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…