Thoughts on Tonight’s Episode of Top Chef II

November 9, 2006 | By | COMMENTS

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We ask the same thing of a TV show that we ask of a restaurant: consistency. I want the burgers at Shake Shack to be just as good every time I eat there; I want Steve Carell to be just as jerky every time I watch “The Office.” Tonight’s episode of Top Chef disrupted what was, for me, an excellent start to a new season. They’d gotten rid of the walking monotone that is Billy Joel’s wife and replaced her with the charming and beautiful Padma Lakshmi. The contenders are more equally matched than they were last year (no more health food nuts and Rachel Ray wannabes). But tonight’s episode revealed a flaw that is fatal to any competition, particularly one that is stretched out over several months: an embarrassing flip-floppiness with the rules.

We can safely say that there’d be no Top Chef if there weren’t a Project Runway. The success of Project Runway is based largely on the seriousness with which everyone involved takes the competition: the contestants, the judges, Tim Gunn. On the season finale this year, when Laura accused Jeffrey of getting help with his final collection, everyone took it very seriously. And we took it seriously when Tim Gunn informed the other contestants the next day that the producers had done a very thorough investigation and that Jeffrey hadn’t had any illegal help. Jeffrey broke down crying because he took it so seriously.

Tonight on “Top Chef” Sam, a highly ambitious New York chef (voted one of New York’s sexiest chefs by some New York rag) was under the gun in the low calorie challenge. The contestants had to cook a three course meal for kids at a weight-loss camp with the requirement that the entire meal total no more than 500 calories. We learn that one cup of olive oil has 1500 calories so making this food tasty, let alone edible, will be difficult. The teams were scrutinized by nutritionists as they assembled their recipes: the recipes that they decide upon the first day must be the recipes they carry out the next day.

The next day Betty’s team–which includes Frank and her arch nemesis Marcel–wins because of Frank’s crowd-pleasing pizza. Two teams are declared the worst: Sam’s and Mia’s–one made overcooked turkey meatballs, the other made bland coleslaw. And it’s there at the judges table when Sam is under fire that he says that members of the winning team may have cheated. When the judges press him, he says no more. “I’m not that guy,” he says. (This clearly annoys Tom Collichio who writes on his blog: “Still, the whole thing left me annoyed. I dislike the passive-aggressive tendency on the part of some chefs to keep mum about possible violations….I believe in addressing things head on — both for your own sake and for the overall health of the working environment.”)

Mia steps up and says Betty cheated. When the nutritionist was there Betty used Splenda for her “crispy cookies” (meringues), the next day–when she was supposed to stick to her original recipe–she used sugar. Colicchio confronts Betty about this and Betty admits that she did change the recipe but that she didn’t understand the rules: she thought it was about keeping it under 500 calories, not sticking to the recipe. Collichio scoffs and says none of the other chefs were confused about the rules. Even on his blog he writes, “I find this suspect, since she knew we had no nutritionists on day two to OK the changes.”

Here’s where the problem lies. On the first episode they cornered Otto for taking lychees from a grocery store without paying for them. It was an honest mistake–he didn’t steal them, he just didn’t notice they weren’t paid for until they were at the car. They took him to task in the judges room and when Otto offers himself up for dismissal they accept. He didn’t break a specific rule, he just made a mistake and he’s off.

Here Betty absolutely violates a rule of the game and she’s let off the hook. Collichio declares that no one will be sent home this week. His justification is complete and utter bullshit–he actually doesn’t have a real justification. The truth is that the producers like Betty. She makes for good TV. She’s vibrant and at odds with Marcel. She’s one of the few who’s emerged so far as a “character.” Keeping her on the show ensures drama and conflict; sending her home would diffuse an explosive atmosphere. And so Tom says “no one goes home this week” and I cry “crap!” Even on his blog his reasoning is shoddy: “But without video to prove cheating — and given that the White Team had won the challenge — the judges weren’t prepared to send anyone from that team home.” Why do you need a video when she confessed that she cheated? The rule was don’t change your recipe and she changed her recipe. [And you know that if it had been someone less interesting than Betty they would totally have shipped them home. Diana, my roommate, who works in reality TV confirms this: "You know something's up on a show like this when nobody gets sent home. You know the producers are involved somehow."]

So I now feel about “Top Chef” the way I feel about a restaurant that dazzles the first time you try it but flops the next. I’m dubious but I’ll keep going back because of the good stuff it still offers. I just hope the integrity of the judges isn’t continually compromised by the production-mindedness of the producers. Imagine that: a call for integrity in reality TV! Bravo, however, is the network to deliver. It did with “Project Runway,” let’s hope it can with the second season of “Top Chef.”

[HEY! Check out Pim's post on the same topic. I love the line about preferring the Satanic Verses to Uptown Girl.]

[HEY#2! I enjoy this Chow.com audio interview with Tom Collichio. He says the producers play a very small part in the decision making process. Hmmmm...]

Categories: Essays

  • George S

    There are the “RULES” of the show and then the requirements of the challenge.

    Perhaps you have confused the two ,but an amateur might make such an error.

    She also claimed to have added just a Tablespoon or two which might be considered a small addition like adding a spice or garnish.

  • http://www.foodmusings.typepad.com Catherine

    To be fair, on the most recent Project Runway there was also an episode where the judges should have sent someone packing but chose not to. I cried foul then, and I cry foul now: Bravo has broken the cardinal rule of reality TV and someone ought to take them to task. If it’s not as hard for the judges as it is for the contestants, come on!

  • JJ

    HI. I sort of had a different take. Random olive oil squirting was suspect, but the cookie switch seemed OK. Less egg, and a tad of sugar. What she should have done was have the nutritionist recheck the receipt and if it put them over 500, serve nothing for a sweet. (But then, were they told that the checker woudl be abailable or should they have asked?? Only the cutting room floor knows) 6 grams of sugar (a headping teasponn — I forget if she added a level teaspoon or level tablespoon, so I picked inbetween) is 25 calories, so if you make that 50 and divide by the number of cookies, they should have been OK. But they should have checked. I think that part of being a preofessional chef is learning from your mistakes and adapting, even if keeping withing guidelines (calorie limits, food allergies, etc.).

    Now I agree that she is a good character and if you read the print on the show you see that the judges do consult with the producers. BUt I do not think that this really was a violation of the rules — although she should have checked.

  • http://www.restaurantwidow.com/ Lisa the Waitress

    I agree with JJ. Also, the first allegations of cheating were of the olive oil usage, which I would totally believe. Anyone who’s worked in a professional kitchen is used to that squeeze bottle of olive oil being around, and it’s habit to grab for it and use it without thinking, but no one offered up that they had used olive oil, Betty was the only one who copped to her rule-breaking right away, which led me to think it was an honest mistake.

    As for Project Runway, I always felt Jeffrey “lost” receipts thinking no one would check very carefully, and was let off the hook because the producers had already (erroneously, I might add) decided he would win.

    I can see the reasoning for not sending anyone home. It’s not fair to send Betty just because she admitted her error, when the charge was oil usage.

    And what is with that Brooklyn girl thinking olive oil has less fat than butter? It’s no wonder our country is so fat – these people have never read a product label. All fats have about the same amount of fat, people, they are fats. Olive oil might be better for your heart, but that doesn’t mean it has less fat. Actually, because of its small water and milk solid content, butter has slightly less fat than olive oil, tbsp per tbsp. I thought everyone knew pure fat has more calories than just about anything else out there. That’s why it’s so much more delicious than turkey breast!!

  • http://www.eatwisconsin.net Jeff

    I was so pissed when they didn’t send anyone home. They should just get rid of that idiot Michael. He seems like a nice guy but tries to hard to make it seem like he is laid back and doesn’t care. Everyone sees right through it too. That Cheeto-Snickers thing he tried for his Amuse course should have gotten him kicked off. At least put some effort into the dish. Either that or kick Betty off. She is annoying and put her team at risk. She admitted to cheating, she should go.

  • dennis

    IMPORTANT! Always remember to read the fine print. Right before the closing credits, a screen flashes for about one second (hint: this is where all of the legalese is addressed). The very first line states something along the lines of every elimination is made after consultation with the Producers of Top Chef.

    The TV show has now dropped off my Tivo schedule.

  • http://www.einphilly.blogspot.com e

    Did anyone else find it strange that with a million video/camera guys around, supposedly capturing every dramatic moment, that there was “no evidence”?

  • the pauper

    ever go to chow.com? they have these podcast interviews with the contestants kicked off. Emily, the last one kicked off basically said that Padma is slow and stupid, but I guess that she can still be charming for her geriatric husband, Salman Rushdie. anyway, Colicchio did a podcast interview too and claim explicitly that the producers had nothing to do with any of the decisions. They ask if the judges are sure, but supposedly that’s all. I think possible that Colicchio isn’t lying, but even if he is, this is just reality tv.

  • zeep

    uh…folks? come on, this is a tv show – if you think there is anything “real” about any “reality tv” show, you’re mistaken. these kinds of shows are about entertainment only, and should not be taken seriously on any level, for any reason. just my $.02

    that being said, i will continue to watch Top Chef because i’m a sucker for shows like that.

  • http://everybodyluvsthesunshine.blogspot.com Kamilah

    I love Top Chef and will continue to watch it. This week was nuts but I comend Betty for telling the truth.

    On to next weeks show!

  • Roanne

    As much as I dislike Betty, I found it odd that Frank claimed that the pizza idea was his. Annoying Betty sort of raised her hand when the judges asked who came up with the pizza idea but was ignored. I watched the episode again and when they’re in the supermarket and Marcel waffles on about asparagus, it looks like Betty is the one who came up with pizza on the basis that all kids love pizza. Not that I really care but I do agree that this whole second season sort of sucks (and if I hear “Kenmore kitchen” again…).

  • http://www.helloself.blogspot.com el-e-e

    agree with lisa – how stupid are these “chefs” regarding calories? And I think Betty was just covering her butt, saying she thought the rule was the 500 cal limit. It was clearly stated that they couldn’t change the recipes on day 2. I think it was a half-confession and a quick how-can-I-appear-innocent?

    But of course you’re right, she’s good tv. :) I SO wasn’t intending to get sucked into this show.

  • http://madisonandmayberry.typepad.com/ Andrea

    First of all.. I thought it was odd that on the second day, Betty suddenly realized her mistake with the cookies was the splenda. Where had this thought process been on the first day, unless someone had told her.

    And AG — the difference between Betty and Otto is that Betty’s food has actually won a few challenges, whereas Otto’s had not.

  • Trandy Moore

    dude, it’s a tv show, who gives a shit. there’s even a disclaimer at the end of the credits that says that elimnation decisions are made in coordination with the producers.

    Are our lives all so boring that we get bent out of shape about someone cheating on a reality game show?

    Who-Gives-A-Fuck?

  • bob

    exactly trandy moore, who does give a shit? thank you

  • http://www.iheartfarms.com Tana

    About Shake Shack…how do you feel about this?

    http://eater.com/archives/2006/08/shake_shack_fai.php

    I see Danny Meyer responded, but that’s not the same as getting the all-clear from the Board of Health, is it?

  • http://thoughtsontheroad.blogspot.com Peggy

    I think the producers had a real dilemma on their hands: Betty confessed to breaking the rules, but there was the real possibility that one or more other chefs had also broken the rules (with olive oil) but weren’t ‘fessing up. It’s unlikely that they had videotape of every chef at every moment in the kitchen, so, without any evidence, all they could do is say that no one would be eliminated. My suspicion is that if they had eliminated all of the cheating chefs, not only Betty would have been sent home.

  • kistov

  • kistov

  • kistov