Why You Shouldn’t Go On Top Chef (Unless You Should)

As the 300th season of Top Chef looms, a few predictions: in the first episode, there will be an arrogant know-it-all who claims a superior set of kitchen skills, only, when asked to debone a chicken, he’ll crumple into a heap and cry, “My mother never loved me!” A duo of lesbian sashimi experts, formerly inseparable, will have their loyalties tested when one is told to pack her knives and go and the other is told that her knife skills surpass Morimoto’s. A down-and-out hard-on-his-luck dishwasher, who hosts supper clubs in his spare time, will bring tears to Emeril’s eyes when he recreates his grandmother’s gumbo, beating out a chef from a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa for the final slot on the show.

These narratives, based loosely on narratives from previous seasons, reveal an essential truth about Top Chef: it isn’t a cooking show, it’s a story-based entertainment. That’s not meant to disparage the show–the stories it tells are extremely compelling–but, rather, it’s meant as a warning to young cooks thinking about trying out. If you think it’s a showcase for your cooking skills, that’s only partially the case; what matters more–especially to producers–is how you pop as a character.

Consider Steven, the goody-two-shoes wine guy. Or Marcel, the cartoon-like evil genius. Ponder, for a moment, Tiffany, the sassy, redheaded lesbian. Or Casey, the wide-eyed, eager beaver Texan. Do these people inhabit a place in your brain because of the food that they made? Or, rather, because you remember how they behaved in dramatic situations? I’m guessing you can remember their fights more than you can remember their plates. That’s by design.

Which is why, if you’re a young chef looking to make a name for yourself, it’s probably a mistake to go on Top Chef. Chances are, if you’re cast, it’ll be because you give good T.V., not because you plated your food in an innovative way. Though it’s a chance to showcase your talent, if given the choice between making you look good and making you look foolish, the producers will almost always opt for Option B. You don’t want to be that person who has his or her own goofy theme music playing every time you bumble on to the screen.

Worse, once you’ve been established as such-and-such a character (the goofball, the nincompoop, the egomaniac) you’ll be playing that role for the rest of your career, if not on T.V., then at least in people’s minds. You’re giving over your identity to a roomful of producers and editors who have the story, not your best interest, at heart. Do you want to be remembered forever as the guy who mistook salt for sugar, ruined the beet sorbet and sheepishly told your teammates that you “made a boo-boo”? Of course not.

Still, I don’t claim it’s always a mistake to go on Top Chef. There are two groups, in particular, who have more to gain than they have to lose going on the show. First: those with genuine talent, who’ve been in the industry for years, and haven’t had the opportunity to break out despite every effort. Harold Dieterle, for example, was the sous chef at The Harrison for five years before going on the show. His personality isn’t the type that would immediately call attention to itself; his going on the show gave him a public profile, a chance to showcase his chops and impress important industry people on national television. Same for Michael Voltaggio, whose resume was chock-full of impressive gigs (most notably, his tenure at The Bazaar) but whose public profile was basically non-existent before the show. Top Chef helped establish him as a significant figure in the food world.

The other group of chefs who benefit from going on the show are those with a twinkle in their eyes and a hunger for fame. Credibility matters a lot less to this group than exposure. And that exposure can lead to opportunities very few of them saw coming. Give a hootie-hoo to Carla Hall who went from an adorkable, though not particularly formidable, contestant to co-host of The Chew with Mario Batali and Michael Symon. Hat-tips too to Richard Blais (who seems to pop up everywhere), Spike Mendelsohn (who’s built an empire of beloved burger joints in Washington D.C.), and Fabio Viviani who usurped Roberto Benigni’s role as America’s most beloved language-butchering Italian.

If media is your game, Top Chef is your show. If cooking is your game, well you have a lot to consider. If you want to be taken seriously, do your time–at least five years in the business–before signing up. See Top Chef as a last resort. Even then, ask yourself: “How will I feel if I’m portrayed as the weirdo? The recipe stealer? The bully?” Think about something embarrassing you did recently and imagine that moment magnified on national television, repeating throughout the week for months (possibly years), searing itself into people’s brains around the country. Imagine being known forever for that embarrassing moment. Imagine your best moments on the cutting room floor.

That’s the chance you take when you sign up to do Top Chef. It’s a show that wants to tell a good story about a bunch of strong-willed chefs duking it out in the kitchen. You don’t know the role you’ll play but once you put your name on the dotted line, you’ll be playing that role forever.

21 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Go On Top Chef (Unless You Should)”

  1. Adam, this essay is an interesting take on Top Chef. I think TC is my favorite cooking show and I really look forward to it. TCMasters is AWFUL this year. Don’t really love the chefs (except for Voltaggio) and I hate the sous chef contest.
    I am bugged that they do this on-line production. Who has the time??? You are correct: there are very few chefs that really make it from TC. The launch pad is very narrow and it is a very something special that gets a chef on that pad.
    As always, I LOVE your thoughtful writing. Now YOU could get onto that launching pad….

  2. This same sentiment can be applied to all the food competition shows. After the first or second season you sit in your arm chair and are able to predict which contestant is going to fill which position. Still I’m drawn to the food and presentations and could live without the other 40 minutes of BS that goes on amongst the misfits. Actually, have known two people who competed and both came away with a lot of disillusionment about the “lack of reality” on a reality TV show! When a third friend got passed over, I informed her that she presented as being too normal for TV!! Which then makes me wonder why my family is constantly encouraging me to compete? WTF! but of course, I’ve never claimed to be average and normal!

  3. Despite all it’s faults, Top Chef is leaps and bounds better than the Food Network’s Food Network Star. I’m pretty sure the winner is chosen before even competition begins and contestants are kept based on how they make “good television” much more blatantly than Top Chef. (The Pie Man, seriously?) And the judges and producers contradict themselves so often that it’s become laughable. Give me Top Chef and all it’s spinoffs any day.

    1. Barbara | Creative Culinary

      Thank you for saying it. The Pie Man. He should have been booted from the get go; he was just awful and so was his food!

  4. This is why I enjoy something like MasterChef Australia (not the horror show that is the American version). Its about the food and the contestants. Not the drama.

    1. I just discovered MasterChef Australia a few weeks abo and LOVE it. I’ve picked up a good half-dozen cooking tips that I’ve actually been able to use in my home kitchen, the judges actually seem interested in seeing the contestants succeed, and the episodes are about cooking and not endless drama. I’m hooked :)

  5. At this point, isn’t pretty much every chef on the show fairly established? Most of them have some kind of accolade and/or a decent-to-good restaurant job. There hasn’t been a “home cook” or “recent culinary student” in a while.

    I don’t deny that the show is first of all about entertainment, but as far as tv competition shows go, Top Chef is pretty good about focusing on the talent.

  6. You gave me a chuckle there! We have similar shows in the UK (in fact, I think one is about to be exported to you. Sorry.).

    I loathe them for their prancing about and because I don’t think cooking should be competitive. It’s too much fun for that!

  7. I’ve been hooked since season two . I was deeply disappointed in the spinoff .TC-Just desserts . If u want to focus on stereotypes that show was loaded .It almost became unwatchable when the Mommas boy who made A blue dessert had a psychotic break. He was miserable and miserable to watch -thankfully the producers decided he was too unstable mentally and was asked to leave the show -It rebounded a little after he left … But it never returned for a second season

  8. I simple don’t understand the concept of food as competition. I haven’t watched one of these shows since the first couple Iron Chefs when it was clear that the fix was in from the beginning.

    What does anyone learn? How is it entertainment?

  9. Wow, I would say I totally disagree! I really enjoy top chef because it showcases really fun, creative cooking– especially when the chef is actually really creative and cooks out of the box (ie: Michael Voltaggio, and now, his brother Bryan on TC Masters). I have found myself really impressed with most of the chefs that end up in the top 3-4 and absolutely know that I would love to go eat at their restaurants if I am ever in their city (Kristen Kish, Paul Qui in Austin). I know that Mike Isabella really blew up (in a good way :) after his run on TC (although this might have been personality related) as he opened 2 (or is it 3?) new restaurants after that, and as you said, Spike Mendelssohn is building an empire. I mean, IMO, if you can make it to the top 3, it’s inevitable that whatever you do will attract customers! Which indicates that it really means something to make it to the top 3. I DO agree that if you’re annoying or a jerk, that will definitely only work against you. But I think if you are a real chef, trying to move up and get exposure for your skills, then it can be worth a try (if you’re not a jerk)!

  10. Barbara | Creative Culinary

    I’ve lucky to meet Hosea Rosenberg, winner from Season Five and a fellow from New Mexico who now calls Boulder home. He hasn’t gone on to be a continuous presence on the Top Chef series but has continued with his work locally; where he was respected prior to the show and is still with a locally owned catering business and farm.

    When I met him at a food event where I was scheduled to interview him, of course wanted to ask him about Top Chef (we all did and tried very hard to be polite and ask about everything but!). It was interesting to hear from an insider about some of the practices; the efforts of producers to create tension, events and more that have nothing to do with the program. So it’s a combination of talent and made for TV drama that appeals to some and not to others. This recent episode with that idiotic Pie Man almost made me turn it off. Almost. Another stupid act like that might be curtains for me and Top Chef though!

    1. Pie man was NOT on Top Chef. He was on Next Food Network Star. One show is about people who can cook and the other, well, isn’t.

      1. Barbara | Creative Culinary

        And you are so right! I was apparently still discombobulated at having to suffer through his antics at all in any program that mentioned food. :)

      2. Just my point too. It’s obvious the writer and the people commenting are not food people or real Top Chef watchers. They are comparing it to the dreck on The Food Network.

  11. You mentioned Michael Voltaggio, but not Bryan. You put Michael in the category of solid food industry talent needing a break, but if they weren’t the perfect mythical story line, I’ve never seen one. How about stone-cold serious brothers squaring off against eachother and coming in first and second, the ultimate sibling rivalry? The Voltaggio’s set a perfect example of what I like about the show. Unlike Anthony Bourdain, who says “chefs are such hard working badasses with ice in their veins” they show it. My brother-in-law gave me a Top Chef cookbook a few Christmases ago. You might want to check into it, as it is probably available in second hand stores for cheap by now.

  12. You actually don’t know anything about Top Chef. It is the most food driven and least personality driven food show. It is the reason they get such high caliber chefs to guest judge.

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