Yes, I’m a fan of "Top Chef." No, I won’t apologize. Season four—based here in Chicago—was outstanding, transforming Wednesday nights into 'Padma night' at my apartment. Sadly, the recently concluded fifth season left quite a bit to be desired. After last week’s awful reunion show concluded, my roommate and I tried to identify the reasons why the popular series' most recent installment was so unsatisfying. We settled on five major reasons:
1) The contestants were lame:
This season’s contestants generally fell into two categories: Utterly forgettable (Remember Jill? Me neither!) and cartoonish caricatures of real people. Precious few competitors combined true cooking proficiency with compelling personality. Most were one-dimensional: Stefan was an excellent chef who, despite being typecast as the villain, never moved me to the point of unadulterated loathing like Lisa did last year. Pretty boy Jeff cooked creative and interesting food, but could not have been less interesting. One got the sense that Jeff could literally burst into flames, and it wouldn’t evoke more than a shrug from him. Fan favorite Fabio (you born, you be rais-ed, and you die
) was extremely charming and funny, but he hardly won any challenges and was frequently on the chopping block. His Italian accent alone punched his ticket to the final four. Even finalist Carla, who I was rooting for, frequently pushed the bounds of my patience with her food “love” philosophy and her over-the-top reactions to pretty much everything.
2) The Judges:
Tom is easily the best judge because he oozes credibility. I don't have much of a beef with him. The legs
Padma is proficient at feigning sympathy when instructing the latest loser to “pack your knives and go,” as well as plugging the heck out of the Glad family of products. The real problem this year was the departure of one judge, and the addition of another. I am a big fan of Gail Simmons. Come to think of it, am I the only one who finds her more appealing than Padma? Anyone with me? No? Fine. Anyway, when Gail took leave from the show to get married, I suspected that any replacement would be a step down. British food critic Toby Young turned out to be a giant leap down. Toby thought he was funny, but he wasn’t. His permanent scowl came across as a forced shtick. He also never appeared to really enjoy a single dish, which is remarkable considering the talent assembled in the "Top Chef" kitchen. His “bad soup=the missing WMDs” line was groan-worthy. Please, producers, banish him to "Hell’s Kitchen" or some other second-rate show.
3) Wasting New York City:
Aside from drawing on a series of impressive guest judges who happen to work in New York, this season could have been set anywhere in the country. Last season, the show really adopted a Chicago flavor. The chefs cooked for the Chicago Police Department, they catered a tailgate prior to a Bears game, they filmed an episode at the Lincoln Park Zoo, and an entire challenge was inspired by the famed ‘Second City’ comedy troupe. This season was extremely sterile by comparison. New York City, and the innumerable opportunities it could have afforded, went to waste. If memory serves, there was one challenge involving the city’s ethnic neighborhoods in the very early going. Beyond that, nada. The show could have been taped on a studio lot. What a disappointment.
4) Hosea and Leah’s “romance”:
There’s a reason why I don’t watch any other shows on Bravo. The endless promos for “Manly Millionaire Matchmaker” and “Real Housewives from Hell” continue to haunt my dreams. My perception of reality television involves a lot of stupid, phony drama swirling in the personal lives of people I don’t care about. The insufferable “romance” between Hosea and Leah crossed the line into TV wasteland territory. The producers clearly thought, perhaps correctly, that many viewers might be intrigued that these two non-single contestants (Hosea: “I have a girlfriend. I can’t do this. Leah and I are just friends.”) were flirting so heavily. I also suspect that one of my early favorites, Ariane, faced a premature elimination because producers wanted to keep both lovebirds in the mix. The infamous “kiss” episode was especially heinous, complete with hidden cameras, drunk whispering, and 1970s porn music. I began actively rooting for at least one of them to get the boot just to put an end to the uninteresting, ludicrously over-hyped sideshow. During the reunion show, a viewer’s email demanded to know if the two had hooked up post-production. I’m pretty sure that my whole building could heard me bellow, “Who cares?!”
5. The final result:
Don’t get me wrong, both episodes in New Orleans were really good. The setting, challenges, and food were all tantalizing. This was the "Top Chef" I had grown to know and love. Sadly, though, the competition ended badly. Most everyone seemed to be pulling for the eccentric, muppetish Carla, who’d come on strong during the show’s home stretch--and who seemed to be a genuinely nice person. A similar consensus developed that Stefan, no matter how unlikeable he was, deserved the title of Top Chef. He consistently put out the best food all season long. No one else was close. Hosea meanwhile had managed to slide through to the finals without really distinguishing himself over the course of the season. He’d won a few challenges, but he’d also narrowly avoided the axe a few times. The only things we really knew about Hosea were that he HAD A GIRLFRIEND, and that he really, really hated Stefan. When all was said and done, maybe he cooked a slightly
better meal than his nemesis in the final round. (By the way, Carla, why the hootie-hell did you allow a past season loser to hijack your meal-planning process?) Still, he seemed to be the least deserving of the three finalists to take home the grand prize. I’d gladly wager that his finale sous-chef, Richard from last season, could out-cook him 9 times out of 10.
Hosea is our Top Chef? Really? Season five, please pack your knives and go.