Amidst all the hubbub and kerfuffle, whispered in arch verbal daggers over cups of PG Tips and open-structured scones, is the polite dismay of an entire nation. Will the show lose its chocolatey, treacly heart? I hope it doesn’t because American reality TV and Top Chef in particular have a lot to learn from this incredible program.
Like many a Yank snacking on fish-less chips, I discovered The Great British Bake Off only through the largesse of Netflix and a friend’s recommendation. Called The Great British Baking Show in America due to a copyright infringement with an eponymous dough boy, the program has spread its meringue wings across the pond to minor acclaim.
To be frank, I had zero interest in the show. I love the creative flair of cooking but find baking to be its rigid, number-crunching accountant cousin with the pocket protector. I don’t even have a sweet tooth. I’m one of those sad, soulless people who wouldn’t even notice if candy and ice cream disappeared from this Earth.
So color me surprised when I found Bake Off to be an evolutionary improvement over what I once thought to be the jewel in the cooking show tiara that is Top Chef.
Over thirteen seasons and a litany of spin-offs, Top Chef has grown and improved and stagnated and shed its chicharrón multiple times as it tries to stay relevant over an impressively long span. The franchise has helped spawn a French Laundry’s list of careers for young sous chefs and Beard nominees and won praise and/or participation from actual powerbroker chefs like David Chang, Eric Ripert, and Rick Bayless.
Just yesterday, I ate at alum Fabio Viviani’s Bar Siena and dug into a lasagna lusty with fat. If I could, I would live in Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard’s kitchen like a tiny, yet obese gremlin. I’ve eaten their food, and contrary to that suspicious celebrity chef sheen, the show provides publicity and platform to real talent.
Except Top Chef lacks the simplicity its head judge so clearly strives for in his own restaurants. Tom Colicchio has handed out a lot of sage advice over the years. I’ve distilled it down to a few choice quotes so that he can practice what he’s preached.
Bake Off certainly has.
Buy the best you can find or afford and don’t over manipulate it. If I cook a scallop, the best praise you can give me is that it tastes like a scallop.
Top Chef has misunderstood its viewing audience.
Too often, challenges devolve into which cooks can cook with which 17th century gear in the middle of the Adirondacks on the back of a chariot while Romans whip you with chains and insults. I have zero interest in watching some James Beard nominee have their chances submarined because some competitor stole their stove or there is only canned Spam and whale barnacles in the pantry. If I want to watch the cunning resourcefulness of someone lying, cheating, and doing whatever they can to come out on top, we have Survivor, old reruns of MacGyver, and C-SPAN.
In Bake Off, no one ever worries about the ingredients or lashing waves and blowing grit or how to microwave Cheetos in a vending machine Quickfire. Sure, once in a while a freezer fritzes out or it’s a hot day for their Baked Alaska, and it becomes the greatest national water cooler fodder since Kate’s wedding. But what happens most of the time is that amateur bakers agonize over proofing and air and glazes and piping while their knees turn to pudding as they stare into the lights of their ovens. That kind of attention to technical detail is amazing.
I want to learn more about reductions and braising and agar and Peruvian food and how to achieve clarity in my dashi. Leave a scallop a scallop and let the cooks cook.
When I was 26, 27 years old I was running a kitchen in New York, and I was a raving lunatic. The older you get, you figure out you don’t need to do that.
Likewise, too much of the editing on Top Chef focuses on the dramas and frictions between the cheftestants. In fairness, some of this is earned. Kitchens can be hothouse crucibles of personality, and running a line in the kitchen requires all sorts of teamwork and a hundred moving parts, while amateur pastry is a little more isolated.
Where Bake Off diverges from other shows is that it often steers away from the drama. If Bingate is the biggest scandal to ever hit the show, Top Chef makes muffins out of macarons.
Bake Off doesn’t need to poke fun at some puffed up poppinjay who thinks they’re the next Achatz or Keller. Perhaps it comes down to a matter of audience, where Top Chef culls from the herds of super-jacked American modernists with smoking guns and xanthan gum who stay up drinking till 4 a.m. But these are Brits. They believe in stiff upper lips and making ubiquitously annoying signs about keeping calm and carrying on while staying up and drinking till 4 a.m. Occasionally they might stoop to admitting to a glimmer of hope of winning a challenge.
The modesty of the contestants is compelling, but even more so is the hosts willingness to protect their flock. 2011 finalist Mary-Ann Boresman revealed that Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins would sometimes cuss a blue streak during contestant meltdowns to prevent the footage from being usable. It’s that kind of drama-avoidant compassion that allows the Bake Off contestants to become likable human beings we can identify with over strident ciphers and harpies arguing over who stole whose pea puree.
If I’m having friends over, I want to spend time with my friends and I don’t want to be behind the stove…
Consider the feigned dourness of Judge’s Table and Tom et al. Sue and Mel’s zippy banter is an effervescent Marvel zig to DC’s lumberingly dark zag.
One of the many great things about Top Chef is its talented core of judges as well as the star-studded periphery of guest executioners. They are the one constant across a decade plus of reality TV cookery, so I’d venture to guess we maybe actually like them.
Consequently, the chemistry of the judges is infectious. Padma Lakshmi has raised her game considerably the past few seasons from the vacant glibness of her former one-note commentary, and Gail Simmons continues to remain America’s secret treasure. What Top Chef demands is more of the light-hearted, late night punchiness. When Tom and Padma are beautiful, ribbing foils, and joking about how much weed she smokes, or Gail is telling Food and Wine stories and Richard Blais is regaling everyone with how he keeps up his hair–that delicious reality TV judge broth is what keeps us coming back for more.
Everyone standing naturally (Bravo)
‘Chef’ doesn’t mean that you’re the best cook, it simply means ‘boss.’
In fact, I need more Tom. We all need more Tom.
Tom Colicchio inspires dread with a single sigh and a slouch of face to palm. The glare off that shiny dome of an approaching head has been enough to send Michelin-starred chefs quailing.
I could watch Tom coach cooks all day. I’m here to learn and bow at the altar of his wisdom. Truth be told, I’ve watched his cooking videos and parsed his words, and I find his direct, no-nonsense approach and yet obvious tender loving care with a beurre monté fascinating. I’ve listened to the ridiculously-named Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry deliver critique after critique about avoiding gaps, showing disparate layers, and not letting the cherries sink. Eventually I started to understand what the hell they were talking about, and this is from someone who once had baking ingredients removed from his hands because I couldn’t measure cups of things properly.
What Top Chef both needs and deserves is more mentoring and more fatherly disapproving glares from Mssr. Tom Colicchio. Clearly the show must serve its sponsorship overlords, and so we get the endless trips to Whole Foods and trips in Toyotas, but there has to be a way to cut the fat. Kill the endless contestant backstory or the bedroom pad cliques. I want Tom walking me step by step to explain how some fool person over-reduced their demi or improperly butchered their lamb.
Then I cover it with boiling water, not stock, which really brings out the flavor of the zucchini, add lemon, thyme, and serve it with burrata and a fried zucchini flower.
I just wanted to see if you thought for a moment I would actually make a point or a metaphor out of that quote. Did you? Of course you did.
I want to feed my kid something that is real and not processed.
But what truly separates Bake Off from all the other reality programs is its willingness to abandon the stakes. Because of the lack of ad breaks, there is a wonderful fluency to the show, like a soccer or hockey game. Top Chef is the chopped up last two minutes of a basketball game, somehow stretched out to half an hour with agonizingly long pauses before elimination announcements and other dramatic playbacks. Bake Off skips five minutes of Padma’s guillotine glare for a simple and sweet goodbye.
There is no money involved. No restaurant or bakery seed money, no Aspen showcase, nor fatted calf.
Nothing but a cake stand, some flowers, and maybe a politic pat on the back.
My author idol Patrick Rothfuss has bemoaned a common trend in both fantasy novel tomes and Hollywood itself (not the Paul version). Every single time, writers and producers feel the need to push the stakes and push and push and push. Eventually every movie is about saving the world, until it becomes about saving the universe, and then the multiverse.
Except a person can feel as much pain and empathy for a star-crossed amateur baker wrestling with a tarte au citron and their own expectations as you can for a chef with an incipient restaurant empire and a hundred grand on the line.
In the end, storytelling never ends up about shiny MacGuffins and a world saved. It’s about characters. It’s about relationships. And it’s about a single good bake.
Now Top Chef can go on to have a successful run instead of the piddling 13-season mess it’s barely scraped together so far! How else would you improve the show? Let us know in the comments below!