How ‘Top Chef’ Hurts the Home Cook

Recently I was on an airplane with access to television shows, and so for two hours I sat and watched. I watch TV but my programming usually centers around HBO series and Law & Order. And although I’ve watched Top Chef before, I am not a regular viewer. Watching them back-to-back for a couple of hours was very interesting and got me thinking about the impact of this incredibly popular show on the home cook. And although it is highly entertaining television, does it help get people in the kitchen or improve their cooking? Here’s why I don’t think so –

1) It’s not educational, nor is it trying to be. In fact, you have to be fairly well versed in the culinary vocabulary just to keep up – rillette, torchon, and pate all being tossed around with ease.

2) Which can lead into this false sense of being able to judge what is good. Don’t get me wrong, this show features some extremely qualified judges. These judges know how to cook and how to rate a dish. But it is easy for the viewer to take the next logical step when agreeing with these judges that they too know quality, without having any credentials or ability. Just because you find Tom Colicchio’s assesment of a bland gastrique sauce reasonable does not mean that you know how to judge a similar sauce. Is it helpful for anyone for everyone to be a critic, especially a critic that may not have any actual experience other that watching television?

3) Which can lead to a reluctance to trying new dishes or techniques. The last thing most home cooks want is an assessment of their efforts at the dinner table. Just ask someone with kids how welcome their children’s critiques are. I have experienced critiques on my cooking in both the professional arena (a separate subject entirely) and when cooking at home. It’s part of the job at work, but at home it can be infuriating. “Thank you” is the best response as far as I can tell when anyone cooks anything for me.

4) Often we learn, grow and are inspired most by what we participate in, rather than what we observe. For cooking, EATING is the best motivation and what is most lacking by watching Top Chef. In all the dramatic silences on the show I am often wondering what the food tastes like – I want to chew! All in all, I say let’s watch less television and cook and eat more…

2 thoughts on “How ‘Top Chef’ Hurts the Home Cook

  1. Hi Molly,

    I only randomly stumbled upon your blog (while eagerly awaiting the opening of the new Burger Stand on Mass), but actually felt compelled to respectfully disagree with your post. I think out of the wide-realm of cooking shows out there today, Top Chef is easily one of the higher quality options available, and I know has been a large inspiration in increasing my time and ambition in the kitchen.

    To address your points…

    1) You’re right in saying that it is not overtly trying to be educational, but that doesn’t mean that viewers cannot learn from it. I frankly would prefer to learn true culinary terms and techniques from the well-qualified judges, guests, and even contestants that this show provides, rather than simplified shortcut techniques and corner-cutting that is emphasized on most other shows (i.e. almost anything on Food Network these days). Seeing terms like “confit” thrown around regularly made me curious to learn what these were, and how I could incorporate them (however basic my understanding) into my own cooking.

    2) I would never presume that my ability to judge food is improved strictly through observation or by watching the show. But seeing the types of things judges look for has helped reinforce the common pitfalls in cooking. Over and over again judges comment on similar issues (not well seasoned, meat not allowed to rest, overly complex dishes) that if nothing else, help remind me that it’s often the simplest of things that can make a dish go good or bad.

    3) Watching this show has totally made me more adventurous in what I want to cook for others! It may not always work, but hey- that’s the fun in trying new things, and the only way we can all learn to improve! At the same time, I would also never make such a large leap of faith in my culinary knowledge to start “judging” what others are making based on info from a TV show. I can only imagine my mom’s response if I told her to “pack her knives and go.” 🙂

    4) Well said in encouraging participation… but in fact, I think I do some of my more inspired cooking in the days after watching the show. Yes it’s reality TV, so there are overly dramatic contestants and production quirks thrown in (intense stares from judges that go on far too long). The lack of EATING is common to any cooking show (from Julia Child to Gordon Ramsay’s latest tirade-filled trash), but the quality of the contestants, judges, and food on Top Chef I believe makes it a bit more valuable than you give it credit for.

    Hope you can appreciate an alternative perspective from a humble amateur,

    Cheers!
    Tom

  2. I do learn from cooking shows and frequently try to recreate dishes that I have seen prepared on them. But I do not watch ‘Top Chef’ or any other of the shows of the reality genre. I prefer the old-fashioned type along the lines of Julia Child’s show. ‘Good Eats’ is my favorite, which I will watch even when the subject is meat (I do not eat land animals or farm-raised fish) because there is so much to learn on that particular show. You should check it out Lolly. Very informative even for a chef’s wife!

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