I want to preface this week’s column by saying yes, I have seen Netflix’s talk-of-the town “Squid Game” (2021–), and yes, it did fracture my heart in many ways that I’d love to unpack. However, I also do believe that there are few worse things than a show spoilt, so for the sanctity and integrity of the series, I shall instead address a less devastating but still emotionally compounded competition: “Top Chef” (2006–).
“Top Chef” is a reality cooking show on Bravo in which professional chefs battle for the chance to win prize money furnished by San Pellegrino, which has ranged from $100,000 to $250,000 over the course of its 18 seasons; a feature in “Food & Wine” magazine; a showcase at the annual “Food & Wine” Classic in Aspen; and, of course, the coveted title of Top Chef.
Each season goes down in a different city across the United States, incorporating elements of local cuisine, vibes and climate into the challenges. The episodes typically begin with the Quickfire, fast-paced tests that push the chefs’ ability to cook on their feet, such as concocting a special hot sauce in 45 minutes or utilizing only solar-powered equipment. Either one or two chefs are eliminated during the longer elimination rounds, when host Padma Lakshmi utters the dreaded words: “Please pack your knives and go.” Over the course of six weeks, the contestants stay together in a multi-bedroom house; if the producers leaned into potential on-screen romances, I feel like “Bachelor in Paradise: Dinner For Two” has a promising ring to it.
Cooking-show-illiterate folks often confuse “Top Chef” with “MasterChef” (2010–), but the two competitions come from totally different dramatic tones. For one, MasterChef calls to amateur home cooks and has the same energy as “American Idol” (2002–) in terms of cinematography and emotionally charged background music. “Top Chef” feels more grounded, the food far more exciting due to the contestants’ repertoire and the judges’ precision in their critiques. I hold a deep-seated trust in Head Judge Tom Colicchio, the bald and at times punny restaurateur, and Gail Simmons, a Canadian food critic with a palette for acidity and spice.
Personally, in the words of Ms. Cardi B, “I don’t cook, I don’t clean” (sorry mom). However, I have experienced multiple stress dreams in which I’m thrust into the midst of a cooking competition only to quickly realize that I have no kitchen knowledge and that my fear of boiling water has managed to persist with me.
While I’m no top chef — beyond my knack for a complexly layered sandwich — I’ve gleaned essential lessons that I’m sure are applicable across diverse aspects of life: under-seasoning is a sin, a balance of texture is key and never cook a scallop three ways when you can cook it one way properly. I’ll be sure to keep these in mind as my housemates cook me dinner.