People compete over a lot of things on “reality” TV: jobs, love, survival, and even other people’s junk; however, the competition for the title of Top Chef is, hands down, the best. No doubt living in New Orleans, one of the culinary capitals of the universe and home to more than a few Top Chef Alum, including Issac Toups, and Nini Nguyen, a recent fan favorite, adds to my enjoyment, but there’s a lot of other reasons to love this show.
It’ll inspire you to get off the couch.
There aren’t many shows I find that actually cause me to be more active, but whenever I finish watching an episode or two…or three of Top Chef, the TV-inspired hunger sends me to the kitchen where I put in a great deal more effort to cook and plate myself something nice.
The respect the contestants have for each other
There’s a lot of competition reality shows where it’s nonstop trash talk and where the contestants appear to be willing to do anything it takes to win. Top Chef, with a few notable exceptions (Marcel and the allegedly-hijacked pea puree’), is full of people who admire and respect each other, especially towards the later rounds. Contestants regularly help each other, loan each other ingredients, and offer advice to their competitors on the grounds that they want to beat them on the basis of having cooked better food as opposed to winning because someone forgot to bring their eggs. In short, it’s a competition without the win-at-any-cost attitude that seems so pervasive on many reality shows.
It’s a roller coaster ride without the personal drama.
While there are certainly some excellent cooks and big egos on the show, there has yet to be a season where someone effortlessly sails through. Did someone win two contests in a row? That’s great because next week they’ll be on the chopping block. The show has a way of humbling even the most confident chef (read: arrogant if you don’t like the person). And all this drama is usually provided without any hookups, drunken arguments, or gossiping.
Contestants own up to their own mistakes and shortcomings.
There is just something about watching people be self-reflective that is refreshing in this day and age. The contestants, as I think anyone who is truly at the top of their game is, are often their toughest critics and hold themselves to high standards, both in terms of the food they put out, and how they conduct themselves in the kitchen. At the end of the day, these are real cooks, and this show can be an excellent resume boost for them if they don’t make themselves look like jackasses, and virtually all of them seem well-aware of this.
The show promotes diversity.
Every season has an equal split between men and women, or a near equal split (I didn’t go back to actually count, but it seems pretty evenly divided). This is no small deal as one of the constant things you hear from the women on the show is how underrepresented they are in kitchens. No doubt the male-dominated industry has a lot of built-in culture that has made it harder for women to succeed, but Top Chef is helping to elevate many who might otherwise be overlooked.
The show is about food. Period. Full stop.
Put out the best food consistently, and you win. Personality, popularity, and likeability play no part (aside from who might lend a hand to someone who is in the weeds but, for the most part, not even then, because again, these people pride themselves on their professionalism). In fact, one of the first Top Chef winners was heard by the judges yelling at his support staff in the kitchen while they were eating dinner. It didn’t matter; he had the best food.
You’ll learn something.
While the show isn’t a cooking demonstration by any means, and many of the chefs are way more advanced than me (I don’t see myself using liquid nitrogen in my kitchen anytime soon), I can still pretty effortlessly pick up a couple of tips and tricks each episode.
Top Chef highlights foods from around the world and across the culinary spectrum.
Whether it’s touring the cuisine of the show’s host location or learning about the traditional foods from a contestant’s ethnic or training background, Top Chef gives viewers a tour of the world. In the past two seasons, I was especially excited to see a Ghanaian chef on the show, as African food is still a bit of a mystery to many. The chef and the show, however, made it clear African food has had a heavy influence on American food, especially here in the South.
Watching trends come and go.
In rewatching several seasons of Top Chef during quarantine, I’ve watched the bacon craze reach its peak with the judges going from saying they can never have enough to saying they were over it. As the fatty meat disappeared, it was quickly replaced by roasted root vegetables and kimchi. How long will these things stay around? Keep watching Top Chef to find out.
It gives you an ever-growing list of places to go and eat.
New editions to your list of places to eat might include well-established restaurants with a storied past that the show features and some might be new shops recently opened by former contestants. Living in New Orleans, we have no shortage of both. A recent rewatching of the Season set in Nola sent me racing down the river to grab a huge bowl of pho at a place I didn’t know existed. I also recently had a very enjoyable meal at Issice Toups’ restaurant, but I’m still on the waitlist for Nina Compton’s highly acclaimed Bywater Bistro with its socially-distanced yurt tents.