 18 contestants rather than doing it with 29?
It’s weird to criticize the food on a show where every contestant can cook miles better than the vast majority of viewers — but the issue here at times is what the chefs (and producers) are having the contestants cook.
Texas is a great state and (as a native son) the food is fantastic — but it’s also not always the most exciting food to watch being cooked. Many of us watch “Top Chef” for the decadence factor, and chili, ribs, and numerous steak challenges often don’t showcase technique or creativity to the same degree as many dishes from past seasons.
There are still some bright spots — take for instance during Wednesday night’s new episode, which had a quickfire all about modern cooking. The end results were daring, creative, and caused us to think about food in a different way than we had before. This is the sort of thing we want to see on the show — while a steak or barbecue challenge is great here or there, variety is indeed the spice of life.
While we are not sure if we will love it at the end of the day, the “Last Chance Kitchen” twist via the internet has been thoroughly entertaining. (You can watch the latest installment below.) The challenges on here have been more entertaining at times than the actual show, and it really gives us some individual time to focus on a pair of contestants facing off in a competition to stay alive. It’s ironic since this was modeled off of “Survivor: Redemption Island,” but these challenges work far better on this show (where there are occasional unfair eliminations or people having an off day) then on a show where someone is eliminated for strategy rather than cooking skill.
There also are still are a number of contestants who are still more than a little bit compelling — from the clumsy-but-likable Beverly to the intense-to-crazy-levels Ed. While there are may not be a distinctive fan favorite (at least now that “Malibu” Chris C.) is out of the competition), we have some of the staples like the guy who keeps cheating elimination (Chris J.) and the challenge beast (Paul).
It’s still hard to debate the greatness of Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio’s end product here, since the show gets us legitimately excited (as well as hungry) more than any other show out there. It’s just that as the show gains momentum, we still wonder what could have been if there were a few different twists and turns incorporated.
New episodes will continue to air Wednesday nights at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time on Bravo.