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.