How Seattle is ‘Top Chef: Seattle’?
Local chef and culinary insider Becky Selengut loves “Top Chef,” she just wishes “Top Chef” loved Seattle more.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Top Chef: Seattle’
Season finale 10 p.m. Wednesday, Bravo
Tonight in Prime Time
“Pack your knives ... and gooooo,” Padma Lakshmi purrs, sending the cheftestants home, her lack of urgency in stark contrast to the warp speed, breakneck pace typical of an episode of “Top Chef.” Fans will tune in tonight to see if Brooke or Kristen is on the opposite end of Padma’s signature “there’s the door” line and who, ultimately, will be the winner of Bravo’s 10th season of “Top Chef,” filmed this year in our beloved city. But not all fans have been happy with “Top Chef’s” portrayal of Seattle, myself included.
I’ve been in the Seattle food business for 17 years, first cooking in restaurants and more recently as a private chef, cooking teacher and cookbook author. I’ve been a “Top Chef” fan since the very beginning, but I might actually be a bigger fan of our hometown food scene, which made for some competing loyalties.
I wondered if my colleagues felt the same way, so I took my questions to chef friends, food pros and editors, and all agreed: Seattle is a cutting-edge food city, proud of its farmers and producers and high on its natural beauty and ingredients. Did “Top Chef” capture this? “Not even remotely!” was the consensus.
Seattleites are passionate about their environment, so I was not at all surprised to hear Jill Lightner, editor of “Edible Seattle” magazine, drip with sarcasm,“Yeah, so, let’s put them (cheftestants) all on a cruise and send them to Alaska and then fly in a Charleston chef (Sean Brock) to judge the non-Seattle cheftestants cooking wild salmon, our precious limited resource.”
Jason Stratton, chef and owner of Spinasse, tells me over drinks at Poppy the other night, “The heart of ‘Top Chef’ has fallen by the wayside.” (Stratton is enough of a fan he auditioned for the show.)
To put our city loyalty (and complaints) into context, I called up Melanie Haupt, a food writer in Austin, Texas, and asked her how her fair city was portrayed in Season 9. “For sure, they did not do a good job — they should have broken it out into various cities,” she said. “The portrayals of Austin were full of lazy shortcuts. There’s some really exciting stuff happening here, but ‘Top Chef’ trafficked in lazy stereotypes and tropes about Texas.”
But when your show has been on TV for 10 straight seasons, you’re unlikely to innovate. Their model is proven, complete with the contrived challenges (blindfolded quickfire anyone?), ridiculous product placement (can there be anyone left in America who doesn’t know who supplied the ranges on “Top Chef”?) and cheftestants forced to act in car “commercials” on their way to the market.
Of course, none of this kept Seattle fans from watching the season. “Top Chef” is, as a friend of mine put it, “a game show.” This isn’t to say we can’t have expectations, like, I don’t know, that all the episodes for “Top Chef: Seattle” would have been filmed in, well, Seattle. But beyond that, I’m willing to give the show a little break.
Another criticism I heard consistently from Seattle food pros who got to taste the food at various “Top Chef” events around town was that they thought many of the chefs on “Top Chef” weren’t necessarily great cooks, and the food (when available) wasn’t that good. Most of it, in fact, was bad.
But let’s be honest, “Top Chef” has never been all about the food — producers don’t even necessarily taste the applicants’ food during the casting process. Dramatic personalities make “good” TV.
“Like any good reality show, it puts it’s claws into you,” Stratton says, sipping his drink. “It’s easy to yell at the screen, but if you really had only 2 hours to make a bite for 100 people — in the real world, you’d have days of planning, you’d have staff to help you — that’s the clever trick of the show ... It’s fascinating television.”
Though my colleagues and I would, most people don’t stand around the water cooler talking about how incredible it was when a contestant successfully combined frog’s legs with mussels and beets (go Brooke!), but they do talk about how “Josie is like a buzzing alarm clock they just want to smack,” as one friend put it.
While I’ve been impressed with the plating and creative imaginations of Kristen, Brooke, C.J. and Sheldon, I’m merely suggesting that culinary talent isn’t the show’s main production motivation. Then again, I know from my own experience participating in a few “Top Chef”-like competitions that’s it’s really easy to back-seat cook and a lot harder to think on your feet with a camera in your face and a chef next to you putting petals and individual grains of salt on just plucked quail with a pair of tweezers.
Which is why when friends ask me “why don’t you try out for ‘Top Chef’?” my answer is always: “Because I’m sane. Because the stress has to be overwhelming. Because I could lose. Because I would be that person that the camera found during a Quickfire, rocking in the corner, sucking my thumb and moaning something indecipherable about abalone and ginger ale.”
I prefer to judge from my perch on the couch; I’ve watched almost every episode of every season and study the way the chefs handle the pressures and challenges like it’s my job. I get ideas and I pay my respects because — despite a truly mediocre showing of all that the Seattle food scene is — what the chefs are doing on this show takes guts and stamina. Next year when product placement truly jumps the shark and “Season 11: Top Ramen” airs, I’m going to be back on my couch, taking mental notes and cheering on the contestants, superfan-style.
Becky Selengut is a private chef, author and humorist. Her latest project is a comedy podcast called Closed for Logging.