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Thursday, November 19, 2009

What is up, women of Top Chef

When I was in high school, one of the local access stations aired dubbed broadcasts of the Japanese Iron Chef. It was fascinating. Prior to this, the only food preparation I'd ever witnessed on television were on the morning news or Martha Stewart. Then came the suburban pornography that is Food Network. Food-based programming was the next big thing before vampires were the next big thing (again). Even the Travel Channel seems to be more about exotic foods these days than actual travel. Years of food-focused television have shown me that the majority of chefs on TV claim the greatest food they've ever had has been family dinners prepared by mothers and grandmothers. Maternal figures around the world seem to thrive off of the satisfaction of their clan's collective mastication. So why do women seem to have such a hard time on the most popular food competition in the US, Top Chef? It seems like every time a decent female chef makes it anywhere in that competition, they always shoot themselves right in the foot.

Season One's cutthroat fireball Tiffani Faison made it all the way to the finale and tried to impress by making twice the required number of dishes. Quantity does not equate to quality, however, and she was unanimously shut down in favor of Harold's smaller but more satisfying menu.

There was absolutely no arguing against Elia Aboumrad being one of the most talented chefs in Season Two, and while her snapper and poke were not mind-blowingly fantastic, the judges were clearly upset to see Elia pressured by her peers to accuse Marcel of cheating. Disappointment was compounded by her inability to produce any evidence, and so Elia had to go, proving once again that in reality television, as in life, no one likes a tattletale.

Casey Thompson impressed, racking up the most elimination challenge wins of any of Season Three's finalists. She was focused, determined, and one hell of a kickass chef. It seemed like we might have finally had our first female Top Chef. Her four final courses, however, were middling, leaving the judges to choose between the other two hit-or-miss male chefs. Casey did get some form of redemption, though, in being awarded the season's "fan-favorite."

And then there was Season Four, Top Chef Chicago, and Stephanie Izard, one of the most consistently excellent contestants in the history of the show. It was no surprise to most when she won the Top Chef title over the talented but cocky Richard Blaise. Even less of a surprise is what a shill she's been since, happy to smile for the camera and endorse whatever product the producers ask. I'm sure it's in her contract, but curious we've never seen any of the male Top Chef winners whored out this much.

Carla Hall was a dark horse favorite entering the Season Five finale, having wowed the judges during the last round in New York with – believe it or not – fresh peas. She was often praised for bringing her personality and love into her food, and things were looking up for Carla as the finale was set in national soul food capitol, New Orleans. Alas, triumph was not meant to be as the motherly oddball Carla was partnered with the aforementioned runner-up and super-precise Casey. Their cooking styles did not mesh and neither did their personalities – the passive Carla let non-contestant Casey change the menu and direction. Without her signature love, Carla did not stand a chance.

The final episodes before Season Six's finale were not looking too bright for the double-X chromosome either. Jennifer Carroll, the only female chef worth a damn of the bunch, had been a top competitor for the first eight weeks, then suddenly experienced a dearth of confidence, motivation, and enthusiasm. Head judge Tom Collichio noticed this and suggested she might have hit a wall in the competition's marathon pace. Restitution came with the final quickfire in Las Vegas, however, as host Padma Lakshmi tasted Jennifer's ballotine, looked up at her and plainly said "welcome back."

And so we enter the season six finale in Napa, California. Jennifer remains among the finalists, against fierce competitors Kevin Gillespie and the brothers Voltaggio, Bryan and Michael. She could just as easily be outclassed or blow the competition away. Top Chef is undoubtedly a pop culture phenomenon, with cookbooks, party games, and of course kitchen utensils on store shelves this holiday season. A seventh proper season, a second run at Top Chef Masters (the celebrity chef charity spin-off), and two new branches to the franchise (Top Chef Junior and Just Desserts) are all in the early stages of production, and with them many more potentially fantastic female flavor forerunners. And so I humbly beseech you, sisters, mothers, daughters and wives, learn from the mistakes of the women who fell before you. Do not second guess your talent, do not bow to the whims of those more confident than you, remember that you made it this far for being yourself because you are wonderful. There is no reason for men to be so routinely winning at this game. It is your biological imperative to feed the future generations. Do so with your legacy.

9:00 PM
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