Saturday, January 14, 2012

Top Chef Beef

I love Bravo's Top Chef. I love almost everything about it; I am even growing to love Tom Colicchio's soul patch and Padma's provocative outfits. It's one of the few shows that I have watched every single season, so it's in my television pantheon with the likes of The Gilmore Girls, 30 Rock, and Little House on the Prairie. Clearly, I am a woman who knows good TV.

I can't stop thinking about this week's episode of Restaurant Wars, a staple of the Top Chef competition. About mid-way through the season, the challenge is for two teams to create a restaurant and serve 100 people 3 courses, which even I know is daunting and I have never done anything with a restaurant except eat in it. This season brought a punchy little twist to the contest: it pitted the female chefs against the male chefs. Of course, most of the chefs referred to it as "girls versus boys," but whatever, they are chefs and not the gender-language police.

The male chefs competed first and there was the inevitable frenzy and frenetic energy as they tried to meet the demands of the audacious challenge. There was some confusion and a little emotional heat for the men as they tried to work with their serving staff and figure out who was supposed to be the "expediter" of the evening. Mostly, however, the men got along. There was sweet, hard-working Paul who was doing what Tom characterized as "too much," as he helped out a little bit on every dish. There was Chris J. from Moto doing his wacky, far-out rendition of cracker jacks with peanut butter noodles. He didn't do much, but he was surely pleasant and didn't distract from the team's goals. Ed was hoofing it as the placid yet "with it" front-of-the-house greeter who also was responsible for one dish. And, of course, there was Ty-Lor, who also had his head fully in the game without losing his manners or his cool. They did well. They seemed like a chummy bunch. After their meal was over, we saw them each beating themselves up for their shortcomings, both culinary and managerially. But they all seem like nice people. Who wouldn't want to see these guys succeed for all their humility and comraderie and basic kindness?

The next night it was the ladies' turn. Prior to any prep, the editing showed that the women seemed destined to forfeit any success to the men because they were too busy being bitchy and sniping at one another. The scene of the women shopping in the grocery store was particularly cringe-worthy as Sarah scolded Beverly and Grayson rolled her eyes. There was footage of the men sagely predicting that the women's team would self-implode because of their dysfunctional dynamic. And all this was before the actual service at their restaurant even started. The tempers were hotter than high-noon on a Texas August day. Lindsay, as front of the house, appeared distracted and almost unmotivated when on the restaurant floor. When she stepped back into the kitchen, however, she had plenty of energy to share her thoughts on how pissed she was that Beverly was "f---ing" up her dish. Sarah, appearing incensed that Lindsay would bring her foul energy into the kitchen, told Lindsay that if she couldn't handle the heat in the front of the restaurant, she would take over for her. And so it went. Grayson yelled that the poor timing of the service was screwing up her dessert and mentioned in passing to Lindsay that maybe her dish was "f---ed" up because Lindsay chose the wrong cooking method. But for Grayson's honest feedback to Lindsay, it would feel like the women's team is fully prepared and willing to scapegoat Beverly all the way to the finals.

So this is the women's team.

It's oh so bitchy.

It's oh so uncooperative and mean-girlish and snarky.

Does Bravo want me to think that all of these women are about to get their period? Or, even worse, does Bravo want me to think that this is just how women are? This is what successful women look like: bitchy, uncooperative, self-destructive messes-- most especially when working with other women. Maybe it's not about editing at all (yea, right, it's reality TV), but maybe this is exactly what the dynamic is like, but I, a student of my culture, have been taught to think that this kind group dynamic is both (1) essentially female and (2) essentially negative or counter-productive.

The way that the show was editing led me to believe that the viewer was supposed to be rooting for those chummy, good-hearted guys; I was also supposed to be hoping for the demise of the women's team because each contestant seems despicable or petty or incompetent.

Guess what? The women won. They had the better food "hands down." For all their unflattering interpersonal skills, those ladies can cook. And, in this particular instance, those 4 ladies can cook better than the 4 men against whom they were pitted. But, I have to work hard to remember their skills: Beverly is not just a meek, sensitive, oddball; she continues to win challenges and wow the judges with (mostly Asian (Korean)) food. Same with Sarah. I can't say I want to hang out with her or necessarily be her BFF, but I want to eat her food. Two episodes ago she made stuffed cabbage seem appealing and she won the challenge. Grayson seems immature and a little untamed, but she's putting out food that Emeril and Tom and Padma like. Lindsay is a bit of an unknown, though she has an impressive pedigree and a quiet sense of confidence.

I am troubled by the fact that it's way easier to remember that they women are a bunch of bitches, than it is to remember that they cook fantastic food. When I think about the men, I think they seem warm and friendly and imagine if I am ever in Kentucky I will stop by Ed's restaurant (even though he's sometimes a real dick).

Yes, I know I am expecting TV to elevate me in ways that it's surely not meant to, especially reality TV. If I am looking for utopia, I should crack open a book or get off my couch and go build one. Those are valid points. And true, the male contestants have had their chances to look like doofuses (see Chris Jones or Chef Malibu). I guess it's when the stated concept invokes a "gender war" I can't help but think about how success is constructed and destructed and how the message of female competence is buried under layers of behavioral "problems," like bitchiness and back-biting.

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