Top Chef Canada — crap for dessert

The second season of Top Chef Canada finished last night.  My regular readers (both of you, LOL) will remember that some time ago I posted about my pleasure at finding an honest game, as it were.  I was, and am, sick and tired of America’s Next Top Model, where Tyra Banks and her gang of sycophants seem to make decisions about who wins based on who sucks up the most effectively, or who has the cutest backstory, or — I don’t know what, but almost anything except who is going to be an effective and employable model.  And I thought that the ejection of an unpleasant and unprofessional contestant from Top Chef Canada signaled that the producers of this show intended to do the right thing and allow the judges to judge based on the food that was served to them, and without taking inconsequential intangibles into account.

Boy, was *I* wrong.

Indeed, for a long while, up until the last episode, I still thought I was right.  That’s because the penultimate programme in the season reduced the contestants from four to three with the elimination of a very strong contender for all the marbles — a gentleman named David Crystian from Toronto, who had demonstrated an exceptional skillset and an interesting imagination.  So the final three were Trevor Bird from Vancouver, Jonathan Korecki from Ottawa, and Carl Heinrich from Sooke, B.C.

The finale, 90 minutes long, began with what was to me an extremely unpleasant surprise.  The remaining three candidates were greeted by the three immediately previous unsuccessful contestants — who were told that they were going to compete for a place in the finale.  Which they promptly did.  David beat out Xavier Lacaze and Trista Sheen and re-entered the competition.

What’s wrong with that?  Well, it’s just — bullshit.  David was an interesting competitor, but he screwed up and was eliminated.  My suspicion is that the producers got together and said, roughly, “We have to have someone from Toronto in the finale or else we lose a bunch of our audience.  Plus, he’s telegenic and we can give him the ‘underdog battling his way back through adversity’ edit.”  As someone who lives in Vancouver, I can tell you there are about 25 million Canadians who are sick and tired of the attitude that if someone from Toronto isn’t involved, then it isn’t really important to Canadians. What this demonstrated to me was that they weren’t interested in having a test of skill, they were interested in who would best support the product placement machinations.

After David’s return, they finished the competition by having the final four candidates compete.  I was expecting Trevor to win, but he placed second to Carl. But, you know, I had lost interest at that point and barely bothered to stay awake long enough to see who won.  It was all nonsensical — whoever the producers decided would be the “best” winner was the winner and that was it.  The judges were just glove puppets and would have given the prize to a cannibal if they’d been told to, as far as I’m concerned.  So, Carl won.  Yay.  He promptly moved to Toronto and opened a restaurant and began drinking the bathwater of all the people who got him to that point.

The real winners here were a company called Caesarstone, which advertised heavily on the program and gave away a couple of custom countertop installations to contestants, Milestone’s Restaurant, which featured a couple of the contestants’ dishes on its menu, and the paper towel company whose products were prominently featured in as many shots as possible (I think they were supplying the $100,000 prize).  Two of the quickfire challenges featured Tostitos and Kraft Dinner.  There were also frequent tie-ins with other Food Network programming hosts like Michael Smith, who deserves better, lots of “famous” Canadian restaurateurs (memo to Vikram Vij — lose 50 pounds and hire a clothing stylist if you want to stop looking like a Bollywood tranny hooker), a couple of third-rate Canadian actors like Alan Thicke, and the entire province of Prince Edward Island.  In fact, there was so much product placement in these episodes I was a little surprised not to have badges on the chef’s uniforms, like Nascar drivers.

I will merely add that if you want me to believe that the people involved are connoisseurs of fine food, you might want to leave out the Tostitos and Kraft Dinner.

And I won’t be bothering with Season 3, thanks.  If I want to see whores, there are a couple of local corners that would give me more exercise to walk to, and they don’t dilute their entertainment offerings by pretending that they’re not selling things.

Top Chef Canada — a satisfying dish

As far as “off the island” shows go, Top Chef — and its local variant, Top Chef Canada, now in its second season on Canada’s Food Network — is difficult to appreciate properly. It’s based on a concept that must be judged rather than simply viewed, unlike, say, Top Shot, where the one closest to the target is clearly the winner. Many such programs invite the viewer to judge right alongside the experts; did you like the dress as much as the judges of Project Runway? Do you think A is a better singer than B, or is C a better dancer than D? Everyone has an opinion, and part of the fun is agreeing or disagreeing with the results. But with food, you’re completely dependent on the judges because you just cannot taste for yourself. If the judge says the dish is too salty, well, you either play along or you don’t.  You have to trust that the judge’s resume is good enough to produce a worthy judge, and also that the contest isn’t rigged to produce a result that isn’t based on skill and talent.

And that is why I’ve given up on America’s Next Top Model, as I’ve said elsewhere, because the young woman who wins the contest is usually the one who sucks up to Tyra Banks the most thoroughly. But I am delighted to say that that is not how it goes down on Top Chef Canada.

I’ve just finished viewing the latest episode, entitled “Restaurant Wars”.  I’ve been liking Top Chef Canada because I like the underlying concept — now, I absolutely love it. Because it’s honest; the person who deserves to go home goes home.

You see, when Russell Hantz demonstrated on national television (Survivor) that he was a sneaky little bastard, it exemplified an idea dear to the hearts of reality TV producers. If you’re a nasty unlikeable competitor, they want you to hang around, because you’re good for ratings. People tune in hoping to see you lose. So in many cases the producers bend things as much as possible to ensure that you do hang around; this is really only possible when the underlying concept is that judges make decisions based on their personal preferences. Russell Hantz benefited only from Jeff Probst making some not-very-subtle nudges in his direction at Tribal Council, raising suspicions in one direction or another. But various design-oriented programs have kept argumentative bitches around long past their sell-by date, and it’s pretty clear how and why.

Top Chef Canada is populated with Canadian contestants, of course, which is to say that by and large they’re a group of friendly, polite and humble folks. But there was one bitch among them, a young sous-chef named Elizabeth Rivasplata who was pushy, arrogant and very unlikeable. (Attention, Art Gallery of Ontario; I’m never eating in your restaurant while she’s working there.) Of course I didn’t taste her food, but her interaction with her fellow competitors was enough to make me think that she deserved to leave, because you can’t be a top chef if you can’t get the respect of your fellow kitchen workers. Yes, competitors are in the game to win, but you also have to share the kitchen with others; if you hog the ovens, it’s like pushing your way to the front of a line — very un-Canadian.

And of course after her first out-and-out quarrel with a fellow competitor, I thought regretfully that she had now cemented her place in the final five, regardless of the quality of her work, because she would draw ratings. It seemed as though she would have won a vote for “least favourite” among her fellow competitors; probably why, when the episode of “Restaurant Wars” came along, she was named a team leader (in the hope that she would shoot herself in the foot).

Indeed, she fired a number of shots in her own direction and struck home every time. She failed to keep to the “Canadiana” theme of her menu and chose to show off by preparing octopus. She quarrelled and whined. She couldn’t keep the orders straight and failed to pass along crucial information about who had ordered what and how many at which table. Finally, one of my favourite competitors simply took over and ran the kitchen.

Her team lost. And in the post-mortem, she claimed to the judges things weren’t arranged the way they had been.  (A tip, honey — if you’re going to do that, be sure you’re not on camera at the moment you take responsibility for something.) It looked very much as if she was going to get away with it.

God bless the judges, they sent her home.

And of course, on the way out, she demonstrated that she just didn’t get it. “It’s all their fault, I was right, they were out to get me, they’re mean, nobody loves me, it’s not fair,” yada yada yada. In fact, she presented a portrait of someone who had completely failed to understand why she had lost the competition. They liked your octopus, Elizabeth — it’s your ability to run a kitchen that was in question, and you just didn’t measure up. Plus, you’re a big ol’ bitch.

This was incredibly satisfying to me because I had resigned myself to hating her for weeks to come. Instead, I gained a great deal of respect for the judges, not that I didn’t have it already. I mean, yeah, okay, the program is replete with product placement — you might say riddled with it. The chief judge is a chef named Mark McEwen and all the contestants do their food shopping at his personal grocery store named, oddly enough, “McEwen”. And the financial prize is supplied by a brand of paper towels, a shot or two of which shows up prominently in every episode. But that’s the way that goes in this business, I assume. What this episode demonstrated to me is that they’re not just tasting the food, they’re assessing the personalities and character of the individuals whom they’re testing. And Ms. Rivasplata came up well short of requirements for someone who would be representing their brand, so they put her on her bike and sent her home. And this was regardless of the demands for viewership that I’m sure such a format imposes. I’m pretty sure there was at least one producer who wanted to keep her just because she was so unlikeable, but sanity prevailed.

So I’ll be continuing to watch every week, happy as a clam in a delicate white wine sauce on a bed of wild rice, a deconstructed play on a satisfied customer. And since I think I can now completely trust the editing, I’m going to put my money on Jimmy Stewart from Whistler, B.C., to take home the prize.

Update (April 30, 2012): Jimmy Stewart got the boot last night. And I am happy to say that I didn’t feel it was absolutely foreshadowed by the edit, either. I guess I’ll just wait to see who wins.  There’s still a competitor left from my home town…

Call me curmudgeon — or maybe just a grown-up

I’m not sure if I’m really, really grumpy this week or perhaps I’m just making some decisions that are long overdue. I seem to be in the mood to stop experiencing some media that I used to like, and for me, that doesn’t happen often — I have a lot of bandwidth available for incoming material and I tend to keep going with stuff forever, or until it gets canceled. (Sorry, Jeanie Beker, I probably would have kept going with Fashion Television, but I’m not terribly unhappy that you’ve been canceled. Unlike many men, I don’t watch it in case there’s a see-thru blouse, and you’ve gone from 80% women’s/20% menswear to 99%/1%.)
What have I gotten over this week? Well,, a “light gay news” site that I used to like, lost me forever when they gushed over a photo-op they had with The Real Housewives of Vancouver. It’s not just that I strongly dislike the RHOV, although I certainly do. It’s that, as semi-alcoholic over-surgeried lazy wasteful sluts, they are the worst possible role models for anyone, including gay men, and I object to having them covered like “news” as if they were a bunch of fun gals who liked a few drinkies with their gay-boy BFFs. Their relationship to gay men is worse than merely fag-and-hag, it’s downright demeaning to the brain-addled sot who follows one of them around, holding her purse and her dog. Homorazzi never set out to be the New York Times, but there is a political limit and they’ve reached it with me.
Similarly, America’s Next Top Model lost me forever last night. ANTM has not only jumped the shark, Tyrant Banks has BECOME the shark, and the program has spiralled downward into an hour of her wallowing in her own crapitude amidst a swirl of naked product placement. Ordinarily, just about any “one by one voted off the island” competition program will interest me. This one, however, suffers from a fatal flaw. Many such programs are based on specific results. If you’re the first to build the fire or raise the flag on Survivor, you win the immunity necklace; the viewer can see the results. Yes, there are quite a few “off the island” programs where decisions are made by expert judges. For instance, Project Runway’s contestants are judged by people who have excellent credentials in fashion; Top Chef has top chefs, etc. But ANTM has had a disastrous rotation of judges — starting with the execrable Janice Dickinson, who seemingly made decisions based on her drug intake over the previous 24 hours — whose credentials may have been excellent but whose decisions seemed very arbitrary, and most of whom only lasted a couple of seasons amid reports of their leaving after having quarrelled with Tyrant. And the competitions themselves have descended from photography that was related to being a working model into — well, last night the contestants had to become part of a “rap group” and make a music video.
The program has always been a massive product placement opportunity for everything from Cover Girl to Target. Increasingly, though, Tyrant’s own pet projects have taken pride of place, and the contestants are expected to abase themselves in the cause of promoting her “novel” (one ghastly piece of prose I swear to never experience, based on what little I’ve been exposed to) or her blog or her website or whatever. Tyrant is fond of making up words and forcing others to use them “meaningfully”, starting with the portmanteau “smize” — smile/eyes — and descending from there. Last night, a young woman whom I considered to be the best contestant refused to participate in something that resembled an amateur strip club’s chorus line designed to illustrate the various forms of “booty tooch”, the less said about which the better. The mutiny was considered “disrespectful” — how it’s not disrespectful to force young women to illustrate various forms of sticking their asses out (literally) I have no idea — and the unique and talented AzMarie received the boot. As did Tyrant from my future programming requirements, thank you very much. When someone is ejected for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the competition, that’s a sign that this is not a competition, it’s an ass-kissing contest. I have more respect for AzMarie for refusing to pucker up than any of the others, and whoever wins will have won nothing worth the effort. Bye, Tyrant.
The biggest decision this week, though, was to delete the Toronto Globe and Mail from my future media consideration. That one was major. I have been reading the Globe for, God help me, 40 years, starting in high school when it cost a quarter. I’ve had my photo on their front page and they documented my first tattoo. I’ve published a thousand-word personal essay with them and it used to be my hobby to get a letter into the letters column once a week — I think I’ve managed a dozen with them. I had a long and personal relationship with this newspaper. But lately — it’s gone downhill. Last year, after an unbroken liberal/Liberal record of support for decades, they endorsed the conservative/Conservative candidate for Prime Minister. Their mystery reviewer, Margaret Cannon, has always been incompetent; I swear she only reads the jacket flaps. They’ve gotten rid of all their good editorial opinion people and replaced them with brain-dead hacks. Over the years, they’ve occasionally given space to people like the egregious Lorna Dueck, whose anti-gay Christianity is magnificently offensive, and the disgracefully bigoted pseudo-academic Margaret Somerville, ditto — but I stood it in the name of “equal time”. Lately, though, I’d been going through the online version daily and finding nothing, nothing, nothing. News off the wire, with right-wing editorial bias added in. Ghastly sycophantic hacks writing opinion pieces about how wonderful the government’s policies are. Reviews of books and movies that are nothing but rewritten PR handouts. “Supplements” that are massive product placement opportunities for financial products. And the letters column, which used to be a lively exchange of wit and intelligence, has descended to the level of — the Internet. I don’t know what it was that set me off, but I realized this morning that I was just flat-out wasting my time and had been for months. I stopped reading the print version some time ago when I found an online cryptic crossword that was better than theirs (right after they endorsed Harper); today, I deleted the online link from my bookmarks and I won’t be back.
This doesn’t worry me, particularly. I may be just being grumpy this week, but it’s more likely that it was simply time for me to move on. What does bother me a little bit is that I might be turning into one of those people whose biases I associate with being American, where I am refusing to experience any point of view that doesn’t precisely match my own. What? Not pro-abortion? Can’t have THAT in the house. (Although it’s a point of view that I usually associate with the far right in the U.S. Starbucks supports gay marriage? Can’t drink THEIR coffee, perhaps for fear of ideological contamination.) Usually I’ve kept myself honest by reading Canada’s OTHER national newspaper once every couple of months, the National Post, which is a little to the right of Attila the Hun. But now, I have nothing left except our cretinous and sub-literate local newspaper and online news, if I want to know what’s actually going on in the lives of intelligent literate people in my vicinity. Believe me, the Vancouver Sun and Breakfast Television are not going to fill THAT need.
I think what this means is that I’ll have to seek harder and work more diligently to find new sources of news and entertainment. Not necessarily ones that match my point of view precisely; that’s not what I require. But ones that don’t make me feel like I’m dirtying my hands in picking them up.