Thursday, March 1, 2012
The Top Chef: Texas Finale: The 'Right Personality' Wins
Watching the Top Chef: Texas season finale was basically as boring as watching the Super Bowl because the outcome and legacy of the season had already been determined based on the portrayal of the “regular season.” We already knew who had won over the hearts of the fans, judges, and fellow chefs. Viewers had already determined whose restaurant they are most likely to attend based not on the way the food looked on their TV, or even the judges’ reactions, but on the chefs' personality types. Winner Paul Qui played the part of the likable, soft-spoken guy who “just cooked good food” and won the role of the season’s protagonist.
While many seasons of Top Chef focus on the resentment, jealousy, and typical career-oriented personality clashes that arise during competition, Season 9 will be defined by “bullying.” Specifically, the way that finalist Sarah Grueneberg and her icy BFF Lindsay Autry treated Beverly Kim, the tiny Asian who was initially branded as the most emotionally fragile chef of the season. Lindsay and Sarah emerged as the ‘mean girls’ of the show, showcasing crippling personalities that would leave any aspiring-foodie viewer thinking that the mean girls’ dishes were infused with hatred, bitterness, and resentment. Sarah and Lindsay’s group personality was so ‘bitchy’ that they could inspire the ultimate "When women speak their minds and show confidence and power on TV, they are always seen as 'bitches'" web-feminist-inspired puff piece.
The only problem was that they bullied Beverly, who was this season’s contestant who was first the victim of kitchen ostracism, but then transformed into an underdog who earned her way to the finals by way of Last Chance Kitchen. (By the way, Bravo, maybe it was just a way to direct users to sponsored sections of your website, but I would have happily watched a one-hour presentation of Last Chance Kitchen.) Sarah and Lindsay should not have bullied the season’s 'crier,' and instead focused their energy on being portrayed as All-American girls who just loved cooking elevated comfort food for “real people.” That is the perfect way to battle any chef with a foreign-cuisine-cooking angle.
After nine seasons of Top Chef, there are a few chef archetypes that will never win based on their cooking gimmicks or personality types, which include: “meanies”; the conceptual chefs who get caught up utilizing molecular gastronomy gimmicks; and the pretentious chef who accidentally “talks down” to chefs while they attempt to explain concepts, techniques, and foreign cuisine that they are legitimately passionate about. A flawed personality type will do you in on just about any ‘merit-based’ reality show that doesn’t reward people for being unstable, confrontational, and dramatic.
Competitive cooking programs are sort of absurd because there is no way that an audience should actually be interested in a show where you can’t taste, smell, or even feel the food. All you can do is see the preparation, the final product, and evaluate the reaction of the judges. I remember when Top Chef first debuted and wondering how it would work without inventing Smell-O-Vision and/or electronic tasting strips, but then I quickly remembered that reality shows are personality contests that can carry an absurd impact on the industry that they represent. It is interesting how much weight that Top Chef can carry with the consumer-facing aspiring-high-end-foodie-but-still-trapped-watching-reality-TV market, which is why everyone was rooting for the career fortune of Paul.
It was clear that Paul was the front-runner the entire season, racking up solid feedback from premium judges, establishing friendships and respect from fellow chefs, but most importantly, accepting all of his praise with a humble, surprised smile. There are basically two personality types that can win Top Chef: You can either be a “bad ass in the kitchen” or a “nice, humble guy with a defined cooking style that you are passionate about.” Paul didn’t brand himself as the typical intimidating ‘bad ass,’ but rode his Asian cooking style until the end without ever being too gimmicky or one-dimensional. His elevated Asian cuisine angle allowed him to navigate thru the season without ever being questioned for straying too far outside of his comfort zone. He displayed the key values of a Top Chef according to Top Chef, which meant avoiding conflict, being a reasonable teammate in team challenges, and winning enough challenges to avoid elimination even on his ‘off day.’
If only Sarah and Lindsay had realized that winning Top Chef isn’t just about cooking elevated cuisine. I’d say that even Ed, Grayson, and Nyesha were all winners as the “chefs who you’d want to have a beer with,” embodying the specific personality types that are perfect for becoming Top Chef brand ambassadors. Do show producers really want Sarah’s intense personality representing them on the post-show media blitz? After the entire finale portrayed Sarah’s food as being better tasting, more complete, and basically flawless, Padma Lakshmi announced Paul’s name, then proceeded to tell us the relieving news that he was this season’s Top Chef.
The interesting thing about Sarah is that she made food that the majority of Americans would probably feel more comfortable and excited about eating. However, Paul is the winner of Top Chef: Texas, meaning that it will probably be difficult to get a table at Uchiko Austin during SXSW.