Monday, August 30, 2010

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

I am so bored. This current season of Top Chef is draining the life out of me. Why? Let's discuss. Around the Top Chef blogger teepees, the consensus seems to be the quality of the chefs. That this season is just a blip. There is some validity to that argument if you look back at past seasons and realize that casting seems to alternate between having a group of rock solid working chefs with some success under their belts and having a group of marginal cooks with wacko personalities and goofy hats. Take a look at last season and this one. You had four outstanding chefs that made food you remember. Like Kevin's candied bacon jam, or Michael V's Braised Pork Belly. This season we're talking about food that a chef apparently lost in transit. Despite the fact that I've gotten used to the seasonal swing between good chefs/drama chefs I think there's a larger problem that has to do with the whole concept of Top Chef. The series has been set on Auto Pilot while the creative folks that fleshed out some of the better elements of the series have wandered off to do new shows. I don't blame them. I do blame the Producers for not shaking the show up. The basic format has......not......changed! Joel Keller over at The TV Squad has some ideas on why it's so predictable but his major consensus is that the show is still entertaining. As someone who has put a considerable amount of sweat and effort into Top Chef, I couldn't disagree with him more on that particular sentiment. I didn't think Ed walking around the condo in Tiffany's dress was entertaining. I didn't think Angelo plastic wrapping the toilet so another drunk chef ends up peeing on the floor was entertaining. Not to mention how we can all recite the lines by heart of a chef waking up the next morning after another chef has been auffed. If you are boring me it matters not one iota how well produced the damn show is, I'm ready to turn the channel.

Can this Food Reality game show marriage be saved? I think if you radically change it up, you could probably save the Good Ship Top Chef from sinking. How? Hold on to your chef's jackets.

First - Get out of the Studio. It's time to make Top Chef grittier, more realistic. But that means getting out of the Top Chef kitchen. Every season the production crew finds a big empty warehouse and builds the Top Chef Kitchen inside of it. They do this for some very specific reasons. They can control production access, they can fill it to the gills with product and appliance pimpage and it allows them to control camera and sound elements. The Top Chef Kitchen has great sight lines and no outside noise to deal with. You can shoot all night and not piss off the neighbors. But Shamu, didn't they shoot inside the Hilton Hotel this season? Isn't that why they keep showing this shot...
...before each parade of chefs into the Top Chef Kitchen? No. It's just more pimpage. The kitchen was built here.

Some empty warehouse on the outskirts of DC or even into Maryland or Virginia. Let it go. The Top Chef Kitchen is a security blanket you don't need any more. You need to get your hands dirty.

Second - Take Top Chef regional. The whole shooting in one city for a bulk of the season does nothing for the actual competition. It does allow for a lot of pretty local shots but not much else. So what to do instead? Instead of having 17 chefs all in one spot for the season, shoot the first eight episodes in four different cities. Each city gets two episodes and four chefs competing. Epi one, Quickfire eliminates one chef, then the next challenge eliminates another leaving two chefs for the next episode. Episode two cranks up the pressure when it's one on one with the final winner going to the next round. Instead of shooting in some studio, find real life kitchens to shoot in. You've had a huge amount of regional chefs as Guest Judges, time to tap that market and their restaurants. Ask your camera people to get creative. Say hello to a lot more kitchen and food shots. Have challenges that are based in restaurant reality, not stupid word play games. Have the chefs serving food to actual diners. Regulars to whatever restaurant they are filming in. Not handpicked publicity folks invited to eat the chefs food. Who would judge? Sorry Tom, Gail, Padma and whomever is the forth, you'll be staying home. The Regional Rounds are based on how well the dish sells, appearance and the efficiency with which the chefs work with staff, both front and back of house. They've got to order or shop for proteins and produce. They've got to find and procure special ingredients if needed. They've got to budget to make a profit off a dish. You can sell all the lobster you want at $5 a plate but profit will be a judging criteria. If Chef A makes a killer dish that sells 30 servings and actually gets them out on time, correctly prepared, and makes money, they move on before Chef B who could only sell 10 servings and had three come back. The Head Chef of the restaurant will be the ultimate judge but according to the judging elements laid out by the Producers. Oh yeah, the diners won't know what dish is by the guest chefs so none of the voting specifically for Top Chef contestants. So now you've whittled down 16 chefs to 4.

Third - Stay regional. Each of the next four episodes has all four chefs competing in each of the cities the previous episodes. Which means each chef gets a home town advantage at least once. Here's where you could have your chuck wagon challenge, your on the beach challenge, whatever challenge works with the city that you are in. All the judges are back, all regular judging rules (such as they are) apply. However. No chefs eliminated during these episodes. They will all start out with some points but earn more as they win challenges. Points for Quickfires, points for High Stakes Challenges. The more points you accumulate, the better advantage you have in the finale. All four chefs will compete but they will have to use their points to buy the product they want to use for their finale dishes and sous chefs they want to assist them. Also during this series of episodes, each chef gets one opportunity to a Throwdown Challenge. This means that one chef can challenge one other chef to a 30 minute, 6 product dish throwdown. No one has to challenge anyone else but if they do they have to wager points they have against points of the chef they are challenging. If they lose, the chef they challenged gets their points. If they win, they get to take points away from the chef they challenged. Hello pressure.

Fourth - The Finale. Could be one or two episodes. With the layout above, we're up to 12 episodes. Top Chef has for the past four seasons run 14 episodes but they've had as many as fifteen and as little as twelve. You could build some nice audience expectations and buzz with with a two episode finale. Again, it's the cook the best meal of your life....with the points you've accumulated from the previous challenges. There could be twists but the finale should be filmed in one neutral place with all the regular judges and any guest judges they want.

So what does this mean? No more condo segments, no more Whole Food shopping segments, a lot less of Tom and Padma and a lot more focus on the food and the stress of dealing with a working kitchen. If you really want to have some fun, have the chefs travel to each city in the second round in a Winnebago together and run segments on that.

Hell, have Winnebago as a sponsor. That's the other thing, the Producers will have to work harder for their pimpage because throwing up many gratuitous shots of ovens or product would be a lot harder. But isn't that what challenges are all about? Because if you think as many folks are watching what you're doing now, I think you are wrong. When I see comments on various boards that long time fans are forgetting what night the show is on, you've committed the worst TV crime possible and that's boring viewers off your show and onto another. Less viewers viewing your pimpage means lower ratings and less ad revenue. All of which leads down a icy bobsled slope to cancellation. That would make me a very sad TC Crack Monkey indeed.


Making Space said...

Wow. I had to read that three times. Kids. Sheesh. OK I finally got through it now they're asleep.

I'm glad you said that thing about how it's all the same!! I'm watching Seasons 1, 3, and 7 all at the same time, and I'm so surprised at how the elements of the show are pretty static. It seems like by Season 7 the contestants (cheftestants? eeeehhhh ok if I must) can just watch all the previous seasons and plot out all their basic menus already. I keep thinking this group is phoning it in, but I think it's probably more true that they just planned ahead.

I like your ideas about shaking up the show but I do have one question -how do you build momentum/support for, say, one favorite over another, if you spend the first eight episodes switching from chef group to chef group? I'd be interested in some way to keep the top chef (harhar) from each two-episode segment in the viewer's mind as the next group is whittled down.

The Winnebago thing could be fun. But the potential for drunk shenanigans is still going to be there, I am sorry to say. Could we have Padma drive, since I don't really want to see less of her, sniffle?

I would be all for muuuuch less product pimpage. The damn show is a big commercial.

Finally, those monkeys are nasssty. The last one is sorta ickily cute though.

Excellent article. I think your last two subject labels should be combined to make Top Chef Winnebago. And there you go! Last one in's a rotten egg!

Nice ZING at the end there, you sad li'l monk-ey.

Big Shamu said...

Actually they've kinda taken the step of rounds competition with Top Chef Masters (which I know you haven't had a chance to watch) they just do it all in one city. I want to build on our regional variations. How much fun would it be to have Atlanta host a round and actually have a judge with experience with Southern food? Or Seattle with it's incredible seafood? All I know is that the series Top Chef needs to be bitch slapped.

Making Space said...

Oohhhhh - got it! Dagnabit now I'm gonna hafta watch a TC Masters. Which one has my Big BoyCrush Rick Bayless?

Still want Padma to drive the bus.

Big Shamu said...

Masters One has Bayless. Negative on Padma bus driving.....unless certain tests were passed if you get my...drift.

Dani said...

I hope they can do something with it. You are my fave blogger and I would miss your take each week of the show.

moi said...

I, too, am bored out of my gourd. I'd hate to see the show go, because the concept is sound, but it's become so complacent. I like your idea about taking it regional, though. That would be a most excellent shot in the arm. Challenges built around chefs putting their personal spin on local cuisine.

Padma can stay if she learns to dress herself.

intuitive eggplant said...

I got a little cross-eyed contemplating all these shake-up possibilities, Shamy. I would like to see them go more regional with your Top Chef Winnebago concept, but methinks the productions costs and complexities would preclude the producers from going that route.

Meanwhile, have you heard the news about next season of TC? Sounds like a shake-up of a different sort an all-star edition. has had several posts about it today. Although it could be a little spoilery as to what happens the rest of this season, depending on whom you believe . . .

Big Shamu said...

Sorry Eggy, production ain't easy no matter how you cut it. But hey, shooting the finals in Singapore? Not exactly easy either. If they can do that, they can certainly shoot regional.

As to an All Star Edition, it all depends on who you define as an all star. If that includes doofuses like AssHat Spike, I'll be sick to my stomach.

intuitive eggplant said...

Season All-Star is still at rumor stage, but enough leaks/sightings to make me think it's likely. Sorry 'bout your stomach, Shamy (Ass Hat Spike has been mentioned . . .) At least an All-Star Season sounds more interesting than this one. Jeez, when Bourdain is boring, like tonight, somebody needs to mix it up.

Melissa said...

Great post and great ideas. Past seasons I couldn't WAIT to get 20 minutes into the recording so I could start watching and FF through the commercials. I'd even save it and watch again before the next show. Now, I forget it's on and don't remember until AFTER I see your blog, and then watch it while making dinner--thereby missing a lot of it.

Something's gotta give.

Aunty Belle said...

Less is more--a LOT less of Padma and Tom is way more show for chefs.

Why haven't they hired ya Shamy? I like yore story board best.

LaDivaCucina said...

Well, I'm glad to hear you say it too, Shamu. Like Making Space, I had to read this a few times. Great ideas all, although I must agree with you heartily on the regional idea, brilliant. Besides the location, I never thought they really made use of the city they were in from a food point of view. I like your idea of a local regional chef judging too. And I like the idea of the challenges based on restaurant reality, working with ingredients to show a profit. Great ideas, someone has been doing a lot of thinking about this!

I am so bored with the show that I now tivo it and get around to watching it days later! Even hubby groaned when I put it on last night. That's bad.

And worse, even Padma's wardrobe mishaps has not been enough for me to come by and snark about...although that waiter's coat she was squeezed into and that dress with the strapless, blouson tube top really, really took the cake.

I love the baby crack monkey at the end.