Top Chef’s contributions to the reality show genre don’t come from exciting cliff-hangers or the evil machinations of those who would only win by cheating: the ingredients that make it work best are good chefs cooking food that looks pretty and makes you want to eat it. Occasionally, there’s a key rivalry or a chef you want to hate. The two chefs everyone hated are now gone: possible-pea thief Alex left last week, and Amanda, the overly-intense, scatterbrained former addict who never seemed to get anything right, was finally voted off last night. But before that, another source of drama this season ended prematurely when Kenny Gilbert, whose long-simmering rivalry with Angelo made him seem more talented than he probably was, was voted off after the Restaurant Wars episode. (Restaurant Wars is the show’s bread and butter: two groups of chefs start restaurants and compete to win.)
Kenny inspired a lot of inappropriately racist, pimpish nicknames, like chocolate bear and big daddy, and, when he was kicked off, an unfortunate number of outdated South Park jokes (I think you know the one). But mostly he was a gregarious, lovable self-promoter; fans believed he was the big cheese because he said he was every week. In truth, his cooking skill seemed uneven. But whether you think he deserved to go or not, his absence highlights a longstanding problem with the show: there hasn’t been enough diversity, and it is particularly problematic in the way it portrays its black chefs. Diversity on a reality TV show might not seem the most important topic, ever, but it evidences two things: one, the dearth of people of color at the top of many fields extends to reality contests that purport to propel novices to the top of those fields; and two, shows like this in which contestants are judged subjectively still often pick white male winners.
First, some by-the-numbers history. The premiere season wasn’t bad: of 11 chefs, two were Asian, two were black and one was Latino. Only one, Lee Anne Wong, made it close to the top. The second season was worse: of 15, only three were of color. Cliff, a black chef from New York City, finished fifth, but his finish is the important part: he was the only person ever kicked off the show for becoming physical with another contestant. That season, all the chefs picked on a scrawny, whiny kid named Marcel, and on one of the last nights Cliff and the other finalists decided they were going to shave Marcel’s head. In fairness, head judge Tom Colicchio wanted to kick off all the other conspirators, too, who were just as mean to Marcel that night, and make Marcel the winner by default. But Cliff actually wrestled Marcel down to the floor, and was the only person to explicitly break the rules against physically fighting another contestant.
In the third season, the only black chef, Tre, a favorite in the beginning, was voted off after the Restaurant Wars episode because he didn’t lead his team well enough. (A Vietnam-born chef named Hung won that season). The next season, the only black chef was out so early I don’t even remember her, though, in a bright spot, a woman won for the first time that year. The fifth season marked the first Indian American chef, Radhika, and Carla, a black woman from D.C. who made it to the finale and who has had a real career-boost since the show. Season 6 brought us another Indian American and a chef from Haiti, both of whom were out in the middle of the competition. Of the six winners, five have been white and all but one was a man.
That brings us to the current season and its surprising diversity buffet. When it started, Kenny had three fellow black chefs, two Latinos and one Asian chef, which means that nearly half its contestants were people of color. It could be that the show’s producers, who chose to film in D.C. this season after the arrival of the Obamas gave the city a short-lived sizzle, became more cognizant of its diversity needs, or it could be that it’s been on so long now that it’s luring a more diverse applicant pool. Either way, Kenny’s timer wasn’t the first to go off early: Kevin, Angelo and Tiffany are the only chefs of color left.
So, what’s the problem? When a woman won for the first time in the fourth season, Colicchio wrote pretty elegantly about the problems women face in professional kitchens, which aren’t too different from the problems women face in many careers. The balance of work and life falls squarely on women’s shoulders, and a lot of sacrifice is demanded of top chefs. I don’t think anyone’s surprised to know that the challenge of overcoming discrimination in high cuisine is similar to the challenges people of color overcome in other fields.
But that doesn’t mean those problems have to be replicated on a reality TV show. Of course, the judges always say they pick the best dish, but we all know how the idea of “merit” mostly benefits white men. To a great extent, judging food is a subjective enterprise, and cultural expectations and prejudices play into what we think of food. It’s probably completely fair that Cliff was kicked off for being, admittedly, an asshole to Marcel: it’s true that Tre seemed to bite off more than he could chew when he led his team; and it’s likely just as true that Kenny wasn’t the cream of the crop. But when the judges talked about, say, Kenny’s dishes, they said they were “unsophisticated” and “unedited.” When Tre was kicked off, he was regarded a good technician but not a good thinker and organizer. Again, Cliff, a former football player, was kicked off for getting physical. All of those fit uncomfortably into stereotypes about black men, no matter how true it could be in any individual situation. To raise suspicions even more, Colicchio even compared Kenny to Tre in his blog post about the episode in which Kenny got kicked off. They both took on leadership roles and failed, but other chefs have been kicked off for that reason in different years, too. The thing Kenny and Tre most have in common is that they’re both black. Because we don’t taste the food, we have to trust the judges aren’t bringing stereotypes about the chefs to the tasting table.
There are bright spots, though. Tiffany, a black woman from Texas, has surged late in the game to win just about every contest, and is now positioned as a favorite, especially as Angelo’s work has fallen off. And in Top Chef’s sister show, Top Chef Masters, this year, an Ethiopian chef raised in Sweden, Marcus Samuelsson, won. In the finale, his dishes carried the judges through his life: his first food memory of smoky salmon, and the first meal he cooked, which was another Swedish dish. His final course had to be a vision of where he wanted to go as a chef, and he went back to his roots, cooking a classic Ethiopian fish dish. The fish was soft, and the meal, overall, was heavy, the judges said. Samuselsson told them, in just about so many words, that he didn’t care. That’s the way the food was meant to be cooked, and he knew the judges wouldn’t be used to it. But Americans have developed a palate for Chinese food, for South American food, and for all other kinds of cuisines, he said. He felt it was his job to bring African cuisine to higher regard in America, and it was their job to get used to it. He didn’t have to conform the cuisine to their liking; they had to learn to like something new.
So, it’s not that I think all of these contestants are losing because they’re not white. It’s that, as in most other fields, the inability of people of color to rise has a lot to do with subtle, complex interactions between prejudice and expectation that few have the power to wrest control over. We just often misunderstand who’s job it is to overcome that.