Watching any competitive reality food show is a strange exercise when you think about it. Taste is supposed to be a subjective thing; who’s to say what the “best” dish is on any given night? Sure, the judges’ palates are refined and trained, but one person’s sensitivity to salt, proclivity for pickling, or secretly preferred protein could be the difference between victory and defeat.
The American South has a culinary history all its own. Temperate climates have bred a bounty of distinctive local ingredients from collard greens to crawfish, and the blending—or Creolization, if you will—of cultures has cultivated a cuisine that is uniquely “American” in its multiplicity. Dishes are generational, cuisine is comfortable, and food is a way to look back home in the South, where the past always informs the present. But this week on Top Chef duels, generations do battle as the historic traditions of the Southern old guard draw knives against the new.
If it were up to Stephanie Izard, the first female winner of Top Chef, she says, she’d stop talking about the fact that she’s a woman and focus instead on her food: “Why don’t we just talk about me being a chef?” she asks during this week’s duel.
While I’m sure she’s deservedly sick of hearing about her gender, the fact is that she is not “just” a chef; she is a female chef. And, of course, in a business that has traditionally had problems with women in the kitchen, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating that.
Swagger. Noun. “A way of behaving that shows confidence.”
During each Top Chef season, there is a customary sizing-up in the early episodes. “You worked where? For whom?” chefs ask. Over its 11 seasons, the brand has grown, attracting higher-caliber chefs looking for a big break and the cave-aged cash of celebrity chefdom. By the time they button their chef coats for the first time, some chefs boast Beard Award nominations. Others show stars courtesy of Michelin.
And some chefs just have swag.
Being a jerk is a valuable skill on reality television. From Juan Pablo to Puck, jackassery has taken plenty of forms since people “stopped being polite” decades ago and produced high-water marks of a now-flooded genre. Everyone knows that evil has some serious currency when networks want compelling TV—you get more camera time when you’re being an ass.
For a “reality” show, there isn’t any real dramatic hook this week on Top Chef Duels. Neither contestant has harmed the other in any grievous way. Neither is sniping at the other from the closed confines of the stew room. There’s no beef—Kobe, wagyu, or otherwise. That’s because there doesn’t need to be.
CJ Jacobson occupies a strange space in the history of Top Chef. He’s always been a solid-if-unspectacular cook: he finished sixth during the show’s third season as he was undone by an infamous broccolini side that ranks among the show’s worst dishes. At 6’10”, Big Ceej is certified giant, but he maintains an everyman’s insecurity that endears him to viewers, even if his food never really endeared him to the judges in any significant way.
There’s an old saying in sports—a tie is like kissing your sibling. There was always going to be a winner on this week’s episode of Top Chef Duels, but with the series reuniting its resident kissing cousins, Mike Isabella and Antonia Lofaso, in an Italian family style duellare, there was also going to be some familial baci before the end credits rolled.
To date, 181 chefs have drawn their knives, buttoned their chef jackets, and vied for the title of Top Chef. Only 11 have won.
Over the course of 11 seasons, countless spin-offs, and an empire that has produced a series of cookbooks and an online culinary school, Top Chef has outlined a set of culinary cardinal rules: Don’t volunteer to be executive chef during Restaurant Wars. Don’t overcook the risotto, undercook the bacon you’re wrapping your scallops in, or put anything inedible on the plate. Don’t touch another chef’s mise en place or, for that matter, another chef. And be careful with dessert.
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