Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Retro-Review: Season One of Top Chef

I'm doing a Hulu free trial for a month, and lo and behold, I saw that they have several past seasons of Top Chef. So I decided to take a fresh look at Season One from 2006. I watched it back then, and remembered a lot of the contestants, including Harold, Dave, Tiffani, and Lee Anne. But there was something I'd forgotten: the judges were mean. Outright mean. Yes, I'm talking about Tom Collichio and Gail Simmons (who, by the way, haven't changed a bit in terms of appearance -- they still look as fantastic now as they did back then).

In the current Season 17, Top Chef All Stars in L.A., the judges tell the chefs who had their "least favorite dish." Back in Season 1, it was "You three had the worst dishes" and "I'd get rid of all three of you if I could." At multiple points, Tom deliberately tries to stoke arguments between chefs. Instead of saying, "Some of your teammates felt your performance was weak", Tom says "Dave, Tiffani says you should go home." During the deliberations, the judges also take past performance into consideration when judging on a current challenge, which they never do now. But mainly, it's the judges' tone that bothers me.

What I like about the more recent seasons of Top Chef is that there's a much more prevalent attitude of respect. Yes, the challenges are still tricky, with twists and last-minute curve balls, but they don't seem designed to make the chefs fail. In Season 1, there's an episode with Ted Allen from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a guest judge. He's holding a dinner party for his cookbook launch, and tells the chefs that it's very important to him, so they better do well or he'll be a cranky judge. The seven chefs excitedly plan fantastic dishes -- this, after weeks of having to cook with microwaves and ingredients purchased at gas stations -- and then Tom walks into the kitchen and says they have to draw knives to trade courses, and cook each other's planned dishes. And then he tells them they can choose to help each other succeed in those dishes or not, it's up to them.

As far as I'm concerned, Ted and Company deserved a crappy dinner party at that point.

Most of the competitors were as I remembered them, except Stephen. I did remember that he was an arrogant sommelier who felt it was his civic chef duty to educates the masses, which apparently meant everybody other than himself, whether they wanted to be educated or not. There's an episode where he rants at Candace, the youngest and least experienced competitor who was only halfway through culinary school when she went on the show (which would never happen now!), because she wanted to serve children food that was appropriate for children. But in rewatching, I found Stephen to be so over the top that he was almost a caricature, and I have to wonder how much of that "performance" was contrived.

Another detail from Season 1 that surprises me is the bare-bones stew room, where everyone drinks bottled water. Nowadays they're always drinking wine, usually in a slightly nicer setting, while they wait to hear what the judges have to say. And most shocking of all: in one episode, Stephen uses a laptop at the house to look up recipes online for the next day's challenge!

And I'd almost forgotten that Season 1 was hosted by Katie Lee Joel! No wonder, because for me the name Padma Lakshmi is practically synonymous with Top Chef. Poor Katie's delivery was absolutely wooden, and she didn't even taste the food or have any input in the Quickfire challenge decisions.

Obviously I liked Season 1 well enough at the time, because I watched it through back then, and eagerly awaited every new season as it came out. But boy, it's hard to like it now in comparison to later seasons.

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