Top Chef Feels Weird

A gourmet dispatch from an alternate world where not everyone worries about food

A new season of Top Chef began on March 19, immediately at the dawn of the COVID-19 era. What a relief, I thought. For an hour a week, I could lose myself in Elimination Challenges, Padma Lakshmi’s plunging neckline, gorgeous California vistas, and privileged people without a care in the world gorging themselves on champagne and sea urchin. But it didn’t really occur to me that the food world was about to implode. Suddenly, Top Chef, while still infinitely enjoyable from a technical point of view, feels like a weird dispatch from an alternate reality. Of course, all entertainment made pre-crisis feels like that. But food TV, in particular, tastes very much like “before.”

The headlines are bad across all categories right now, but the food news seems particularly grim. Dairies are dumping millions of gallons of milk into the sewers. Farms, deprived of their institutional clients, are mulching infinite vegetables. In every state, car lines of unemployed people stretch for miles, desperate to get a box from a food pantry. Dozens of workers at a South Dakota pork abbatoir have the virus. A report estimates that up to 75 percent of all restaurants in New York will never reopen their doors.

In my own life, I still, fortunately, have access to plenty of food, and the means to buy it. But I still had to wait in line for an hour to get into the grocery store yesterday while wearing a mask and standing six feet apart from the nearest human. When I got in there they had most of the stuff I needed, but no spaghetti or chocolate chips.

Top Chef
Since U Been Gone: Kelly Clarkson guest-judges Top Chef, in a happier time.

Meanwhile, on Top Chef, the contestants are preparing a colorful appetizer based on the movie Trolls World Tour for celebrity guest judge Kelly Clarkson. This is not their fault. You can blame this crisis on any number of actors, but Gail Simmons would not be one of them. Like many of us, the Top Cheftestants and judges were living for years at the la di da global food hall. They’ve been working hard their whole lives to feed people and achieve their dreams. And it’s not like, in actual reality, the people involved in the show are ignoring the problem. The show and its participants have often talked about the problem of food insecurity, and that’s not changing now. They’re trying to raise money for hunger relief on Instagram. Tom Colicchio, the show’s godfather, is heading up a political coalition to try and save independent restaurants. 

Still, I watch them prepare a six-course progressive vegetarian tasting menu from items they bought at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, I have to wonder, what are these people doing right now? These personal chefs and small restaurant owners must be struggling mightily to pay their employees, or their rent. Suddenly, “facing elimination” takes on a very different meaning.

Even Colicchio is currently presiding over the collapse of his once-mighty restaurant empire. And the Angel of Death didn’t pass over Top Chef, either. The season’s second episode began with a black-screen tribute to Floyd Cardoz, former Top Chef Masters winner, one of America’s most beloved Indian chefs, and one of COVID-19s earlier U.S. victims.

None of this takes away from the particular joy of watching Top Chef. It has its cheesy moments, like all reality TV. But it’s still the gold standard of cooking competitions, with funny, intelligent judges, interesting challenges, and talented contestants. I love the show and am happy it’s on right now. But it also feels more like surreality than reality. Restaurants are closed. People are hungry. The stores are out of flour.

I want to see who wins this “All Stars L.A.” season, especially with the added irony that the final episodes take place during a trip to Italy. But whoever comes out on top, whether it’s Gregory or Melissa or Bryan Voltaggio (I can pretty much guarantee it will not be Brian Mularkey), that’s victory’s got to taste a more than a little bittersweet.

After all, the 2020 Food and Wine classic in Aspen, where the Top Chef winner always gets to display his or her wares in a once-in-a-lifetime showcase, has already been canceled.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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