Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why I Don't Do Top Chefs (Despite the Occasional Hot Chef)

Fabio from Top Chef's season five: Edible, not watchable
Bad TV programming can lead to strange, unexpected and terrible things. In Thailand, where the English-language pickings seem to get slimmer every day, it's either the same few medical, crime and courtroom dramas day in, day out, or -- yikes! -- a heaping dose of reality... TV. For the first time ever, I find myself grudgingly tolerating it.

Tolerating it, but Dating in the Dark and The Millionaire Matchmaker aside, rarely enjoying it. At least I'm willing to give most of them a one- or two-episode shot -- with a lone exception: The last frontier, the place I still can't bring myself to regularly go for more than one segment between commercials, is the reality cooking show.

I simply cannot.

Food criticism has always perplexed me -- though I've written several restaurant reviews for Time Out Buenos Aires in the past -- mostly because taste in food is so much more complicated and subjective than taste in cinema or music. You either love or hate a movie or a new album, and there tends to be a general consensus regarding new releases. But there are so many individual food quirks and restrictions that it seems insane to take anyone's word as the final one on any main course. That might be why I've never bothered to read a food review that I wasn't editing.

Given the choice between reading about food and watching a show about it, I don't know which would be less tolerable. I've never been able to make it through an entire episode of Rachael Ray's show, or a cooking segment on any talk show. Not even the hunky, mouth-watering celebrity chefs I saw all the time while channel surfing in Australia (Jamie Oliver, Curtis Stone, James Reeson, left -- be still by throbbing loins), could get me to stop on the channel for more than a minute or two to daydream about kissing the chef.

Why the resistance to shows about real-life cooks (strangely enough, the first career I ever considered, from ages 5 to 8), despite the best efforts of at least two of my friends -- Dave in New York City, Marcus in Melbourne -- to get me into them over the last few years? I have several theories.

1. I don't cook. So it's not like I'm going to tune in looking for cool culinary ideas. And discussing the finer points of cooking might be a better way to pass the time than cleaning the pots and pans after a big meal, but it's still not my idea of scintillating conversation.

2. Where's the drama? There's inherent conflict in dating, interior designing, hairstyling, losing weight, bounty hunting, taking someone to court, trying to be famous and trying to be famous again (along with its flip side, dancing with the stars, which I still refuse to watch, along with homemaking harridans with too much time on their hands). Something major is actually at stake. But cooking? If you hate one meal, there'll be another one in a few hours. It's not that deep.

3. The fashion is terrible. And I'm not even a label queen. Last night when I caught the elimination segment of Top Chef on the Sony Channel (where Season 5, which ended more than three years ago, is currently airing), and I saw a higher number of attractive contestants than I was expecting, I couldn't stop thinking, "If only they'd lose the headwear and slip into something less comfortable."

4. There's no payoff. That's less than I can say about the non-food reality competitions, regardless of where they fall on my from-love-to-loathe list. American Idol gives us music; Dancing with the Stars offers more B-to-D listers in one place than we've seen since the days of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, and The Biggest Loser provides a little incentive to stick to our diets. Although I've seen more firing than interior designing on the few episodes I've caught of Flipping Out, I'm hoping to eventually stumble across something I can use at a later date.

But what do we get from Top Chef? Does anyone actually cook "challenge"-caliber meals at home? Unless you're watching while you eat, you're likely to be as hungry when the bottom chef is unceremoniously kicked out of the kitchen with "Please pack your knives and go" as you were at the beginning of the hour. If I'm going to sit through 60 minutes of meal preparation and endless chatter about it, is it too much to ask to be well-fed at the end?

5. I eat everything now. Ever since I gave up 17 years of vegetarianism (plus seafood) to reintroduce chicken to my personal menu near the end of 2007 (I added meat two years later), I'm constantly surprised by what will stay in my stomach. Street food, once an absolute no-no, has become a regular part of my Bangkok diet, and today for the first time ever, I ate spicy Thai food and actually welcomed the burning sensation in my mouth.

Bottom line: I draw the line at insects, but I'm generally too hungry to be picky. Let's not discuss it; let's just eat it. So the salmon tastes like sandalwood? Who cares? Seconds, please.
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