I'm not one of those people who pretends to be above reality TV, like it's any worse off than any other form of entertainment in terms of crap vs. treasure. 90% former, 10% latter is always about right. I don't know if it's the pungency of some of that crap that makes so many so defensive about what, really, is a worthwhile genre just like anything else. Then again, I've never watched a show that featured a former Brady, involved parents exploiting their children, or had anything to do with rehab, weight loss, and only rarely the quest for love, so maybe it's possible that I am just a snob. Can one be a reality TV snob?
The shows I like involve healthy competition and actually doing something. I'm a dedicated Survivor fan, and I love love love me some Project Runway. On one you get people braving the elements, facing challenges, and dealing with the psychology of an enforced social structure; on the other, you see creative folks actually making stuff. This, to me, is appealing, and I look forward to their broadcast seasons. I have never been compelled to watch either on DVD, however, since after watching these high-concept gameshows once, there doesn't seem to be much reason to go back in again. So, this is a bit of a double first for me, reviewing Top Chef: New York. It's my first time watching the series, and I'm watching it on disc. Happily, this show is one of the good ones, and though I guess your mileage will vary in terms of how you feel about rewatching the New York cycle, as a first time viewer, the done-in-one-go aspect of a full season set suits me just fine.
The Top Chef scenario is not a complicated one. This is actually season 5, they've jumped ahead for the first DVD release, so the formula is well tested and secure by this point. Seventeen chefs are selected to compete, transported to the chosen city, and put through a series of competitions until only three gourmets remain. They then go on to a final challenge, where the finalists are partnered with eliminated contestants to prepare a full-course meal, showing off their kitchen leadership skills and their culinary creativity. In each episode, there are two components to the competition. A "quickfire" challenge where the chefs have to prepare a dish in a set amount of time, conforming to the needs of a visiting judge and setting everything up for the bigger task to follow; the winner of the first challenge competes in the second, but he or she is immune from elimination. Sometimes these are individual challenges, and sometimes the cooks make one meal as a team.
The Top Chef mainstays are the two main judges, host Padma Lakshmi and cooking mentor/celebrity chef Tom Colicchio. (In Project Runway terms, they are Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn.) Lakshmi is a model and a foodie, and her appeal is obvious to anyone with a pair of eyes (read: she's a beautiful woman). Friends who are foodies have suggested to me that she is not always right when it comes to her food knowledge, but perhaps more important than the accuracy of her opinions is the clarity with which she delivers the information. I'm not a sophisticated eater by any means, but she makes whatever subject is the theme of the episode understandable. Or maybe I'm just hypnotized by her pretty face. Wouldn't be the first time I let my judgment get clouded, forgetting the substance of the message due to the allure of the messenger.
I quite like Colicchio as a foil to Lakshmi. A famous chef himself, his involvement is more practical. He is a bit of a bulldog, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly. He has a rapid-fire speaking style that gets his point across, no bones about it. I'd be a little in awe of him if he were speaking to me, his directness is intimidating. For half of the season, a third regular taster, Gail Simmons from Food & Wine magazine, is along for the meals, but her marriage in real life (which also provides one of the show's best challenges when the chefs have to cook for her bridal shower) pulls her away for the second half. She is replaced by British food critic Toby Young, the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and if he's not the model for Anton Ego in Ratatouille, they at least share some DNA. I found Young smug and annoying, and his appearances behind the dinner table are a little like watching a comedian visiting a talk show: they want their quips to appear to have flown off the cuff, but seriously, it's obvious from the get-go, the dude is sitting there rehearsing, waiting for the right time to drop the bomb. He's the one component of the show that makes it seem snobbish, the opposing element in relation to Lakshmi's inclusiveness. Top Chef makes gourmet food seem accessible. To take it back to Ratatouille, the show is like Chef Gustav, and they believe good eatin' is for everyone. Offsetting Young are the rotating guests, who include other famous chefs and personalities/performers like Martha Stewart, the rock band Foo Fighters, and the late Natasha Richardson.
As noted above, this is the fifth season in the show, and the first in New York. The previous seasons have been in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago, and from what I can tell, the locale has little effect on the show outside of providing different local cuisine, seasonal foods, and markets. For instance, in one episode in Top Chef: New York, competing chefs are assigned a different NYC neighborhood and they have to prepare a dish based on the dominant ethnicity of the city section. Sometimes the challenge is based on ingredients, like working with produce picked fresh at an upstate farm, sometimes it's a special event or environment, like making "12 Days of Christmas"-themed dishes for a charity party or cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for a touring band using only microwaves, toaster ovens, and other devices and utensils that would be available when on the road.
Put together seventeen strangers, and a group dynamic will begin to develop that also defines how the season rolls. Though some of the time people fit types thanks to intentional editing, a lot of the time, people really are types. Yes, there may be some focus given to the fact that Finnish chef Stefan can be a cocky jerk, making him a kind of villain, but that doesn't mean he's not a cocky jerk. I actually really liked him as the guy to simultaneously (and begrudgingly) root for and against, and I liked the European alliance he establishes with the charming Italian Fabio. They form a yin and yang within the collected cast, the center of its personality. Also in the group is the plucky lesbian, Jamie, who isn't really defined by her sexuality but it does come up, especially since Stefan keeps hitting on her. There's an ambitious chef from Miami named Jeff, who always goes overboard but manages to pull it off, as opposed to the more instinctual, self-taught, and chaotic creations of Gene from Las Vegas. He kind of has a chip on his shoulder that gets him in trouble. There are also some compelling up-and-down arcs, with cooks that start off at one level, fall off, get redeemed, etc. The older caterer Ariane makes a pretty fabulous comeback after a disastrous start and the goofy Carla gets a second wind, whereas some of the East Coast guys like Danny and Jeff start off strong and then fizzle quickly. You also have to watch out for the more quiet competitors, like Radhika, a chef in her 20s who often sneaks in a good dish without fuss or drama,
One of the more exciting challenges of the season--and every season, I take it--is "Restaurant Wars." This is where the final eight contestants split into two groups, each with a leader who won that day's quickfire. Both groups get two days to set up side-by-side restaurant spaces and present a cohesive menu to a judge and a selected list of diners. Obviously, this is a stressful situation, smashing into a very short space what usually requires months of planning. The days move fast, and the contestants, particularly those unfortunate enough to draw the lead positions, get a chance to really shine or sink hard.
The last two episodes take the last four chefs to New Orleans for one final elimination round before the big cook-off. The change of locale is presumably to throw yet another curveball at the chefs (who do get time between the taping of the other shows and the finale, which is filmed closer to the air date, to bone up on the new region). It's not their last swerve, either, there are more surprises waiting for them down south. Even the judge's table gets shaken up, with Emeril Lagasse coming in as a Creole expert for the last elimination, and the return of Gail Simmons. Obviously, I am not going to give the winner away here, but there are some shake-ups, some tension, and extended deliberation at the judge's table.
Following the finale, there is a reunion show with all the judges and contestants that is a lot of fun. They discuss some of what went down, play some catching up, and answer viewer questions. There is also unseen footage, most of which is comprised of humorous outtakes.
From episode 1 and to the very end, I very much enjoyed Top Chef: New York. The competition is well structured and fast paced, and the shifting nature of the challenges and the personalities of the chefs keep it from ever going stale. As an appetizer for the rest (oh, I know...terrible, terrible punning), this fifth season makes for a good hook. I want to see the rest, and I want to keep watching.
Discs 1-3 have 9 extras between them, short snippets about the contestants after they've been eliminated from the game. Once they are off, they don't go home but they go to a halfway house where they wait out the competition with the other cut chefs. In these interviews, they fill each other in on what happened and share their feelings about leaving. How much these are interesting depends on how much you liked each contestant or the drama they exited under. DVD 4 has four exit interviews with the finalists, regardless of winning or losing.
DVD 4 also has eleven excerpts from the "stew room," the area where the competitors wait while the judges deliberate. These run just under 26 minutes in total, and they involve extra carping and post-game quarterbacking, as well as some goofing off.
The last extra is "The Wong Way to Cook," four segments (17 minutes) with Lee Anne Wong where she demonstrates how to cook winning dishes from some of the episodes. Wong was a Season One chef and these pieces ran on Bravo's website.
The packaging also boasts "extended episodes," which might be the little extra bits we see during each show--short segments featuring extraneous footage that I could also see played during a commercial break.